‘Down Homers’ keep local traditions alive

With the annual Outdoor Show coming up the last of February, many memories of years and events past come to mind. First of all, the good folks that put on the show at the old South Dorchester High School, now known as South Dorchester K-8, do a wonderful job showcasing part of Dorchester County’s past and present.

I have always tried to attend some of the finals of the muskrat skinning contest, since it is unbelievable to me just how quick the fur can fly. Besides knowing most of the local trappers from the Vienna, Elliotts Island area. I will always remember the Mills brothers from Wingate­—Wilson, Shriver, Arthur and Thomas. These four men, now all deceased, were the sons of Preston Mills.

Shriver told me years ago about the first Outdoor Show that was held at the old State Theater on Race Street in Cambridge. Both Shriver and his father Preston participated in the muskrat skinning contest that year—1938. A little relief from the grip of the great depression was indeed welcome.

The four brothers spent their lives in the Wingate area. They worked the water, trapped the marshes, built their own boats, and as Magdalene Mills, the widow of Shriver stated, “if one did it, the others usually did the same” thing. One salesman for B.J. Linthicum was always glad to see the brothers. Wendell Foxwell sold four brand new Chevrolet pickups — in a very short time.

The boys also purchased their beef from my brother George and I on a yearly basis. The killing day was a long, long day for the humans and a short day for the steers. There were two of those days I shall not forget as long as I live.

Shriver always used a twenty-two rifle to knock the steer down. It took a good accurate shot to the head from such a small caliber gun to do the trick on a 1200 lb. steer. Shriver did not miss. One day the bolt action on Shriver’s rifle did not work. Of course brother George had the solution – Dad’s forty-five caliber army pistol was in the barn. However Dad, who was an excellent shot, was not around that day.

I told brother George to “get the deer rifle from up the house,” but it was like talking to a stone wall. Now a forty-five pistol slug will take a steer down if you hit him in the head just about anywhere, it’s a very powerful weapon. However if you are not trained with a Army issued pistol it is hard to be accurate. Just as “old deadeye” brother pulled the trigger, the animal moved his head.

The bullet struck the steer at the very top of the head which is known as the poll bone. When all the gates were torn down and everybody got out of the way, the steer ended up down to the Transquaking River. I got Thomas the deer rifle and got down to the animal as quick as possible.

The animal was mad, I was mad, George got the John Deere tractor and loader and started across the field. Thomas finished the ordeal and that steer had probably pumped enough blood in his body that you could probably not cut his meat with a chainsaw. ( I never asked Shriver that year how his meat was and he never told me.) It started to rain as hard as a cow peeing on a flat rock. I left George after he got the 4020 stuck in the mud.

Another time I remember was when we took the quarters of beef up to Preston where Mr. Leo Frase and his son Butch had a butcher shop on the farm. I went to the loading door in the back of the shop, grabbed a hind quarter and went in. There was a huge stainless steel pot in the middle of the back room and the water was boiling and foaming. As I went by the pot and looked in, all I saw was two or three big hog heads looking at me. Mr. Leo asked me if I liked scrapple and I told him I sure did.

Shriver told me that the one event that changed everything “down below” was Hurricane Hazel. Oct. 15, 1954 was the date that changed many lives in South Dorchester below Gootee’s Marine. When the afternoon wind came straight up the Chesapeake Bay, South Dorchester was under water. The salt water destroyed the small plots of farm land that local folks grew tomatoes and their other vegetables on, the marshes were full of workboats, roads and bridges were destroyed and the home damage was widespread and massive The population has decreased along with the country stores, most of the crab houses are gone and numerous small shops that were always a part of life in a waterman’s village are no longer there.

Many years have passed since I loaded up the truck with fresh produce from the farm and went across the vast marshland of Shorters Wharf. The small canning house of Mr. Sewell Simmons that was on Andrews Road was usually my first stop. The workers always enjoyed the fresh sweet corn, tomatoes and other vegetables that I could deliver. Baker Robbins had a large cannery not far from Wesley Church Road and you could believe that while he was a County Commissioner the roads in the area were kept in first class shape.

The big crab picking houses of the Tolley family was always a good stop. The ladies would come out on their break time and just about clean my load up. Earl Todd with his dress, apron, hair net and boots would be among the first to appear on the parking lot. I always joked with him and everybody had a good laugh.

When I visited Mrs. Mills she still had her Christmas tree up in the living room. Her granddaughter Brittanie, who lives with her, had decorated the tree with ornaments that she had received since she was born 27 years ago. Many memories grow from that tree, however there are no artificial branches from the tree of the Mills family on Wingate Road.

Straight across Fishing Bay from Wingate lies Elliotts Island. Some of the families that have played main roles in the Outdoor Show live on the Island itself. Just about all of the Abbott family, both male and female, have held the World Championship Muskrat Skinning title. Elihu and Ted lived at Robbins on the Wingate side of Fishing Bay and the family of Wylie Abbott made their home on the Island.

In 1953 Elihu changed the way that rats were skinned by using the “three cut method.” Cameras were brought in to record the contest because the skinning speed was unbelievable. From this point on there were several champions from the area and even some from Louisiana. However the family of Wylie Abbott was almost unbeatable. All the family including Wylie’s sons, daughter and grandson at one time or another won trophies at the show.

Gator was one of a kind. A true character of the Eastern Shore who enjoyed life and played the game to its fullest. I remember one night at the Nanticoke Inn, Wylie and Grant Barnett decided to have their own muskrat skinning contest. The stage was the middle of the barroom floor and the prize was a cold beer. Of course Wylie won easily and Grant almost cut a finger off. The smell of muskrat, blood and beer on the floor added to the atmosphere of the event. The boys were going to get the cook, Francis Hunt to fix up the rats but she had a mobility problem at the time. I believe it was called “beeritis.” If ever the term “good old boy” was to be applied to an individual around here, then Wylie Abbott made the mold. Ann Foley, a local author who lives on Elliotts Island wrote a wonderful book about the life of Wylie and some of his adventures titled “Having My Say.”

Up the Elliotts Island road toward Vienna lives another family that is deeply involved in the life of the waterman and trapper. Byron Cameron is a young 72 year old man who still enjoys the physical output of the outdoorsman. Born on Stone Boundary Road near Cambridge, hauling hay, milking cows, and picking tomatoes for Henry Schnoor laid the foundation for hard work. Byron will retire from Wire Cloth next month, but you can be assured that he will probably not slow down much. Between different stints at Wire Cloth, Byron worked on the water, trapped the marshes on the Nanticoke River and became the champion for trap setting at the Outdoor Show for ten straight years.

His sons won the log sawing contest and Scott took top honors in skinning the raccoons. Besides providing the muscle for these events with his sons, his granddaughter Lauren won the Miss Outdoors contest in 2014. That year when Byron went down to Cameron Parish to their outdoor festival he decided to run in the 5K race. Since it was a spur of the moment decision to enter he ran in a hunting coat and blue jeans. He won and was awarded an alligator necklace from the “Swamp Woman.” She was one of the stars on the Outdoor Channel. Of course the fact that Byron jogs four miles a day on a fairly regular schedule helped out.

I know that the Outdoor Show will be a success this year as it always has been. This way of life for some of Dorchester’s people brings out the real meaning of “Down Homers.”

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.