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.
Today almost everyone near a lake or a navigable body of water has a boat with either an outboard or inboard engine for recreational purposes. During my boyhood days, only those who made a living with a boat (fishermen or oystermen) or the well-to-do had such a boat. Even then, outboard engines had not yet been invented. The rest of us had no boat, except or a few who had rowboats. I learned at an early age how to row a boat and have at times in later years surprised friends at such places as scout camps, vacation spots, et cetera, with my ability in this area. My cousin and I jointly owned a secondhand rowboat, which I believe he bought for five dollars.
My part of the deal was to caulk and paint it. Since I lived at the water’s edge, I was appointed the caretaker. Our biggest problem was to keep the old boat afloat; it had a strong inclination to leak and to sink even with repeated caulking. When in use, it required a two man crew – one to row and the other one to bail water. But we had a lot of fun with it.
My dad’s friend, Charlie Taylor, had a boat which he was always improving by changing the inboard auto engine, and he would take my dad and me occasionally for a cruise on the river, usually on a Sunday afternoon. I remember once we went almost to Cambridge, at the mouth of the Choptank, a round-trip distance of about eighty miles.
The most elaborate motor yacht to ever come to Denton when I lived there was one from Baltimore, owned by a Mr. Emerson, reportedly the inventor, manufacturer, and owner of the Bromo-Seltzer product. About once a year he came in his yacht with his servants and tied up at a wharf for a few days. One can go to any marina near the bay or the coast today and see many such exotic yachts, but that one from Baltimore when I was a boy seemed to be the only one of a kind in the twenties. It attracted a lot of attention and was as unique as its millionaire owner.
The most interesting local boat was one owned by Layman Redden, one of the owners of G. T. Redden & Sons, a cannery in West Denton. Layman had an adventurous spirit and he decided that he wanted a motor boat that could be surpassed by none in speed. Thus, he proceeded to purchase an airplane engine for his approximately 18-foot boat, which he mounted inboard, leaving off the propeller, of course. Those of us who remember the old barnstorming days of the airplane remember that these early airplane engines were started by having a person other than the pilot turn the propeller while standing on the ground after yelling, “contact.” Because of the high torque of the engine, the propeller would usually kick backward perhaps several times before the engine finally started, making it necessary for the one on the ground to jump backward at each attempt to start it or suffer a broken or mangled arm.
In place of the propeller, Layman had devised a crank for his boat engine. Only one man, known as “Turk,” an employee of Layman’s, had nerve enough to crank it. More than once, while standing on the river bank, I have seen that crank kick backward with such force that it would fly off, hit the bottom of the boat, and bounce overboard into the water. Layman often had a couple of boys handy to dive overboard and retrieve the crank. Eventually they rigged up an attachment for the crank so that when it bounced overboard, they could retrieve it without leaving the boat.
The engine of Layman’s boat had no gears. It had a direct drive to the underwater propeller beneath the boat. When it did finally start, the boat had to be directed toward open water because it took off like a streak of lightning and otherwise would have climbed the river bank. It could be heard for miles around, and it was undoubtedly the fastest boat that ever rode the Choptank. I’m sure that the novelty never wore off, but the problems connected with an engine of that size and power in a small boat on a narrow river must have been too great, for it was eventually abandoned in favor of a more sophisticated motor yacht.
Another boat that plied the waters of the Eastern Shore was the showboat. Usually when the showboat arrived it would stay for several days, giving theatrical performances on board in afternoon matinees and evening shows. I don’t believe that my parents attended to any great extent, at all, but I remember seeing crowds of people coming in the evenings to the glamorous, all-lit-up showboat. It seemed like a touch of the big city brought to a small town. That was one event held in West Denton that was patronized by the “uptown” people.
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