Rogers Clark Ballard Morton is telling his visitor how good it feels to be back "home" on the Eatern Shore. This time for good. We are sitting in his office stuffed with mementos of two of his many lives -- the old one of politician and the new one of boat builder. The office itself, inside a converted outbuilding on the farm, is down-country plain, especially compared to the plush ones Morton knew as millionaire businessman, as Maryland congressman, as Republican national chairman and as cabinet secretary.
The window alongside Morton's desk looks out over a tawny marsh easing its way down a slope to the edge of the magnificent East Wye River. The river's embrace of the land at this spot is almost total, prompting some Frenchman back in Colonial days to name the area "presqu'ile," that is, "almost-an-island."
"I used to get over here some part of every weekend, just to get away from that rat race in Washington," Morton explains in looking back at the life of official Washington when he commuted to work from another home in Alexandria.
"You never could get out of the rat race as long as you were in Washington. You couldn't just go home and leave it. You went home with a briefcase as big as that box, full of junk," he continues, in a wave at a box the size of a footlocker at the end of a GI's bunk. "And when you weren't going through the papers you had brought home, you were going to some stupid thing that you didn't want to go to."
The typical government executive -- whether in Congress or the Executive Branch -- begins his day seeing one spearcarrier after another, subordinates whose weapons are stuffed briefcases. The hours that follow are crammed with papers to read and sign; "must" appointments to go to; "must" people to see and impress; personnel questions large and small to decide -- questions that range from raises for the staff to whether the next trip should be routed through the home area of an influential representative or senator; and policy to make. Time slips away. Ultimately the executive must sign many of the papers without reading them or else take them home to read.
"Oh, you can't have been involved in Washington to the extent I was and not miss anything," hastily adds Morton, sensing through his ever-extended antennae that his comments about Washington might sound too harsh to his old friends there. "I miss some of the associations. I had a tremendous lot of friends over there."
That he did. Nobody ever hated Rog Morton. People got angry at Rog Morton and frustrated with him. But nobody, certainly, could hate a man who loped along through life, laughing at himself and everybody else along the way. He inherited enough money though the family's Ballard & Ballard flour mill in Louisville, Ky., to isolate himself from the masses. But he genuinely loved to get down among them rather than stay high up in some executive suite. He started out in one, but soon left.
After Army service in World War II, Morton rose to the top of the Ballard & Ballard hierarchy, becoming the firm's president in 1947. The firm merged with Pillsbury in 1951, making it easier for Morton to do something on his own. He itched to leave Louisville, partly because his older brother, Thruston, eclipsed him there. And he dreamed of the Chesapeake Bay, the waters the Morton brothers had explored in the family yacht.
"I love the water and I love to farm," explain Morton in giving two of the reasons he left the Louisville establishment to start afresh on the Eastern Shore as a stranger. Then he gives the third one -- the little brother problem.
"I was sort of in his shadow out there," Morton acknowledges in a reference to Thruston, who started his own long service in Washington by being elected to the House. "In 1952, there was a big move for me to run for Congress and take his seat" when Thruston left the House to become assistant secretary of state for congressional relations. "They even suggested just putting my last name on the ballot so everybody would think it was Thruston. That irritated the hell out of me. So I came over here with the idea offarming." That was in 1953.
Morton found the beautiful farm he lives on today. It is far enough west of U.S. 50 and north of Easton, Md., to escape the dubious blessing of modernization of the Eastern Shore. The locals told him that the Colonial, white-frame farmhouse he bought overlooking the Wye was once the home of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner." Leasing other farms and a feed lot, Morton was soon raising crops and cattle on some 1,400 acres around Presqu'ile.
The broad-shouldered, 6-foot 8-inch Kentuckian stood out as plainly as Bloody Point Light as he moved around the Eastern Shore. He had brought his own store of political stories with him from Louisville and learned many more from the Eastern Shore folk as he clanked around in farm boots. Farmers, crabbers, hunters, housewives -- as well as the Eastern Shore establishment -- all got to know Rog Morton. His humor was warm. "We call this place Abercrombie and Cherry's," he once said of Cherry's surplus store in Easton when the goods and prices got fancy. Politicians sought him out for counsel. He gave it freely, then finally succumbed himself to Potomac fever, telling himself he could help the Bay if he got into the House of Representatives.
"I had only looked at Washington from the outside, through my brother," Morton recalls. "I wanted to get inside and see what went on. I also had really got hipped on this bay, this shore, these marshes. I had had biological training and knew what could be done to help the Bay. I wanted to get sewers in." Morton's biological studies were part of the medical schooling he took before deciding not to follow his father's profession of physician.
