The Harvey A. Drewer

A 60-year-old Oyster Buy Boat

By Patrick J. Hendrickson

Saxis Road winds west off Route 13 in Virginia, leads on past the village of Sanford and continues on to bisect of a vast tidal marsh that ends at the Chesapeake Bay with the small village of Saxis, Virginia.

To travel down this road is to journey back to a time where men made their living entirely on the bounty of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Long before sun up you will find most of the watermen gathering at Martha Jane Linton's store to stoke up on fresh coffee brewed by husband Kefford who is also lending a hand frying the bacon for the mornings breakfast. this store has a friendly atmosphere and visitors are made to feel at home instantly.

Mr. Drewer PilothouseInside the tables and booths quickly fill up and the conversation is lively and for the most part good-natured. Amongst this group you will find one of its leading citizens, a waterman, businessman and resident for well over 70 years, Harvey Vernon Drewer, Jr. He and his family have been responsible for much of the oystering business in Saxis. In 1927 his grandfather Harvey A. Drewer partnered with his son Harvey Vernon Drewer, Sr. to found a seafood business that is still in operation today. Harvey Vernon Drewer, Jr. has been retired from the operation and has since passed the business on to his son Andy Drewer.

Retirement has not slowed Harvey Vernon Drewer, Jr. as he has undertaken the enormous task of restoring one of the businesses' oyster buy boats, the Harvey A. Drewer. Soft spoken, his eyes light up as he speaks of the construction of the boat. The 24-inch keel came from a specially selected white oak tree, which was found just outside Pocomoke City, Maryland. This keel was laid in 1947 by master boat builder Percy Linton at his shop in Pocomoke City, Maryland. At a length of 65 feet and a width of 18 feet she drew just 8-10 feet of water allowing operations in much of the vast shallow oyster beds of the bay. She was christened the Harvey A. Drewer after the founder of the business and placed in service at a cost of $12,000 in 1948.

Carlton W. Marshall, the last captain of the Harvey A. Drewer describes the duties of the boat in these early years "up the James River to pick up seed oysters hand-tonged and delivered to the boat by watermen in smaller dead rise boats". These seed oysters, called rough cull, would be piled high on top of the deck. First mate Mark Milex recalls taking the seed oysters out to the various oyster grounds and hand shoveling 700 or so 80 pound bushels. He adds, "You had to shovel and twist your wrists in one motion to evenly distribute the cull on the beds and we was paid a 15 dollar wage for a days-work". The Drewer's operated a fleet of 5 or more oyster buy boats out of Saxis, Virginia which would range a good portion of the bay to the North for favorable oyster beds. The oysters were allowed about two years to mature on the beds which could be several acres in area.

At harvest, the oyster buy boats were rigged with port and starboard dredges that resemble a large rake and collecting basket which were dragged across the oyster beds and scooped up on deck in alternate passes. It took considerable skill for the captain of the boat to efficiently maneuver the boat over the large oyster bed in a pattern that would ensure a complete harvest. Captain and crew would work as a team dumping port dredge on deck then starboard and piling the oysters to the stern in front of the pilot house.

By law, the oysters beds could be worked from sun up to sun down. And when the boat was filled to it's 1,000-bushel capacity (approximately 50 ton) it would return to Saxis, Virginia to be hand unloaded to the shucking house. the Drewers' employed 159 workers at the height of the oystering business and delivered shucked oysters in colorful one gallon, pint and half pint cans packed on ice and moved via railroad to brokers and contract customers on the mainland.

Like the stock market fall of 1929, the oyster business rapidly declined as a result of the MSX virus which began to kill off increasing amounts of oysters beginning in 1963. In the ensuring years, many oyster businesses could not continue to operate on the scale they had prior to the MSX virus infection and had to reduce their workforce and seek other sources of livelihood from the bay.

The family retained a few of their boats and used the Harvey A. Drewer for various purposes until 1980. She laid dockside until last year when Harvey Vernon Drewer, Jr. decided to restore her as his son Andy is taking the company into the aquaculture and business and the future.

Restoration began with the pilothouse being lifted by crane from the hull and placed on a concrete slab. The hull was lifted from the water in a steel cradle and places on blocks in an area near the Marina. Restoration will involve replacement of the various wooden components of the boat along with overhaul of the 671 Detroit diesel engine. Boatwrights, like these old wooden craft are becoming rare and difficult to consult and employ. It will be long and educational process but surely one which will reward future generations with an actual working oyster buy boat.

Most of the old handmade wooden boats from the 1940's and 1950's are gone now. Their deteriorating hulls may be glimpsed beached in remote areas of the Bay, quiet sentinels of a bygone era of Chesapeake bay history.


Patrick J. Hendrickson
P.O. Box 125
Chincoteague Island Virginia 23336
(703) 581-9393