From St. Mary's, a Window on a Seafaring Past
1930s Skipjack Is Part of a Maritime Exhibit in the Folklife Festival on the Mall
By Jessica Valdez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page SM03
"Captain" Edward Farley held out a fistful of yellow pine shavings and told a visitor to "smell it," his moving lips rustling the tip of his white mustache.
"A mast needs to be flexible and strong," he said of the pine wood, laugh lines stretching out from the creased corners of his blue eyes. Behind him on an afternoon last week, two men, their legs sprinkled with wood shavings, cut and shaped a 63-foot yellow pine log near a white and maroon sailboat.
On the Mall just yards from the Smithsonian Metro stop, Farley and a handful of other shipwrights were crafting a new mast for the Joy Parks, a historic skipjack sailboat for dredging oysters that is on display at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The vessel is a centerpiece exhibit for one of this year's main themes at the festival -- "Water Ways: Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities."
The skipjack, recently acquired by St. Mary's County Piney Point Lighthouse Museum on a permanent loan, was built in 1936 on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and used for oyster dredging on Maryland's Eastern Shore. After the festival, which opened Wednesday, takes a break after today and then runs Wednesday through next Sunday, the Joy Parks will be on display in St. Mary's County.
A flat-bottomed work boat, the skipjack's prominence on the Mall is bringing attention to the traditions of working on the water in Southern Maryland and on the Chesapeake Bay.
"It just carries on the history and culture of our area," said Lydia Wood, historic site manager with the Museum Division of the St. Mary's County Recreation and Parks Department. "It brings awareness of the waterman's culture, visibility to our museum and tourism to our county."
The skipjack -- 76 feet long and 15.5 feet wide -- is decorated with the flags of St. Mary's County and Maryland. Volunteers from the St. Mary's County Museum Division will "interpret" and explain the history of the skipjack and the life of the waterman to festival visitors.
Throughout the festival, Farley and a handful of other shipwrights -- many of them from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore -- are shaping and rigging a new mast for the historic boat. They will "step" the mast -- install it on the boat -- Saturday, Mark Donohue, an Eastern Shore shipwright, said last week. Donohue, a blue handkerchief tied around his head, was at work on the Joy Parks during Wednesday afternoon's fitful rain showers.
An American flag jutting out of a wood stump marks where the skipjack's mast stood before it was sawed off in the 1960s so the boat could be stored in the low-ceilinged Harry Lundeburg School of Seamanship on the Potomac River in St. Mary's, where it was preserved before being donated to the county museum.
"It was a full-fledged mast of 63 feet, but they had to chop it off," Donohue said.
The Joy Parks once was one of hundreds of skipjacks dredging oysters in the bay and along the Eastern Shore. In the 1930s, there were as many as 150 of the boats on the water at the same time; many of them were built in Southern Maryland.
"We had skipjack builders right here in St. Mary's County," said Wood of the museum staff.
After the 1960s, skipjacks became mostly a Southern Maryland memory and the subject of museum exhibits as overharvesting, pollution and shellfish disease cut the oyster population. Today, only 13 skipjacks are licensed to dredge, Donohue said.
But the Joy Parks will help the public understand the waterman's culture during its stay on the Mall and later at the Piney Point Museum. By spring, it will be featured there with three other boats.
The Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, as the Lundeburg School is also known, donated the Joy Parks and two other boats -- a log canoe from the 1800s and a dory -- to the museum to give the public a chance to see the historic Maryland boats, said Debra Pence, director of the St. Mary's County Museum Division.
The sailboat's link to three regions -- Virginia, Maryland's Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland -- attracted the Smithsonian's attention for the maritime exhibit.
"It's a really good representation of the bay, built on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and [sailed from] Tilghman Island near St. Michaels," said Betty Belanus, curator for the Smithsonian's maritime exhibit.
When the Smithsonian invited the museum and its boat to the festival, St. Mary's County museum workers saw the event as an opportunity to educate more people about the county and to correct some misconceptions.
"People are saying that St. Mary's County is on the Eastern Shore, but it's not," said Pence, laughing.
But even though St. Mary's County is not on the Eastern Shore, the sailboat still had a long trip to the festival, traveling more than 70 miles by highway from Piney Point to the Mall. With funding from the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, the Joy Parks was moved on a trailer, which had a police escort to Washington.
The Joy Parks is one of about 10 boats featured in the maritime exhibit, representing areas from Long Island to North Carolina, Belanus said. The festival has inspired "different people to meet each other from different bays," Belanus said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company