Life in West Denton in the 1920s, on Choptank River, Caroline County, Maryland

Below is text from “Chapter Three – Activities Along the River” of Bridges To My Maturity,  Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, by George W. Swartz.

Digitized, edited, and prepared for re-publication by CCHS volunteers Dave Ellis and Don Barker.

See all of our republished stories by George Schwartz about West Denton here.

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There were always plenty of activities on and around the Choptank to keep a young lad busy and entertained, in addition to the ones already described. The highlights of some of these follow:

Swimming

During the swimming season there were always some local young people swimming from the wharf or diving from the bridge, especially Saturdays and Sundays. I must have been in the tenth or eleventh grade in high school before I learned to swim and only then at the insistence and patience of my brother when he spent one summer at home. Even though I could not swim, I was in the water (under the bridge or somewhere that was shallow) whenever I got a chance, often at the risk of being reprimanded by my parents. I am sure that my brother’s awareness of the risk involved prompted him to take me to Williston Lake, about six miles from Denton, each day for my swimming lessons. At this lake there was a diving board and a sloping beach that had been prepared especially for swimmers, making it a good place for beginners.

Fishing

Fishing for the sport of it was almost a daily activity from spring to fall. As a boy I spent many hours with a homemade pole, hook and line, and a cork float fishing for sun perch and white perch. If large enough to justify cleaning, they were good eating when fried in hot grease. Catfish were plentiful, but due to the fact that they fed largely on the contents of the Denton sewer lines that emptied directly into the river, most people did not eat them. There were large carp in the river and several of acquaintances made it a practice to fish for them with their own special bait. These were hard, round cooked balls made from a mixture of flour, corn salt, and other ingredients, which they placed upon hooks fastened to a strong line and threw into the water. Some commercial fishermen also used nets to catch carp. When a carp gets a little old and yellow, it begins to have a muddy taste, so it was not a very popular fish.

The back of my father’s store was at the immediate edge of the river and there was a window in the back from which we used to fish with drop lines. A drop line is a strong cord with two or three leaders containing hooks tied so it and weighted with a lead sinker. Without the benefit of a pole or boat you fed it out into the water and let it go as far as it would until the sinker reached the bottom. A drop line was better than a pole for fishing out of the window since we could tie it fast while we waited on a customer in the store if needed. Once, I recall, when my dad returned to the line after waiting on a customer, he pulled in the line and it contained two large catfish and an eel. Eels were delicious eating after being skinned, soaked overnight, and fried in hot grease. Many would not eat them because, as they put it, “they look too much like a snake” or “you can’t kill them-they’ll even flip over in the pan while being fried.” The pieces of eel would curl up in the pan after they had been flattened out but I do not ever recall having seen one “flip over.” There is a small amount of skill involved in salvaging your drop line after catching an eel. They are so wiggly that they will hopelessly knot up your line in no time flat after they are out of the water. One secret is to pull your line rapidly from the water and, all in one process without pausing, flop the eel hard on the wharf or river bank to stun it long enough to remove the hook and free the line. Thereafter, they will revive and continue to wiggle for a long time.

Accidents

In addition to drowning, accidents can happen even while doing simple fishing. One has to be aware of the fins on fish that will hurt if they penetrate your hand. The catfish especially, has a “stinger” which is no more than a large protruding fin on his back behind his big mouth that really stings if it penetrates your hand. The hand will remain swollen and will hurt for several hours. I have never heard the real explanation for why this fin stings more than any other fish fin, but we Denton boys all assumed that it gave off some kind of poison that irritated human flesh.

One can get hooked by fish hooks, also, and they are not easy to remove without tearing some flesh. When using a drop line from a wharf, the kind with the leaders, hooks, and sinkers near the end of it, the technique of throwing it out into the water is to grab the line a short distance above the top leader, get up momentum by revolving the sinker and hooks in a circle by your side or over your head and let it fly out into the channel. This requires practice and can be dangerous, even with much practice. The most serious such accident that I witnessed happened to an elderly gentleman who, with his wife, fished almost daily from one of the wharves along the river. When he let his drop line fly one of the hooks caught him in the hand ripping a long gash. His wife had to get him to the doctor where several stitches were required. Their daily fishing was interrupted for several weeks.

Those standing nearby could get hurt in a like manner if too close. Every boy gets his share of fish hooks in his hand and falls victim to other small accidents which may be a practical but not necessarily best way to learn.

The end of the drawbridge that opened rested upon concrete piers and each side of the draw contained a swinging electric lantern having clear glass in it. Mounted in front of the lantern was a quarter-circle piece of glass, half of which was red, the other half green. When the draw was closed the lantern rested behind the red glass, showing red to the boatman progressing up the river, especially at night, and indicating to him that the draw was closed. As the draw was raised the lantern swung over to the green glass, showing green to the boatman and indicating that the draw was open far enough for the vessel to pass through. The bottom of the huge lanterns were open and at night the light shown down onto the water. This light would attract hundreds of fish, swimming around under the lantern along the side of the concrete piers, often breaking the surface of the water.

I conceived the idea that I could catch lots of fish easily if I had a wire basket that I could let down into the water under the fish, let it rest awhile until the fish accumulated again, then pull it up rapidly above the surface. A friend of mine, Charlie Taylor, helped me make a basket of wire netting, about two feet square, with sides six inches deep. Cords extended up from the corners, then merged into one cord which was used to hold the basket and pull it out of the water. It worked: I would drop it below the fish, wait a few minutes until they reassembled in a school, then jerk the basket up rapidly. Of course, the slightest movement would cause the fish to scatter in all directions, but if you were fast enough you could get a few. The most that I ever caught in a single trial was about thirty-six. They ranged in size from minnows to as much as six or eight inches in length. I think this was probably an illegal catch but I was only doing it for the fun and sport of it, and as soon as counted my catch I would dump them back and try again. After awhile the novelty wore off and it became more work than fun.

Crabbing

Another form of fishing on the river was fishing for crabs, generally called crabbing. To catch crabs one needed a cord to which a piece of meat was tied (usually fat-back because it was the cheapest) and a dip net. The end of the cord containing the meat was thrown into the water from the river bank or from a boat, and it would slowly sink below the surface. By holding the cord so that it crossed your forefinger you could feel the vibrations when a crab started to nibble. Then you started pulling in the cord, meat, and crab very slowly so that the crab, who by nature is very suspicious of any movement near him, would not depart from his source of lunch before you could spot him. In the meantime, while pulling in the cord with one hand, you had lowered the dip net into the water, out of sight of the crab, with your other hand. As the crab came into sight. ..swish… you quickly brought the dip net under him, lifted him out of the water and flopped the net over your basket or can so that the crab landed inside.. all in one quick operation. Then.. overboard again with the cord and meat for another one. Crabs are very fast in making their getaway once they sight the slightest movement and many a crab has been lost in the process of applying the dip net, proving that the eye (crab’s) is faster than the hand (boy’s).

When a party of youngsters went crabbing a favorite form of recreation was not only to catch them but also to build a fire, fix a lard can containing a small amount of water over the fire, drop your live catch into the can, cover it so that the crabs were well steamed, and eat them on the spot. This was called a crabbing party.

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