In just about every small town there is usually a family that over the years encompasses the true meaning of community stewardship. I was recently able to sit down and talk with Mr. Gene Spear, the patriarch of the Spear family, about his life and times in the small town of Vienna, Md.
Mr. Spear was born January 24, 1929 and has spent his entire life around Vienna, both in the town when he was younger and on his beloved farm, Maple Grove. Mr. Spear married a Vienna girl – Mary Frances Phillips, and after their first child “Corky” was born they moved to Maple Grove. Mr. Spear had the farm house all ready, and when Mary said it was time to move, he packed everything up that same afternoon. Mary, Gene and the baby were home that night. Next came three girls, Cindy, Christy and Carla. The farm family was complete. The rest of the Spear family was still in Vienna, and Gene’s brother Bobby lived his life in the family house on Race Street.
Mr. Spear’s maternal grandfather, T. T. Corkran, had worked in the local canning factories owned by the Webster family in Dorchester County when his children were growing up in the early 1900s. He went with Mr. Guy Webster, a prominent canner from Rhodesdale, to establish a canning factory on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the early 1920s. They leased up to 15,000 acres of ground and grew just about every type of truck crop ever planted. They canned all the vegetables they grew; and besides local labor they had crews from Florida and Mexico. The Webster Farms & Factory was at the hub of major packing and shipping of vegetables from the eastern shore of Virginia by both land and water with its location near the Chesapeake. Mr. Corkran had such success down in Virginia that he bought an estate on the water close to Cape Charles and moved there to live once his children had finished school.
Gene’s parents Alton and Delema lived in Vienna where Mr. Alton worked for the Phillips Packing Company at their Vienna factory. He was one of the management leaders of the Phillips Packing Company’s empire and during World War II he helped keep the factories in Cambridge working 24 hours a day. Besides owning several farms in the area, Mr. Alton bought the 448 acres of Maple Grove sight-unseen for $12,000 from the bank. Mr. Spear told his sons Gene and Bobby that he was too busy working for Phillips Packing Company and that they would have to farm the land, and pay for it. Bob and Gene tilled the soil and later also opened up the large hardware store in Vienna.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s Vienna was a town that had everything needed to carry on the daily life of farm and family. Factories to work in, stores carrying groceries, hardware, clothes, gas stations, bootleggers and bars. There was even a barber shop run by a Mr. Maddox. Mr. Spear said Mr. Maddox sold fish in the barber shop while he cut hair. If someone came in to buy a fish for supper, Mr. Maddox would wrap the fish up, never wash his hands and keep on cutting hair.
Another story about the barber shop was years later when Bill Ewell, the barber at Elliotts Island, bought the shop in Vienna. One of his old customers was a man named Wilmer Dunn, who lived across the road from me on William Windsor’s farm. He helped William on the farm, and William in turn let Mr. Wilmer live in an old house on the road. He and about 20 hounds lived in the house. When the wind blew, the feed bag curtains stood out from the sills about 12 inches. One day in the winter when it was about 10 degrees I asked Mr. Wilmer how he could sleep since his old wood stove was in the kitchen. He replied that he just grabbed another dog and pulled him in bed to keep warm.
Mr. Wilmer would get his hair cut about twice a year in Vienna. His mode of transportation was an old Farmall H tractor that he would drive from home to Vienna around the back way – probably at least eight miles. I can see him now going down Drawbridge Road with that H wide open and the front wheel bearings so bad he could hardly hold onto the steering wheel. When the word got out that he was in town for his semi-annual trim any customers in the barbershop would flee. After Bill Ewell cut Capt. Wilmer’s hair, he closed the shop, cleaned the scissors and the entire shop. The place smelled like bleach for a week.
Mr. Spear told me about two brothers who were real characters in town. They were chased out of Crisfield for bootlegging, came across the water to Elliotts Island, then made it up to Vienna. They have a small stone in the old Vienna graveyard that just says Hab and Jerry Goose.
While Mr. Spear was showing me some of his vast collection of area memorabilia he picked up an old magazine with the title “Detective.” In this edition there was a story about one of the Vienna area’s most famous felons. It seems that there was a Mr. Brown from up towards Reids Grove that did not like his wife. He killed her and threw her off the Vienna Bridge after tying several plow points around her neck. He probably wasn’t thinking about the strong Nanticoke River current, and a couple of boys fishing saw her float by. At the trial the judge asked Mr. Brown if he had any regrets. “Yes,” replied Mr. Brown. “I should have used more plow points.” The authorities took him to Baltimore where they hung him.
Back on the farm, when March first came, that was the signal for the help to return for the year’s work. A certain day to return, strict procedures for the crops, actions that few other farmers kept in place. During the years when the truck crops were sent to the Phillips canneries there was as high as 40 acres of tomatoes planted; up to 100 acres of string beans, which were picked two or three times a season. Bus loads of pickers came in the morning and quit at 3 o’clock each day. Mr. Spear said the quitting time was set to give the workers extra time to get home and rest before returning the next day for another hard day in the heat. Pickers got 6 or 8 cents a basket for tomatoes and 2 cents a pound for string beans. Mrs. Spear and others weighed the string beans as they came out of the fields and paid cash each day. One of the crew leaders and bus owner was Mr. Monroe Lake.
Mr. Spear said the years have gone by much too fast. His wife Mary, his son Corky, and his brother Bobby have passed away. Many years have gone by since Vienna was in its heyday. The Spear family has always been an important part of its history. It continues today, and Maple Grove will forever provide nourishment of agriculture and human annals for generations to come.