For generations, the fishermen of Cherry Hill have faced off against financial slumps, larcenous pleasure boaters and meddlesome law enforcers -- and they ain't been whupped yet.
Now, 150 years after their ancestors began pulling their livelihood from the waters of the Potomac, the rivermen of Cherry Hill think they might have met their match. A California-based developer has proposed a giant riverfront office and housing complex adjacent to the Cherry Hill docks on a 2,247-acre tract in eastern Prince William County, about 20 miles south of the Capital Beltway.
Fishing and office parks, say folks in Cherry Hill, might as well be oil and water. "Where am I going to go?" asked fisherman Tody Dent, whose family has been in Prince William since the 1800s. "All I know is the river. It's not my livelihood, it's my life."
About 25 people based in the small, unincorporated town of Cherry Hill make all or part of their living fishing the Potomac for eels, crabs and catfish -- and, until not too long ago, often padded their incomes with Prince William's most notorious moonshine operation.
As Prince William continues its transformation into one of the region's thriving suburbs, the rivermen -- with their freewheeling, down-home manner -- have stayed on to become virtual folk characters to some, vulgar throwbacks to others.
These men have little patience for conversational delicacies, so there is no sense in mincing words. Many in this county, which is filling with thousands of new and ambitious residents each year, would describe the rivermen derisively as "rednecks."
Some rivermen proudly concede that the description is accurate. When they come off the river, after all, many say they enjoy nothing better than to belly up to the bar for a bottle of Budweiser or two. Conversations among the rivermen are spicy-hot, with lusty tales of brawls, women and fishing.
Yet stereotypes, even ones with a grain of truth, do an injustice to Cherry Hill. This is a place where people discuss things like heritage and community with greater eloquence and sophistication than those who condescend toward the rivermen might imagine.
"We've always taken care of ourselves, with no help from anybody, and that's the way we've wanted it," said Allen (Junior) Dent, Tody's father and an owner of Cherry Hill's Rivershore Restaurant. "Now it's like the Indians being put on the reservation. It changes our way of life."
Cherry Hill, with a population of about 200, has a history marked by adversity and resilience. Always poor, the town at one time did have a post office and a few stores. These languished, leaving today only the Rivershore, specializing in crabs and Budweiser. Despite financial slumps of its own, however, Cherry Hill's fishing industry has continued.
Many Cherry Hill residents nurse a sense of grievance toward the outside world -- a longstanding and apparently well-justified conviction that their community has been abused over the years.
For decades before World War II, the District of Columbia operated a "reduction plant" to burn animal carcasses and other detritus near Cherry Hill, filling the air for miles around with a sickening stench. Junior Dent said he and other children were held to ridicule from other students at school because of the foul odors that permeated their clothes. "They picked on us because we were from Cherry Hill," he said. "We never got the same break."
More recently, according to the rivermen, Virginia Power's coal burning station at nearby Possum Point would spew soot on Cherry Hill, until antipollution measures were instituted.
These burdens, Cherry Hill residents say, helped forge a grudging sense of community pride -- and a strong streak of self-reliance.
"There ain't one person in Cherry Hill on welfare," said Junior Dent. "And no one around here has to lock their door."
Junior Dent, himself a former fisherman, is a scion of one of Cherry Hill's leading families, which has lived in Prince William for generations. Today, he said, there are as many as 50 Dents in and around Cherry Hill, so many, in fact, that Junior complains that the U.S. Postal Service is not up to the job of keeping them all straight.
Calvin J. Barton, a Woodbridge resident who owns a small business, said he has been visiting the Rivershore about twice a week for the past 20 years. In bending an elbow with the fishermen, trading good-natured if sometimes brutal invective, Barton said, he finds a sense of camaraderie and unpretentiousness that is fast disappearing elsewhere in Prince William. Even to a first-time visitor, the rivermen are generous people, as giving in their company as they are in their willingness to buy the next round.
"We're sort of the 'good old boys' of the county," said Barton. "We're all being phased out or run out. Personally, I dislike the place more every day."
Indeed, Cherry Hill's struggle is poignant in part because its conclusion is foregone, and the rivermen know it.
