Chuck Backus, a man with Midwestern roots, is clearly enthusiastic about his new job. Six months ago, he arrived in the small fishing village of Reedville, VA, which extends into the Chesapeake Bay on a narrow strip of land at the southern tip of Virginia’s Northern Neck—a peninsula at the end of a peninsula.
There is only one road into Reedville. Most of that road, which ends at the water, is lined with elegant Victorian homes built by sea captains. But among them is a more modest, whitewashed cottage, an 1875 waterman’s house that is home to the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.
As the museum’s new director, Backus exudes a newcomer’s admiration for the area that drives him to tell its story as passionately as the people who have lived it.
“This museum exists to tell the story of people who take their living from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay,” Backus said. “And it’s a story that’s still going on.”
Along with the watermen’s house, the museum features active boat building and model shops, a modern museum structure with permanent and temporary exhibits, and two vessels that were recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
For Backus, his years in the Midwest bring the area’s special qualities into focus.
“I worked in Wisconsin for a while, near Lake Michigan. We had the land activities, and then we had the water activities. But here, the boundary between land and water is much more fluid. It intersects in so many ways,” he said.
Reedville was born from the abundance of the Bay—specifically, from the enormous schools of small, bluish-black fish known as menhaden, which travel its waters. Menhaden aren’t good eating, at least not for humans. But they are a favorite food for striped bass, bluefish, seat trout and tuna. Once processed, menhaden provide heart-healthy oils and proteins used in common products like pasta sauces, salad dressings and baked goods. Other byproducts include paints, cosmetics and animal feed for pets, cattle, swine and poultry.
Elijah Reed, a commercial skipper in Maine during the mid-1800s, encountered the Bay’s menhaden while bringing timber to the region on his schooner. Reed knew the value of menhaden. His son later described Reed’s decisive move: “In the summer of 1867, loading his kettles and presses onto two small schooners, the Two Brothers and the A.F. Powers, he sailed for Virginia.”
Reedville was the result.
The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, a member of the Chesapeake Gateway’s Network, explores both the history of the menhaden industry and the related lifestyle of this water-wrapped town.
Exhibits trace the use of menhaden, beginning with native and colonial times, and explain fishing techniques like the purse seine and pound net. They also reveal how the industry shaped Reedsville, as its prosperity peaked in the early 20th century and world wars pressed the local fishing fleet into service at home and abroad.
The menhaden fishery continues to play an important part in the local economy, with commercial fish harvests that rank second only to Kodiak, AK. Omega Protein Inc., the world’s largest producer of menhaden byproducts, operates one of its four processing plants in Reedville. The volunteers who congregate at the museum celebrate a living heritage, not one that has faded into the past.
“I’ve never seen a museum quite like this,” Backus said. “We have hundreds of truly active volunteers. If I need help, or have a question, I can turn to a fifth generation waterman or walk down the block to George Butler, whose family is celebrating 100 years of boatbuilding.” (A temporary exhibit on 100 Years of Boatbuilding at Butler Boat Yard is open weekends at the museum through May 1.)
The waterman’s home, known as the William Walker House, is the museum’s visual centerpiece. Built in 1875 on land purchased from Elijah Reed, it was occupied by the original family and their descendants until 1986. When demolition loomed, community members secured the house for the newly formed museum.
Inside its white clapboard walls, antiques recreate a setting from the 1920s, with children’s toys, a sewing machine, bedding and small organ. Small rooms and low ceilings testify to a modest lifestyle, but sunlight floods the rooms with a cheerfulness that makes the house feel cozy rather than cramped. A step from the back door leads to the adjoining kitchen with its ponderous iron stove.
Volunteers tend to the Walker House and provide vigorous support. They develop exhibits, manage the gift shop, collect oral histories and wield tools in the boat shop. Talented craftsmen have created a sprawling and highly accurate model of Reedville and its surroundings.
To make ready for the spring season, a group of volunteers gathered in and around the boat shop to build two new showpieces. There was much laughter, back slapping and mischievous muttering as the men moved through sawdust and maneuvered sections of skeletal wood hulls into place.
Among them was Wendell Haynie, a retired waterman and a pharmacist. His team is creating a replica of the boat that Capt.John Smith used to explore the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. When asked how the project got started, the group guffawed and blamed Haynie.
