Widow Sticks

There was a day, centuries ago, when a hungry man could walk to the Chesapeake’s shallow edge and prise an oyster from its brothers without getting his pants wet above the knee. Oysters furred the edges of the waterline, submerged when the tide was high, and stonily groping towards the sky in jutting promontories when the tide was out. If you didn’t mind monotony, oysters could have been yours for the taking to enjoy or endure in each and every meal.


Oysters in North Carolina’s tidal flats show us what the Chesapeake of 400 years ago might have looked like.

As waves of colonists appeared in the Chesapeake tidewaters, those oysters were included in their paltry, limited methods of survival. A familiar food from Europe, oysters were consumed with relieved gusto. The colonists preferred to eat things they recognized and liked, like today’s armchair traveler who seeks out the warm glow of the Golden Arches in each unsettlingly foreign city. Until beef or pork could be imported and raised in an approximation of England’s ‘civilized’ fields and tables, oysters would do just fine.


                                           Oyster tongs and nippers.

Quickly, the shoreline oysters were reaped by the first generations of Chesapeake transplants, and tools were needed to gather more from deeper waters. The double rake, or 'tongs’, were the answer- a way to reach down to oyster level, scrape together a pile, and raise them to the surface. Some say oyster tongs were an improvement on an original Indian idea. Others say they were a bigger version of a European implement. Either way, because of their simplicity, their efficiency, and their longevity, they’ve become a traditional element of the Chesapeake oyster harvest.


Image of oyster tongers in Harper’s Weekly courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society.

Variations on the two-handled, double-headed rake form were developed over time. Nippers, a small tong, were handy for spotting and plucking that one shoe-sole-sized oyster in the days when the water was clear and the market was slow and local in the 17th and 18th centuries. Tongs of huge capacity with expansive 6’ 'baskets’ were used in the oyster “white gold” boomtime of the 19th century by watermen whose back muscles were like hardened angel wings. The continually-harvested oyster reefs sunk under the maws of the tongs and their cousin the dredge further into the recesses of the Bay, diminished from their tide-breaking towers high in the water column. The watermen responded by creating tongs that sprouted shafts almost comically spindly in their weedy length of 25’- 35’ or more in order to reach the ever-distant bounty. These wobbly, unwieldy oyster catchers got the nickname “widow sticks” from their reputation for unbalancing a novice waterman and sending him to the bottom of the Chesapeake, where he could watch the tongs around him opening and closing as his boots filled up with water and his lungs emptied of air.


                 Watermen tonging from a log canoe in the late 19th century.

As the oyster population in the Bay had dwindled, taking the days of a booming oyster catch along with them, so the tools favored by oystermen have also subsided. The disappearance of the bigger tools, like skipjacks and dredges, has been much more lamented than the parallel attrition of their slower, simpler counterpoints, the log canoe and the oyster tong. Oyster tonging today is a dying art, and as you might imagine, so too is the art of creating the tong itself. In an article this weekend on DelmarvaNow!.com, tong shaft maker Turner Messick says of his trade:

“We sold some in 2008 and then they (the DNR) closed up everything (oyster grounds) in the bay tongers use. Since then, I haven’t sold any tong shafts. I got some real nice lumber in 2009 and now I’m just waitin.’ I’m on hold,” he said. “I’m makin’ 'em now and stockpilin’ so when they do open the tongin’ grounds, I’ll have some tong shafts made up for the guys. I’m workin’ things up around here, ready for business if anybody comes.”


                           Turner Messick in his Bivale, Maryland shop. (source)

The grandson of a former casket maker, Messick is the last craftsman of oyster tongs shafts on the Chesapeake. His shop has stockpiles of shafts made of sweet Southern longleaf yellow heart pine, waiting for the pulse of the oyster harvest to thrum through the Bay economy again. He continues:

“They say the oysters are comin’ back. I hope they are, 'cause I can sure sell some of these shafts. I love doin’ this. Business isn’t very good. Only sold a couple pair last year to a guy in St. Mary’s County. Business was really good here 100 years ago. They were sellin’ 'em by the dozens at one time. A pair of 16-foot shafts back around 1905 was $7, now they are $175.

"Some people think that tongin’ is over in the bay, a thing of the past, somethin’ that won’t happen again. But I got people waitin’ for the governor to open areas they can tong in. Watermen are just waitin’ to buy tongs,” he said. “We have a pretty good reputation, considered the best tongs on the bay, but they’re also the only ones on the bay,” he said, laughing.

“As long as somebody’s tongin’, I’m gonna make tong shafts. Somebody will buy them someday, maybe.”

To read the full article on Turner Messick and the solitary art of shaft making: (source)