This seafaring town on the Chesapeake Bay has always been famous for its boat builders. For most of the century, wooden tugs and trawlers, two-masted schooners and teakwood yachts have been meticulously handcrafted here in back yard sheds and bayside dockyards.
In Deltaville there are more marinas than paved roads and boat building is still a cottage industry.
But these days, the boats constructed in Deltaville are more likely to be fiberglass, aluminum or steel than the wooden crafts that earned their builders a national reputation. Even the Chesapeake Deadrise, a 42-foot work boat favored by commercial fishermen from the Bay of Fundy to the Caribbean, has begun to appear in fiberglass.
"A wood boat is getting to be a scarce article now," said E. Lee Deagle, the 83-year-old grandaddy of the Deltaville boat builders, who now sits, semiretired, on a dockside fishing chair, close enough to the family marina to smell the acetylene torches.
Most of the Deltaville watermen, who number over 100 in this town of 500 people, still use wooden work boats, as did their fathers and grandfathers. And most of those boats are still built in Deltaville. But even here, in the last stronghold of the woodworkers, the outlook for the survival of thier craft looks dim.
"Let's face it, fiberglass is here to stay and we might as well get ready for it," said Grover Lee Owens, who makes his living building 42-foot Chesapeakes in two sheds beside his frame home. Owens still works the old way -- with fir, spruce and pine, cut to size, bent to shape and fit together seamlessly, over three months of time.
There are only three of four men in Deltaville like Ownes who are earning their living in back yard boat sheds. Good wood is getting more expensive and harder to find. The synthetic boats are easier to build and maintain. And it doesn't take three years to teach a young worker to fill a form with plastic and resin.
"This is hard work and there ain't nothin' but wages in it," said Owens, sitting below the ribbed hull of a boat he is building that will work the Chesapeake for crabs, oysters and netfish. "And then you got to be a little bit talented toward a piece of wood."
But while wooden-boat builders and nautical romantics bemoan the revolution in boat building, the industry in Deltaville is booming. New companies have moved into the Deltaville area from New England. And some of the old boatyards have traded in woodworking tools in favor of the welder's arc.
"Deltaville is really up and coming," said John Collamore, a transplanted Rhode Island Yankee who built the first fiberglass work boats in Deltaville eight years ago. "It's the Annapolis of southern Virginia."
When Collamore first moved to Deltaville with his pungent resins, fiberglass and radical boat-building ideas, his reception was just short of hostile. It was one thing to build charter boats and pleasure crafts out of glass, but putting a woodless Chesapeake Deadrise on the water was blasphemy.
"There is still some resistance," conceded the 36-year-old Collamore, who can turn out 15 boats in the time it takes Owens to build three. "But we do our advertising on the Bay."
While wooden boats generally need to be drydocked twice a year, often for a week or more at a time, the fiberglass boats need refurbishing just once a year. They can be scrubbed, repainted and put back on the water in only one day. Even to a group as notoriously traditional as the Deltaville watermen, that kind of economic logic earns respect.
As the first few fiberglass boats were sold, the debate began. It continues still at area boatyards and the Deltaville drug store, where retired sea captains gather each morning over coffee to sail counter stools and remember wooden boats that weathered bad storms.
"That fiberglass gets brickly after so many years. The whole bottom is liable to fall out," said Alton Jackson, 63, who has worked in local boatyards for a half-century, caulking wooden boat bottoms with cotton and thick paint. "I wouldn't take a fiberglass boat."
Not all the wooden boat partisans are so steadfast. Owens, who is considered one of the best boat builders on the Bay, concedes that the fiberglass boats have certain advantages over the wooden ones he sells for $14,000 each. On the other hand, Owens said, all the fiberglass boats he's ever seen developed hairline cracks after a few years in rough water. "But then, maybe they've corrected that," he said.
Owens had been building boats for only 15 years, since he married a Deltaville woman. Before then, he was a cabinetmaker, a job he says didn't adequately prepare him for the boat-building craft.
"Nothing is square in a boat and nothing is level," said Owens, letting the smoke from a Pall Mall drift under his white fishing cap to cloud his sea-blue eyes.
Owens has a 24-year-old apprentice, Michael Walden, who is learning fast, and enough orders to keep him busy for the next two years. But he admits that he is no longer as eager to put in the 18-hour days as he once was.
"Maybe if I was making a barrel of money it would be different," said Owens, "but all you can make at it is a living."