“Based on the journal descriptions, we feel that Smith probably came in here on this boat, along this creek, and picked up an Indian guide,” Haynie explained. He is the first to admit that this is not a perfect re-creation. No plans exist for Smith’s original vessel, so they’ve worked from written descriptions and some 1620 sketches. They have also used power tools. But the point is the education, both for the boat builders and the museum’s visitors.
“Smith brought this boat with him on the Susan Constant. He brought it in two pieces, and put it together here. And when this boat appeared in the Bay, when Native Americans saw this, everything started to change,” Haynie said.
The boat shop is open to visitors who want to see the work in progress and mix with its cast of characters—and maybe even pick up a hammer.
The skipjack Claud W. Somers and the deck boat Elva C. are docked behind the boat shop on Cockrell’s Creek. Last fall, both were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1911, the Claud W. Somers worked Virginia waters until 1925 and then passed to Maryland owners. She returned to Virginia to join the museum’s permanent collection in 2003, after volunteers completed major restoration work on the vessel.
The Elva C. is a 55-foot workboat, built in 1922, that was used to handle pound nets during menhaden harvests. She also served as a “buy boat”—a floating middleman, as Backus describes it, carrying fish or produce to points of sale. Just recently, the phone rang in Backus’ office and another piece of her story fell into place.
“It was a woman named Elva Celeste. It was the Elva C. She said, ‘That boat was named after me,’” Backus said.
He hopes to meet with her soon and add another layer of detail to the collection of stories that the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum has assembled about life along the Bay.
“We’re working to connect all of these stories, about people and places,” Backus said, “because they are inextricably linked.”
Along the way, Backus is fast becoming a local. He gestured to a small open boat, a bit worn, that floats unassumingly between the Claud and the Elva.
“That’s the lunch skiff,” he said. “When we decide we’ve done enough work for the morning, we pile into the skiff and boat down to one of the restaurants for lunch.”
In a town as small as Reedville, they could probably get there just as fast on foot. But Backus shrugs off that option.
“This is just more fun,” he smiled.
Atlantic menhaden are one of the most abundant and commercially valuable fish found along the coastal waters and estuaries of the Eastern United States.
Menhaden spawn in the ocean, but their young prefer to grow in less salty waters—making the Chesapeake Bay an important nursery ground for the species.
Menhaden migrate into the Bay in early summer, then move south in the fall to winter off Cape Hatteras, NC. They travel in large, dense schools, close to the surface of the water, making them easy marks for predators.
Menhaden byproducts include heart-healthy fish oils, paints, cosmetics and animal feed.
But the species is important for ecological reasons, too. They are extremely important prey for many fish, such as striped bass, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, tuna and sharks. Herons, egrets, ospreys and eagles often feed on menhaden as well.
While the Atlantic Marine States Fisheries Commission considers the coastwide population of menhaden to be healthy, there have been recent concerns about local declines in the Bay.
The commission is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office on menhaden research in the Bay.
Reedville Fishermen’s Museum
The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum is open 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- March 11 through April 30: Saturday & Sunday.
- May 1 through Oct. 31: Daily.
- Nov. 4 through Jan. 15: Friday through Sunday.
- Jan. 16 through March 10: Group appointments only.
The museum office is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Admission is $5/Adults; $3/Seniors. School groups and children younger than 12 are admitted free.
The skipjack Claud W. Somers sails at 10 a.m. for a three-hour cruise every other Saturday from May 15 through October, weather permitting. Sail dates for 2006 include May 27, June 10, June 24, July 8, July 22, Aug. 5, and Aug. 19, Sept. 2, Sept. 16, Oct. 7, Oct. 21, Oct. 28. The cost is $25. Members of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum pay $20.
Museum members can also climb aboard the Elva C. for a narrated tour of Cockrell’s Creek on select Friday and Saturday evenings from late May through October. Early morning history cruises also offer a look at watermen working pound nets for the menhaden fishery. Reservations are required. To register, or for information, call the museum at 804-453-6529 or visit www.rfmuseum.org.
To learn more about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
- May 7: Blessing of the Fleet
- July 14-16: Family Boat Building Workshop (registration required)
- Sept.8-9: Antique Boat Show
- Nov. 11: Oyster Roast
- Dec. 9-10: Christmas on Cockrell’s Creek