A.J. Hurst aboard his workboat in front of Mathews County’s New Point Comfort Lighthouse, abandoned by the Coast Guard in 1968. Photo courtesy University of Florida students, ca. 2015.
Fishing follows shifting and changeable channels and seasons. Work, home, and the relationships between fishermen are defined by intimacy with the tidal rivers and open waters of the Chesapeake, and watermen and women hold fast to those relationships even as it seemed the bay’s environs push them away. Watchful for rises and falls in harvests, however, workers along the entire stretch of the Chesapeake Bay pull in a fraction of the seafood they did a century ago, and regulators in each state scramble to reverse or mediate the decline. Once the predominant occupation in the county and a major economic driver for the region, fishing is now part of Mathews County’s smallest industry.2
Historians, folklorists, and writers have followed watermen and women onto workboats for more than a half-century, documenting knowledge of the bay’s environment and seafood species. They also document the heartbreaks common to their communities in each state surrounding the Chesapeake: the effects of increased corporatization, international seafood competition, sea level rise, and migration on fishing practices and small coastal towns. By the end of many published academic studies, the death of a way of life feels imminent, a southern tragedy at the intersection of environmental and cultural decline that watermen (and coal miners, and small farmers) carry with them. What is it like to know that you’re among the last of your kind? What do you worry about, for a world without you in it?3
Over time, Hurst watched the marks watermen left on the local landscape fade—the nets, docks, workboats, and mastery of them—and witnessed his social networks narrow. In contemporary interviews we helped collect through the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida, Hurst reflects on his values in light of what the “young boys” will struggle to find today: independence, mentorship, and camaraderie in the setting of a bountiful bay. Friends and younger watermen like Callis also reflected on Hurst, a man who taught them how to make an independent living alongside other fishermen. In Hurst’s life, they see his adaptation, and his insistence on connection to others in the business, as an alternative to decay and disconnection from a past full of good stories. He demonstrates that watermen can transition between independent and corporate work to maintain ties to home that made work meaningful in the first place.
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Arthur “A. J.” Hurst left the house on early mornings at the age of eleven to support his family. He never enjoyed school, preferring fishing or driving his goat and cart down the road over sitting in a classroom. Born in 1935 in New Point, Mathews County, he lived in a rented house with no running water. His father fished on other men’s boats alongside thousands of other Mathews County men who passed one another on shipping, fishing, and merchant vessels between the Chesapeake’s dozens of bustling ports. He recounted working for other watermen early on as a child, but identified finding real success in working for himself, a tip that a fellow fisherman shared with him early on.
Jessica Taylor: How’s it different working for yourself?
A.J. Hurst: Well, I could do better working for myself. I could do better. I made more money. It’s all or nothing for yourself. The way I look at it—and I had a fellow tell me one time . . . he said, “But try and look for something yourself, ’cause as long as you work for somebody else, you ain’t gonna have nothing.”4
Crab pots are a reminder that watermen’s hard-won independence was built on the knowledge shared between men in the other workboats. Wire cages, strung in a line under the surface of the water, draw blue crabs in with bait and trap them with other unlucky seafood. (Hurst enjoyed catching and eating a good puffer fish for dinner.) Invented by a Chesapeake Bay waterman in the 1930s, the pots are responsible for the majority of crabs watermen pull to the surface and into wooden bushel baskets. While Hurst preferred working for himself, he acknowledged the multitude of people who enabled him to do so. Between working odd jobs, learning to make pots, and tying up at other people’s docks at the end of the day, he prized the camaraderie between himself and other watermen cultivated through the shared but isolated, communal but independent, work. In interviews, he talked excitedly or burst into tears over memories of working on boats with friends, singing together over the CB radio, and relying on others if his workboat’s engine broke down.5
Hurst’s origin story provided a tangible model of success for younger watermen on his stretch of the bay. Roscoe Rowe remembered, “He pulled for it. He told me that his uncle gave him ten old, rusty crab pots. And that’s how he started. At one time he had over three hundred in the water and three hundred in the yard. . . . He caught a lot of crabs, too. I think we caught as high as forty barrels at one time.” A helping hand from a member of an earlier generation, the slow accumulation of means, and knowledge of how to make, use, and care for the traps produced a visible sign of success displayed in a pile on the lawn.6