Enough voters in Maryland's First Congressional District, which traditionally elects Democrats, forgave Morton in 1962 for being a Republican that he went to Washington the following January as their representative. They seemed to think he did a good job for them there, for they reelected him to four additional erms.
"Oh, I didn't set the woods on fire," said Morton of those first Washington years, "but I did learn you could get a hell of a lot done if you didn't worry about who was goingt to get the credit." (He lists some of the things he helped accomplish for the Bay: those sewers; a clean-up of Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point operation at the head of the Bay; establishment of Assateague barrier island as a national park; a model of the Chesapeake Bay for the Army Corps of Engineers so communities could help preserve the Bay by understanding it better.) "I never played it partisan when dealing with the people in my district. I think I gave the people a sense of confidence that they were well represented in Washington. I never lost my doggone sense of humor. And I have a perfectly clear conscience. I know I was a congressman never on the take."
Serving in the House failed to break Morton's Potomac fever. He went from being a representative to chairman of the Republican National Committee to secretary of the interior to secretary of commerce to campaign manager for former President Ford. He sat over in the Interior Department watching with consternation as Richard Nixon, whom he helped nominate at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami, drowned in the Watergate scandal. Morton by this time had bought a house in Alexandria and, for a while, had a place near the Cannon Office Building on Capitol Hill.Presqu'ile became a weekend recuperative stop, rather than a home, in those Washington years.
By 1974, when he was secretary of interior -- "I loved Interior" -- and was soon to become secretary of commerce against his wishes, Morton was pondering how he could get back to Presqu'ile full time. He still wanted to do something productive there rather than just sit in front of a sinking fire. Farming was out. He had disposed of most of his holdings, retaining only 160 acres around the main house on the Wye. Building boats. Now that would be fun. He had always loved boats and thought he spied a niche in the market which a small yard could fill.
Why not, Morton mused to himself, build a bost that would be comfortable but a miser on fuel in this day of skyrocketing oil prices? Give a family a boat that could glide along the Inland Waterway at 8 or 10 knots while burning only three or four gallons an hour, instead of the 15 to 30 gallons gulped by the luxury powerboats that race along at 20 knots.A small boatyard could even order the fiberglass hulls from one of the companies that specialized in molding them; then build the rest of the craft from the skin inward. Morton tried the idea out on Peter Hersloff, a neighboring stockbroker whose family had built boats on Long Island. Hersloff, like Morton, yearned to try his hand at building boats.
We leave Morton's office at the farm to what came of that dreaming and brainstorming. The boat-yard takes only a corner of Morton's Presqu'ile farm. But the boats being built ther by Morton-Hersloff are impressive. They have the high bow of the Maine lobstermen, yet are finished off inside with lovely woodwork -- some of which Morton used to do himself. The buyer tells Morton what he wants in his boat, and the yard does the rest for the price of labor, materials plus a $12,000 fee.
"We have to hold your hand a little bit," Morton explains as we watch two workmen in the barn converted into a boat shed. "Some of the things people say they want in their boats are just not practical for the water." Morton-Hersloff boats are not cheap, ranging from $40,000 to $120,000, but are competitive with factory-made boats of the same size.
Leaving the shed, we walk down the dirt road toward the pond in the marsh to see if ducks are swimming there. Morton had caught sight of them sliding out of the sky toward the pond earlier in the day. Moonie (for Moonshine), a black Labrador retriever, tags along. Morton is still tall, but looks amazingly thin in comparison to his Washington days. He developed cancer of the prostate years ago. Doctors thought they had contained it, though friends now say the cancer is spreading. Morton does not complain about his illness specifically, just the way it limits him. It has left his arms too weak to do much carpentry. But it is enough to spend the twilight back in Presqu'ile. Thruston kids him in phone calls from Louisville about becoming a boatbuilder so late in life.
"Pete [Hersloff] is president. I'm vice president and treasurer. The business is built around a personality. It's not the kind of business you can pick up and sell. IBM don't want it," Morton acknowledges with a grin. The yard is barely in the black.
"But in my condition," continues the 64-year-old Morton in an oblique reference to his cancer, building boats "provides the opportunity to work within walking distance of the house, gives me good exercise, and provides a base for me to see people so I'm not out here totally isolated." (Morton's two children, David C. Morton, a Brooklyn architect, and Anne McCance of Alexandria, are now only visitors to the farm. Morton's wife of 40 years, Anne Jones, lives with him at Presqu'ile, though the Mortons usually escape the bitterest part of the Eastern Shore winter by repairing to another home in the Florida keys.) Best of all, the boatbuilding business keeps him close to the Bay and marshes he has found restorative for more that a quarter of a century now.
"I tell people my initials C. B. stand for Chesapeake Bay. I'm relaxed, retired, having a good time building boats, trying to do well. I want nothing. That's my story."