My home is located on Jackson Creek in Deltaville, Virginia. It was owned by a Chesapeake Bay Waterman named John Ward who was the skipper of the buyboat Nellie Crocket. The Nellie Crockett docked at the pier behind my house, where I now keep my Bertram. For decades John Ward skippered the Nellie Crocket and although she is now retired, she is still running, and is known about by watermen young and old.
Perhaps it is best to start off by explaining just what it is that makes a boat a buyboat. A veteran waterman described a buyboat as a kind of tractor trailer of the bay. While they are generally deadrise boats, there are some buyboats made from other designs. The range is from about 40 to 100 ft. The thing that identifies it as a buyboat be it a frame built hull, log built or “box-built” is the mast-and-boom configuration forward of the hold. The pilothouse is aft of the hold and the hull is decked over. Very few are still in commercial operation. However, there are several now fully restored and being enjoyed by buyboat enthusiasts who attend buyboat regattas during the summer months.
The Nellie Crockett is a 65foot deckboat built in 1925 by Charles A. Dana of Crisfield, Maryland. The boat was originally built for Andrew A. “Shad” Crockett of Tangier Island, Va.. He named his new buyboat after his daughter Nellie. The Nellie Crocket is a wooden deadrise. The Nellie Crockett is a wooden, plank-on-frame freightboat, documented measuring 61.6 ft long, 20.33 ft on the beam and 6.42 ft in draft (18.8 m × 6.20 m × 1.96 m). She measures 52 tons gross and 35 tons net. Her wide beam and moderate draft were useful in her business of buying, loading and transporting oysters in the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The hull is built using wood frames made from the natural crooks of tree limbs and roots. It is planked with 3.5-inch (8.9 cm) pine. The deck planking is laid fore-and-aft over deck beams on hanging knees. A partially watertight bulkhead is located in the forecastle.
The center of the deck is dominated by a large hold opening, 25 by 13.5 feet (7.6 by 4.1 m), surrounded by a coaming to keep out water. The 12 inches (30 cm) mast lies just ahead of the hatch, rising 41 feet (12 m). Coins found under the mast indicate the mast was restepped or replaced in 1956. The 1951 nickel found under the mast, indicating that it was replaced or re-stepped in the 1950s, with a traditional coin placed underneath at the time. The mast has two cargo-handling booms attached at its base. The foc’sle hatch is forward of the mainmast, measuring 4.6 ft long and 3.2 ft wide (1.4 m × 0.98 m). A low railing runs from the foc’sle hatch to the stern, with two rails, one above the other.
The pilot house is rectangular with a rounded front, 20.42 ft long and 8.42 ft wide (6.22 m × 2.57 m). It is covered with vertical tongue-and-groove sheathing. The pilot house is divided into three compartments, each formerly divided from the others by doors, now missing. The wheel room occupies the front compartment, housing the rope-and-pulley-operated wheel, with five windows on the front, two on either side, and doors on either side. A heater stands at the rear. A flush deck hatch gives access to the engine compartment. There is a bunk room behind the wheel room. The bunk room, 6.5 feet (2.0 m) long, with three bunks on the port side and a shower on the starboard side, replacing the original head. There is a porthole for the upper bunk. Behind the bunkroom lies the kitchen, 4 feet (1.2 m) long, with a window on each side and a door aft. At the fore, in the foc’sle compartment, two more bunks are provided.
She measures 52 tons gross and 35 tons net. Crockett used it to haul seed oysters from the James River to be planted in the area around Deltaville. He also used the boat to haul potatoes in hundred-pound sacks, bushel baskets of tomatoes and watermelons. Occasionally its cargo was lumber. Buyboats made the rounds of making the rounds of the Chesapeake Bay oyster beds to buy oysters directly from the harvesters, typically sail-powered skipjacks or oyster tongers. With buyboats dropping off seed oysters and picking up fresh caught oysters, the oyster dredges could remain at the beds, avoiding the need to return to port when full. Buyboats typically gave a lower price than a dockside sale, but most oystermen considered this a fair trade for not losing time on a run back to the dock
James Ward bought the boat in 1955 and kept it docked at the pier behind his home on Jackson Creek in Deltaville, Va.
When Captain Shad owned her, she carried 1,850 bushels of seed oysters in the winters and 2000 bushels in the spring. In his book, Chesapeake Bay Buyboats, Larry Chowning quotes Captain Shad Crockett as saying: “You’ve got to be careful in the wintertime because ice builds up on the boat when it goes up and down. I’ve seen six inches of ice on deck and that’s a lot of weight. It pays to be conservative with a load in the cold weather.”
When WWII broke out the U.S. Government sought the help of local watermen and gave their captains the status of “temporary reserves of the U.S. Coast Guard.” One of their jobs was to keep a lookout for German U-boats. Others hauled freight. Some were transported on freighters to foreign ports. The Nellie Crocket was purchased by the U.S. War Shipping Administration as a fireboat to use in ports along the Chesapeake. Designated CG-65015F, she served until 1945, when Crockett bought her back for $10. Local legend has it that the USCG fitted her out with fire hose pumps which when she was returned to civilian life were removed and sold at a handsome profit to the owner. In 1950 she was sold to Gus Forbush, who changed the engine to a 165 hp model. She was then sold to Gilbert Ashley, who moved her to Baltimore, but then sold her in 1952 to J. Harry Porter and Harry B. Porter of Baltimore, who moved her back to Crisfield. The Porters sold her to James H. Ward, Sr. of Deltaville, Va. and William H. Ward of Reedville, Virginia in 1957. William sold his share to James in 1966. James Ward operated the Nellie Crockett as a buy-boat until his death in 1986. Family members continued to operate her until 1990.
She was then bought by Theodore L. Parish of Georgetown who did an extensive restoration and runs her as a pleasure boat to this day. Parish brings the Nellie Crocket back to Jackson Creek often for a kind of visit to her past. Seeing her steam down Jackson Creek in Deltaville has brought a tear to the eye of many an old waterman who remember when she worked out of Jackson Creek daily. A story published on-line in TownDock.net relates an experience the present owner and his spouse had when they met a former crew member of the Nellie Crocket. “It turns out that the “Nellie Crockett” used to run between Baltimore and Edenton, NC where it would pick up the watermelons that were stored in the hold. At the Georgetown Wooden Boat show, they spoke with a man whose father had owned the “Nellie Crockett” for three years after World War II. Donnie Smith is now 82 and lives in Florida. As a teenager, he had worked on what was then his father’s boat.
Prior to this, the Parishes say they’d been told that the hold of the “Nellie Crockett” held 3200 melons. But, Donnie Smith assured them that it carried 5500. The smallest crew member back then, he said, the job fell on him to get as many in the hold as possible. He told them that he was sure it was 5500 because, “‘I stacked every one.’”
The Nellie Crockett worked the Chesapeake Bay between 1926 and 1989. She is now registered as a National Historic Site.