IN 20 YEARS OF working together on an oyster boat, there was the time Roy Ewell threw his wife’s culling hammer overboard because he thought she was working too slowly and, in response, she flung an oyster at his head.
There were the good times when the dredge was so full of oysters that it broke in two, and the tough times when a lack of shellfish ended some watermen’s careers.
Then there was the time that Mary Evelyn threw in the towel and Roy didn’t, when Mary Evelyn left the water for a hospital job and Roy stayed with the boat, and she tells that story with a little tinge of regret that she didn’t leave sooner, and Roy doesn’t.
Those are some of the stories they will tell on Saturday as the featured speakers at the grand opening of the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum & Research Center in Onancock.
It’s a small museum – a single classroom in the old Onancock School – but it’s a start, said Paul Ewell, a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College. Son of a waterman, brother of Roy, Paul collected most of the exhibit material and has interviewed people up and down Virginia’s Eastern Shore in an attempt to document and preserve the life and culture of watermen. In addition to artifacts such as boat models, oyster tongs and crab pots, he has 16,000 historic and recent photos in an electronic database, some of which show in an ever-changing progression on a video screen in one corner of the room.
“There’s the Harvey Drewer. She’s a pretty boat,” Roy said, watching the screen.
“I want to get the heritage before it’s gone,” said Paul, who originated the nonprofit Watermen’s Heritage Foundation, which led to the museum. “My passion is collecting. I love to be down on the creeks; I love to be interviewing people. I love the research part.”
Now he’s reached the sharing part, through the free-admission museum, which is in the Historic Onancock School Community and Cultural Center. Because Paul is enthusiastic about oral histories, the museum will feature a table made from a crab pot, accessorized by chairs, a coffeepot, dominoes and checkers, all intended to encourage people to sit down and share stories – their stories – about a waterman’s life.
Roy and Mary Evelyn will kick it off at the grand opening by telling stories of working together on the water, a presentation called, impishly, “Oysters and Marriage – Drudgery on the Chesapeake.”
“Very few husband-wife teams did that kind of work,” Paul explained. “We’re going to have them just sit and tell stories.”
“Strawberry. That’s a pretty name for a boat,” Roy said, still watching the changing screen.
A replica of the Strawberry’s cabin serves as a stand for several oyster cans bearing names such as Hogg’s Oysters, Somerset’s Famous Tangier Sound Oysters and Cream O’Sea Brand Delicious Fresh Oysters.
“Is she pretty or what?” Roy exclaimed, as the photo on the screen changed to show a different boat.
Mary Evelyn said her father quit oystering after the disease MSX ravaged shellfish beds. She left the water to pursue a career in nursing after 20 years of working alongside her husband.
“I’m glad I changed my profession,” she said.
“I love it,” Roy said. “I can’t help it.”
“It’s in your blood,” she told him.
“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “And it’ll always be there.”
“Long as you breathe,” she said.
“That’s where I’m going to die,” he said. “Right out there.”
Paul is still collecting items and stories related to watermen. During Saturday’s grand opening, visitors can bring photos to have them scanned for the collection, and interviews will be conducted.
“We really want it to be an experience,” he said. “We’re trying to make it a community sort of meeting spot, replicating that old get together face to face and tell stories. We want people to talk.”
The event includes a blessing, ribbon cutting, silent auction, light refreshments, children’s corner, crafts and T-shirts.
Roy, looking at a faded photograph of a waterman who was in his 90s when the picture was taken, said he’ll never leave the water.
“Retire?” he said. “You can forget that. That’s not gonna happen as long as I can get up and down on the boat.”
“It’s a dying breed,” observed his wife. “Watermen are a breed of their own.”
Diane Tennant, 757-446-2478, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
What Grand opening of the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum & Research Center
Where Historic Onancock School, 6 College Ave., Onancock
When 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Roy and Mary Evelyn Ewell talk at 11:30 a.m.
Cost Free, but donations will be accepted
More info 665-5771 or www.esvawatermen.org