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People and Places

Last Stand at Shady Side

Narrator: An early morning fog shrouds the shoreline of Parrish Creek, as the working boats of Shady Side head out into the Bay. For decades, this has been routine here. The town of Shady Side has always been a home for watermen. But now many here fear that the watermen’s era is coming to an end.

Dawn breaks off the Thomas Point lighthouse for the fishing boat called Grace. Captained by Tommy Haleck, a fifth generation waterman from Shady Side.

By mid-morning, the boat’s crew has emptied the second net, with what appears to be a rich bounty of rockfish and perch. But the captain is disappointed.

Haleck: For this time of year, this would be on the low end. We have another month left. Hopefully we get some cold weather, blustery weather.

Narrator: Haleck has been working on the water since he was 13, just like his forefathers did in the previous century. Making a living on the water is all that he’s ever know.

Haleck: When I was a little boy, form the time that I could probably walk and talk, I always knew what I wanted to be. It’s something that bites you and just sticks with you.

Narrator: Most of the watermen of Shady side have similar feelings, a lifelong attachment to the water, an emotional tie to the life of their forefathers. But for many, a working life on the Chesapeake Bay has gotten increasingly difficult. The catch is smaller, and the costs greater.

Narrator: Thirty years ago, there used to be 80 watermen in Shady Side. Now there are less than 15. The oyster harvest is all but gone. The number of crabs keeps going down.

At Shannon’s Restaurant, a favorite of many of the town’s retired watermen, the first cups of coffee often bring out the memories and stories. Fred Alderson, a retired carpenter was also once a waterman.

Fred: Well, There used to be quite a few watermen, but now they’re not doing nothing now, there’re not that many. Some of the old timers are still doing it, but very few new people coming in and doing it, because there’s nothing out there they say.

Narrator: Today Shady Side is a town of sharp contrasts, the old and the new. New developments replacing more modest homes. Yachts and pleasure boats taking over marinas, a new boat dealership where there was once a haul-out area for working boats, once quiet country roads now busy with traffic. John Van Alstein is one of the younger of Shady Side’s watermen. He says most watermen can no longer afford to live on the water.

John: If you look around the creek now, we’re slowly losing places to work out of. Out of the past three years, we’ve lost five places that a workboat can tie up in this creek. Every home on this creek thirty years ago was a working waterman. That’s not the case today. The case today there’s probably three of the homes on this river.

Narrator: One of those is the home of Billy Joe Groom. All his life, Groom has been a waterman. He’s now repairing engines to make enough money to avoid selling the family home.

Groom: Just the way of life that was so pleasant to live. When you could oyster in the winter and crab in the summer, it couldn’t have been no better. But I had to make some hard choices. It’s not ones that I’m happy with, it’s just something I had to do.

Narrator: Groom believes watermen are being squeezed out of their own community.

Groom: For me, when I was growing up on this whole little creek here, you could literally count the pleasure boats on two hands. Well now, you can count the watermen on one hand! You know in fifty years time, everything’s just turned around. If you could take the story of the American Indian, and switch it over to the watermen, it’s the exact same thing, only except the Calvary hasn’t shot us. We’re just going down, and eventually we’ll be gone.


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