"But That's How it Was": Stories from a Choptank family at Dover Bridge

Stories can be one of the most powerful ways we understand history. From the time we are small, we beg for them to be told to us, from a book or from memory. Their warp and weft of detail and narrative form the verbal coverlet we drowse to sleep under, learning subconsciously the past as it relates to us individually, as families, as communities, as regions, and as citizens of the world. Stories can convey the past, and with their details share morals and goals, life lessons and cautionary tales to be followed at your peril. In a time before humans remembered by writing, they remembered by telling, and the stories from the generations that come before remain one of our most important cords connecting our past with our present.


         Dover Bridge under construction, 1933. Engle collection.

Stories are just as important for institutions like the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in helping to understanding our past as they are for individuals. Most of the time we come about them in the same fashion- by listening to the folks who can reach back into their memory pantry, pull down a preserved moment in time, and share it over an afternoon to someone who can capture it on paper or on tape. Pinned to the page or collected in the confines of reel-to-reel are the glinting dragonfly reminiscences of the people that grew up with Bay mud between their toes, living in clapboard houses along dirt roads, threading the shallow river water with boats as long and thin as needles. Stories of the men and women that toiled on the water and the land, intimately familiar after a lifetime of experience with every piney neck and grassy-bottomed cove in their locality. Hundreds of these oral histories comprise the backbone of knowledge at the core of our institution, and give significance, texture, and meaning to the thousands of objects in our collections these people left behind.


Harvesting oysters from a frozen Choptank by car, 1936. “Dad” is marked over the man to the far right in the photo. From the Engle collection.

Today’s post will feature some of the oral histories and personal photos shared by the Engle family, who for generations lived and worked on a farm on the Choptank where they fished for shad, built boats, and ran a sawmill. Their stories demonstrate the rich and complex layers of detail conveyed by oral histories, and also show how quickly a remembrance and a photo can stitch together a quilt of fragments from the past that makes it seem close enough to touch.  In these stories, the Engle family takes you to the dusty roads trafficked by horse carts and steam tractors, brackish wind on a frozen marsh, dry whirring of cicadas, and rich smell of ripe peaches on the tree of a day spent on the Dover bridge during the turn of the century.


The rope ferry at Dover Point, prior to the first bridge’s construction in the late 19th century. Today’s swing bridge was finished in 1933. Photo from the Engle collection.

 Melvin Engle, Choptank fisherman, on fishing at Dover Bridge:

“Here’s the old Dover Bridge.  Well, from Dover Bridge down here to the railroad bridge was called the Hog Pen. Hog Pen they called it, cause I tell you for why—when the steamboats left the wharf at Dover Bridge, they cleaned their farr (fire) at Dover Bridge and they thowed their damn coal cinders out thar and we caught them in the shad seines… and thar was always a bunch of trash and stuff and sow bed we called it that you caught in your nets and that’s why they called it the Hog Bed.”



Aerial shot of first bridge at Dover Point, 1915. Engle property with peach orchards to the right of the image.

Melvin Engle on the Dover Bridge as a connection to the outside world (and to mischief):

“He (my father) left home when he was 13 years old and jumped aboard a sailboat out thar at the railroad bridge and was gone two years before his mother knew whar he was at because they were supposed to be watching cows.  See, they didn’t have fences then and they always had a patch of rye or wheat or something down thar for cows to eat all through the spring of the year.  Well, “All right, you boys go out thar and watch ‘em and make ‘em stay in that designated area.” And they had these hot beds thar to use for their sweet potatoes.  In the spring of the year they had these sweet potatoes bedded in thar for sprouts to plant.  And Louis had a slingshot and he was shooting over towards them hot beds shooting them winter lights out and he knew darn well what was gonna happen.  He was gonna get his tail end busted.  But he saw this sailboat coming from up the river and he runs out thar on the railroad bridge, and by gosh, when she come through thar, he jumped aboard her.

Interviewer:  And was off.

ME:  He jumped aboard the sailboat because he was involved with that (unintelligible).  His mother was up thar the next morning looking for him, but she didn’t find him.  She got on the steamboat, and went up thar looking for him and it was two years before she knew whar he was at.  She knew what had happened.  Louis told ‘em what he’d done and he run out thar on the railroad bridge and jumped aboard the boat.  They knew whar he had gone, but they didn’t know whar (laughter).”



A grain transferred from cart to skiff, headed out to a schooner in the river (the tip of the bowsprit is just visible on the far right of the photo). Image ca. 1900, Engle collection.

Wilbur Engle on shipping wheat and grain:

“I got pictures of boats in here putting wheat on sailboats.

They took, run the wagon out in the water for you and sand the bottom, far as they’d get with it, and load it into, looked like about a 16 or 18-foot boat and then carry it over to the sailboat.  That’s a mess of work – and then put it down a hole in the boat, that wasn’t easy either.  The man had to take it out was work (laughter).  I guess they had little better ways of unloading a place or something, I don’t know, to unload it.  They must’ve unloaded more than one bag at a time, throw that in the hole.  But putting her in there was work, getting to it.  You had to load it on the wagon and go down, unload it off the wagon into the boat, and that boat over to the big one yet.


Schooner on the Choptank in the summer, early 20th century. Engle collection.

Wilbur Engle on boatbuilding and schooners:

 "Them old schooners, you get your topsail up, you might get a little bit of wind up there, but the boat had to go along with the tide.  I’ve got couple sailboats out in the shop that I built, one is three feet long that were made from piling head they cut off here at Dover Bridge when they built it in ’33.  I had – me and my brother, each one made one.  I made mine, onliest damn sailboat ever seen wouldn’t sail up and down the river.  And I didn’t know too much about the shape of them or what I got in close.  The schooner was just about as wide in the tail as it was anywhere.  And it wasn’t but 5’4 feet wide nowhere or less, a little under 5’4 feet.  But had – to get through the canal up here.  It was 24 feet, and you  had to be a little under.

But I had 10 or 11 boats at one time for sale and had a – over there but they’d sail, this one here I got 12 pounds of lead under it for the keel. My brother’s got an old schooner up here that was – he’d rebuilt the thing four or five years ago.  It was an old one there.  It laid around somewhere and got – rot, so he – made another one like it.  But we don’t have all the details on them like they  have on the big one, but we didn’t make them to pull out exactly, we  made them to sail.  And they do that.  They move right along. 


But that’s how it was.


Schooner moving upriver through the Dover Bridge, entitled "The Last Schooner,” 1933. Engle collection.