The undeveloped tracts of land in eastern Prince William -- some with spectacular views of the wide Potomac estuary -- are attracting some of the most intense interest among builders in the Washington area. Several commercial and residential projects are planned for the area, which is a possible route for an eastern leg of a proposed bypass to carry interstate traffic around Washington and Baltimore.
In an area adjacent to the Cherry Hill marina, the California-based Anden Group recently disclosed plans to build a mixed-use complex of homes, offices and businesses on a 2,240-acre tract. The proposal requires zoning approval from the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
The rivermen are convinced that this spells the end of commercial fishing at Cherry Hill. A fishing marina, they said, just does not sit well next to offices, stores and other fixtures of suburban life. How do you unload a daily catch knowing that a civic association president, petition in hand, will raise a ruckus the first time he or she catches a whiff of something not to his or her liking? Tody Dent said that he does not "want to think about it."
The rivermen, he predicted, will eventually sell their property in Cherry Hill and move on to fend for themselves as best they can. He may go to Florida. He gives maybe five more years to a Cherry Hill ritual that has endured for 150.
For Tody Dent and fishing partner Tom King, that ritual begins every morning shortly after sunrise. Last Tuesday, the task was to rebait about 200 crab pots in the 15- to-20-foot water along the Potomac shore.
The first order of business is to catch the bait. Since the previous day, hundreds of bony, mud-eating fish called "mudshed" have been trapped in a 200-yard gillnet set about a half-mile from the Cherry Hill dock.
After unloading the nets, Dent and King return to the dock to slice the fish in two, so they can neatly fit in the bait containers of the crab pots. Dent breaks up the task with a cigarette and the day's first can of Budweiser. King, who said he swore off the stuff after a heavy drinking habit years ago, refrains.
Loading the bait back on the boat, King and Dent return to the water. King's dog Biscuit, a black Labrador with an appetite for live eels, comes along for the ride.
A small orange buoy floating on the water marks the submerged crab pots. King takes a long pole with a hook at the end to grab a rope, and he ties it to a gas-powered pulley, which then raises the crab pot to the surface. Dent reaches overboard and pulls the pot on board, with several blue-tinted crabs inside.
There is little market for fresh crabs until the weekend, so the men reload the bait only, waiting to remove the crabs later in the week.
Several times, the men raise the crab pots only to find them empty -- apparently the work of pleasure boaters, who often raid the crab pots. Dent denounces the thieves with a stream of profanity, issuing a promise of indelicate retribution should he ever catch one in the act.
"It's the same as stealing my paycheck," Dent declared.
There is a varied and often fluctuating market for the catch of the Cherry Hill fishermen. Eels are sometimes sold to dealers who ship them overseas, where many diners consider them a delicacy. Others go to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, where the eels are used for crab bait.
The rivermen's crabs, as well as fresh catfish, find markets closer to home, including at Cherry Hill's Rivershore.
Some crab sophisticates maintain that crabs taken from the brackish Potomac are inferior to those found in the saltier waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Tody Dent said -- not in these exact words -- that those people are ill-informed.
In fact, the rivermen insist, the Potomac's combination of fresh and salty water is the ideal environment for crabs.
Others apparently agree. On summer weekends, the Rivershore overfills with patrons yearning for fresh fish, many of them boaters arriving from the Washington area. The restaurant, which places no stock in elegant decor, is also popular within Prince William and is a favorite among many county elected officials, including Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert.
There was a time when the rivermen would not have been eager to have the county's top law enforcement official in their midst. Until the 1960s, many rivermen say, they used to supplement their usually meager incomes with profits from illegal liquor operations at a time when Prince William County was dry but many residents were not.
Although the rogue liquor outfits were commonplace throughout Prince William, the stills at Cherry Hill were the most famous -- because the product there was considered superior, longtime residents boast. Law enforcers, many of whom reportedly enjoyed an occasional drop or two themselves, usually looked the other way, according to Junior Dent.
"If what we did was illegal, it certainly wasn't immoral," he said.
Tody Dent said he wonders if the same can be said of what is happening to Cherry Hill today. "How would you like to live all your life in one place and then find out you have to leave?" he asked. "I'd like to teach my son to fish and hunt the way I learned to do it. He won't be able to do that."