Once, in the not-too-distant past, the big shots from Washington and Baltimore came to this landing on the Patuxent, and to Lyons Creek and Mount Calvert and Jug Bay a few miles further down river, to hunt the tiny but tasty rail bird that arrived each September en route to South America.
The hunters were guided in flat-bottomed, narrow skiffs through the marshes by burly men with strong arms and good balance who supplemented their farm incomes with money earned "pole pushing" the boats through the high grasses.
It was a way of life for generations who went out from Greenwell's here at Pig Point, from Whittington's in Calvert County or from three or four exclusive clubs that sprang up on the Prince George's side of the river. The ranks of rail-bird shooters included such luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Babe Ruth, Gen. Billy Mitchell and Jimmy LaFontaine, the legendary gambler. No less legendary were the pushers: Weepy Dyson, Fair Johnson, Jimmie Greenwell, Ralph Sunderland, the Bias brothers and many more.
Their domain was a mere five miles on the river, from Hill's Bridge (Rte. 4) to Nottingham. There the "oats" (marsh grass), which the small-beaked birds loved to eat, flourished. But then pollution and sedimentation from encroaching civilization choked the marsh grass. The rail-bird population shrank, the pole pushers retired, the wealthy sportsmen found other quarry, and a tradition faded into history.
Only 15 miles but a world away from the District of Columbia, the keepers of the past survive in dwindling numbers along the river.
Edna Greenwell, 83, watches television and receives visitors in the house where she used to book pole pushers for the hunters and then pluck the birds for a few cents each. Raymond Whittington, 77, sits in his backyard near Lyons Creek, hobbled by arthritis but fondly recalling his days as a "poosher."
"Years ago, if you had stood here today, you would've thought you'd heard a war from all the shooting on the river," said Whittington in the silence outside the home where his family once fed and housed the hunters.
The river was quiet as the rail-bird season officially opened Thursday, and on the water were Leroy Harper, 75, a farmer and preacher and old-time pole pusher, and 70-year old Eddie Brown, a hunter and house-painter who lives in a 17th century manor house overlooking the Patuxent near Upper Marlboro.
Harper used a 16-foot wooden pole with three small feet on the bottom to push Brown's skiff through the Patuxent marshes. They were there just for old time's sake, "reviving history," said Brown. It was near high tide, the fleeting time when water is deep enough to pole into the inner recesses of the Patuxent marsh, erstwhile home of the prized sora rail. When the tide was low, hunters would go "mudding" and shoot the weak-flying birds on the ground.
"I done been up and down this river. I know this marsh as good as anybody," said Harper. "When that water was up, I didn't have no trouble. I got those birds for 'em and bring 'em right in."
Harper was also caretaker of the McClure Gun Club, a one-time gathering place for Pennsylvania politicians that is now owned by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. (Old-timers still refer to the place as the Jackson Club, its name before 1930.) Nearby were the Italian Fishing Club and the Glebe Club, whose members were prominent Washington businessmen.
Harper had given up pole pushing in earnest 40 years before but had pushed Brown once as a favor a decade ago. When he pushed for hire, he paid the pusher's fee at the courthouse, a $2.50 levy that vanished in the 1970s.
Among those Harper pushed was Pasquale Cestone, at 88 the last surviving member of the Italian Fishing Club, now a private residence.
"It was the best club around here," said Cestone, a barber with the Military District of Washington. Cestone built a large, brick house overlooking the river adjacent to the club that opened in 1905 and closed before World War II.
Around the corner from Cestone on McClure Road is another private home that once housed a third rail-bird gunning club. The Glebe Club began around the turn of the century and folded during the Depression years, according to a register handed down to George and Alice Denney, the current owners.
On the first day of the 1907 season, a member wrote, the weather was warm and humid. "Rail in great quantity, but there was little shooting," the scribe noted, "the birds preferring to tread the mazes of the most luxuriant growth of wild oats and other marsh plants within the memory of the oldest pushers, rather than seek safety in flight.
"Wind southeasterly. Rail are here in the greatest numbers observed for several years," said an entry two weeks later. "One gunner killed 28 rail without changing position, every bird within a space of 20 feet." A hungry hunter could easily eat six birds at a single sitting. The shooters came by car and yacht. Some came by train, the Baltimoreans on the B&O train that stopped in Marlboro, the Washingtonians on the old Chesapeake Beach Railway.
For some 20 years, the 83-foot converted Coast Guard yacht belonging to Alonzo Decker Jr., of the Black & Decker tool company, plied its way up the Patuxent for the rail-bird season.
Often, the yacht anchored by Mount Calvert, Eddie Brown's place and once the seat of Prince George's County. On many occasions, Decker engaged Edna Greenwell to arrange for the pole pushers. Decker, who sold his boat when he bought an Eastern Shore farm several years ago, said he quit rail-bird hunting in the 1960s because "the pushers disappeared and the birds seemed to be disappearing."
On a recent trip to Southern Maryland, Decker's wife, Virginia, paid an unexpected visit on Edna Greenwell. "The fun part for me was she recognized me," Decker said. "She hadn't changed a bit."
A half-dozen skiffs sit at water's edge at Pig Point, but they belong to locals and aren't for hire, said Edna Greenwell. She didn't want her sons to become pushers, and they didn't. "It's too hard a work, and they can do better," she said. "They never pushed a soul, only themselves."
In the tradition's waning years, pushers made as much as $20 a tide, according to Buddy Sunderland, 56, who did it in high school and whose father before him pushed for hunters from Edna Greenwell's at Pig Point.
Raymond Whittington, who is Sunderland's uncle, began pushing in 1920, when he was 14. Half a dozen pushers worked from his family's landing. "I'm the only one living," he said. "Early in the morning was always the best. We used to say the birds jumped better. . . . If you had good, high water, it wasn't too bad a job. But if you had just an ordinary tide and not too much water, it was just a terrible, terrible job."
"It ain't nothing to me," shrugged Leroy Harper, who mainly raises vegetables these days on 22 acres behind his house in Croom.
But the river just isn't what it used to be, Harper said as Eddie Brown piloted his powerboat, a wooden skiff tied to its stern, to the marsh. "That was a good pushin' marsh," said Harper, pointing off to the left. "It's all filled in now. I think the marsh has filled up more and more every year."
The boat powered into a channel, where Harper and Brown boarded the skiff. The legal limit is 15 birds; it had once been a hundred. They poled through the marsh on both sides but couldn't raise a rail bird. Brown felled a single blackbird.
"I don't believe the birds are there. We didn't see a one today," Leroy Harper said.
"We can't win 'em all, can we?" said Brown. "Ain't nothing out there but hard work, Leroy."