Man Is Last In State To Make Oyster Tong Shafts
By BRICE STUMP
The Daily Times of Salisbury
BIVALVE, Md. (AP) — When Wilbur “Turner” Messick Jr. walks into his shop door on Texas Road, he walks into history. He may be the only man in the nation to continue a unique family business begun in 1859.
His ancestors, “undertakers,” carpenters and cabinetmakers, since before the Civil War, began making oyster tong shafts at least by 1859. When his father, Wilbur, died in 2008, the waterman took over the business.
It is a business unlike any other.
“I heard there was somebody in North Carolina making `em, but that’s just a rumor,” he said. “Somebody down in Florida some years back bought some of ours to copy, but never heard any more about that. So I guess this is the last business goin.’ ”
Messick is now the last man in the state making wooden oyster tong shafts.
In the rambling two-story wooden building, where men in the family made wooden coffins downstairs — which were finished with fabric upstairs by women — tong shafts have been made on this site.
Some tools used to craft coffins also cut and shaped strong, slender, heart pine shafts of oyster tongs.
They are sometimes called “widow sticks” because of the physical toll they take on watermen wrangling with the wood shafts that can be 35 feet-plus long. With iron, toothy tongs at the base, the waterman opens the pair of shafts and scrapes up about a third of a bushel of oysters, sometimes just shells, and pulls his catch to the surface.
“Any kind of oysterin’ is hard work, but this is for a young man,” Messick said.
Problem is, there aren’t that many young men working Chesapeake Bay oyster grounds with hand tongs.
“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,” he said.
Then there is another problem: No one is coming by the shop.
Once the place was busy with customers showing up at the shop in cars, pickups or boats.
“I use to deliver some by trailer to southern Maryland and my Uncle Corney took some over to the western shore in his boat,” he said. “That was when things were boomin’ in the oyster business, in the `70s and `80s. The last big order we had, years ago, was from New Jersey. Man ordered around $6,000 of shafts. It had been pretty good up until the last 20 years. Now it’s not been much.”
“Not been much” really means bone dry.
In the year, he has sold just two pairs.
And there are stacks of finished shafts. Messick estimates he has 300 pair ready to go, just in case business picks up again.
“I don’t sell so many because they last so long,” he said.
Treated right, kept out of the weather in the off-season, and not abused, they can last 20 years or more.
He knows from years of experience what makes for a good set of shaft tongs: the balance, the weight, the flexibility and the “feel.”
There is no written guarantee, but following the ethics of the old-time Eastern Shore way of doing business, Messick said he will repair or replace any tongs for breakage due to failure of the product, but not abuse — forever.
“I have enough experience with shaft tongs that I can tell what’s my fault making `em. I’m willin’ to replace anything bad. I like to send `em out there good. I don’t want any problems, replace anything bad.”
Another perk, if the tongs need a “tune-up,” Messick will tighten the plates, no charge.
“These shafts are tools and they have a purpose and they work the way they are made. Don’t need any modifyin’,” he said.
Just like his ancestors of 1859, Messick also dabbles in house construction, cabinets and woodworking projects.
“I’m partially disabled. Was workin’ the water for about 35 years, oysterin’ and crabbin’, and now have arthritis pretty bad. I have a heart condition, too. I’m good now for about four hours.”
Arthritis is also limiting his life on the water. He thinks he is the only Messick to have been a waterman and a user of the
oyster tongs crafted in the shop. He has two pairs of his used tongs stored upstairs, made by his late father.
Upstairs, shafts finished, and almost finished, are everywhere.
The floor is covered with wooden shafts. Piles of neatly stacked shafts are on the floor, against the wall, on counters and racks.
“Up until around 1950, we only made one kind of shaft. These are the `new-style’ straight ones,” he said, as he held up a
finished pair. “The old-style ones had a crook in them. We call `em `lap shafts.’ The new ones are the ones that have an eel pot-shaped head on `em. I learned through my dad how to hang the heads on `em. ”
Downstairs, there are stacks of seasoned wood, shavings and sawdust. The spicy smell of pine oil, released by the router, the saw blade and the planer, flows from centuries-old wood.
On the shop floor, all but hidden in mounds of sawdust and shavings are amber-colored nodules of hardened pine sap, resin that oozed from stacked lumber during the hottest days of summer. The dime-size curiosities are sometimes clear, Messick said, but more often coated with sawdust, making them fuzzy.
He held a blob of hardened, fragrant sap. “This was made maybe 250 years ago,” he said, rolling it slowly between his rough thumb and index finger. It was once the warm lifeblood of Southern pine that created strong wood now dipped into the cold waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
“My father wanted to buy some wood, but we couldn’t find any decent lumber. After he died, a guy down South called me and said tornadoes had knocked down a lot of Southern longleaf yellow heart pine trees on government land; all they can sell knocked down or dead standing trees. The man said what he was able to get was 200-300 years old, so I bought 7,000 board feet of it. It takes longleaf trees 150 years old and more to make tong shafts with. The younger stuff cracks when you work it.”
“Over the years people have tried using oak and ash, but the problem is when you use them, they are too brittle and snap. Heart pine will give under pressure, give a lot, but oak and ash won’t,” he said.
Woodworkers covet expensive antique heart pine for is strength and beauty. Yet its sheer strength and hardness command respect.
“You got to be real careful when you run them through the shaper because there are some bad splinters that fly out of that thing. I have them go in my hands, and Dad had them go in his arms and stuff. You got to wear a coat and a face mask,” he said.
He knows all about grain, twisting and warping.
“You can’t make shaft tongs with knotty stuff,” he said. “The hardest part is takin’ a board, lookin’ at it and seein’ what you can get out of it. Not every board makes the grade. I’d say out of 1,000 feet of lumber, you might be lucky to get 700 feet to make shaft tongs.
“I wanted inch-thick, 8-inch wide boards, 18 feet long, but wound up gettin’ 6-inch boards, 16-feet long,” Messick said.
When the tiniest of patches have to be made, he uses epoxy, fine sawdust and, of course, a coffee grinder. The Walmart coffee grinder can take coarse sawdust and makes it fine. The grinder may be the newest piece of equipment in the shop.
Like his father, uncle and grandfather, Messick relies on a monster of a router to ease the corners of the shafts.
The machine is a 75- or more year-old shaper that also can be converted to a planer and circular saw.
“It’s gettin’ old and the bearin’s are bad in it. I try to run it when it’s cold out. I can’t run it long `cause when it gets hot,
grease flies out of it. As he talked, Messick opened a couple of folding wooden chairs, heavy with wood dust, that were propped along one wall.
“Probably haven’t been used since a funeral in the `30s,” he said.
That’s because the shop was once the center of business for the Messick family funeral business. There’s even several bottles of embalming fluid tucked in the side wall woodwork that probably dates to the 1920s.
As raindrops, with the sound of small hail, fell on the rusting tin roof in a water symphony, Messick spoke of the right season to be in the shop, making shafts.
“It’s too cold to be in here in the winter, workin’. My father and uncle (the late Cornelius “Corney” Messick who died in 2005) worked here in the summers. It was so hot upstairs it took my breath. I like to do this in the spring or fall,” he said, as he pushed the side of his shoe through a pile of shavings.
It is a peculiar set up. Shaping and roughing out of the shafts takes place downstairs. Then the long poles are taken outside and propped against the weathered side of the building, near a second floor door. Once upstairs, Messick pulls them through, one at a time, lining the floor with the shafts awaiting fitting and joining.
It’s just as his father and uncle did the job, and before them, the same as his grandfather and great-grandfather. In those early days, the men moved wooden caskets the same way between floors for finishing.
And in days not so long ago, he said, the Messick undertakers embalmed at the rear of the first floor, where the skeleton of Messick’s wooden work boat is taking shape. The little room was also the home of his parents, for a year, when they married in 1956.
In the shop, Messick works as he listens to National Public Radio on Salisbury University’s WSCL station. Yes, he admitted, he likes classical music. When he speaks, his voice is measured and clear. His diction and tone are so fine one might think he is a professional radio announcer. He has a golden voice made for storytelling.
The old building needs a good voice. It could be uncomfortably lonely, such big rooms without conversation. Often it is quiet, very quiet, when even the softest whistle of wind blowing through the wooden siding commands attention. Yet, when Messick speaks, the shop becomes a sound studio, with its surprisingly “just right” acoustics.
There are other sounds that seem to be just right for the aging building. There is the slicing of shaved wood, of drills, hammers on metal, sandpaper eating wood, the clacking of shafts against wooded floors and racks as they are moved about.
Messick drives home copper rivets to secure four brass plates that joins a pair of shafts.
“They are really copper brake shoe rivets,” he said. My dad and uncle used to order cast brass plates by the thousands, in kegs,” he explained. “Now it’s cheaper to buy brass, inch-wide stuff, and make my own plates. There’s a lot more labor (involved), but I got plenty of time.”
There are a number of work stations in the shop, make-do stops where a pine board becomes a waterman’s work of art, his tool of the trade.
To move some longer shafts back and forth on his almost 40-foot workbench, he uses rollers that once transported caskets. There’s even two little trap door windows, at each side of the building, that can be opened to allow shafts to be slipped outside when there isn’t enough room to work on the bench.
Though he is the last in the family making shafts, each new pair is burned with the logo, “Messick Bros.,” being the late
Cornelius “Corney” and Wilbur Messick.
There are century-old bits and pieces of the past to be found in the shadows of the rafters and walls.
“I’m still findin’ stuff around here that belonged to them.
Makes me stop and think. These things have had my ancestors’ hands on `em. Did a lot of work with `em. I get kind of a ‘belongin’ feelin’ from it when I handle this stuff, like I belong in this business,” he said.
“Just before he died, dad taught me all he could. He wrote a lot down, left me a lot of notes. I’d like to teach my son, David, 27, how to make tongs,” he said. “Right now he works a lot, doesn’t have a lot of time. Maybe someday he will. Maybe my grandson, Brandon, 10, will learn. He’s a little young, but I’d like to start him early, get him used to it. Still has a lot of play in him right now.”
With 300 pair of shafts stacked and waiting to be sold, Messick is waiting for customers.
“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.”
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md. www.delmarvanow.com
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)