For Captain Roy, The Oyster's His World

Deale's Champion Shucker Hones Skills Over 66 Seasons

July 23, 1991

In Deale, they line up for Captain Roy's oysters. The best around, the locals say.

"I've shucked many a one of these in my life," saysCapt. Roy Ward. "Ain't but one way to open it, and that's the right way."

He can't get more specific, or maybe he doesn't want to reveal the secret he's honed over 66 seasons of oyster shucking.

He sits ona stool in a corner of the Happy Harbour Inn, a diminutive, wrinkledfigure in a flannel shirt, olive pants and a Washington Redskins hat. At 82, he's bent under years of hard living, nearly dwarfed by the cigarette machine behind him.

In the palm of one rubber-gloved hand, he holds a gnarly bivalve locked tight in its shell. His right hand slips a long knife into an opening, takes a few good jabs at it, then wiggles the blade, twisting this way and that, till the shell popsopen to reveal a delicacy, one of nature's wonders.

He lifts the shell, slicing across top and bottom, inspects it closely and sets italongside five equally succulent companions. The full plate disappears into the hands of a grateful tavern patron, who slips a dollar bill into Captain Roy's tip glass and says, reverently, "Thank you, sir."

The glass is stuffed. Captain Roy pays that no mind. He's got a packed house today, a full bushel basket beside him and many more oysters to go.

"I'm not as fast as I used to be," he shouts over the jukebox music.

Captain Roy may have slowed down some, but his mindmoves as quickly as ever, propelling him back in time with amazing clarity. Rarely do his thoughts stray far from his birthplace -- this small, unincorporated town set between two creeks on the Chesapeake Bay.

"If you want to know anything about Deale, ask him," remarks one beer drinker. "If he doesn't know it, nobody does."

Before his hometown grew into a summer retreat and Washington commuter haven, before hundreds of pleasure boats crowded Rockhold Creek, Deale thrivedas a village of dirt roads and a couple dozen homes of watermen.

Captain Roy was born Roy Ward to Luther and Isabel Ward in 1909. During his childhood, the creek was no more than a shallow channel. Catfish, trout and rockfish still swam there, and on hot summer days, so did Roy and his brothers. He recalls lengthy outings to Baltimore in his family's Model T Ford.

"They didn't have all these roads they have today, you see," he says.

His formal education ended in a two-room schoolhouse in the eighth grade. But training for his life's work, crabbing and oystering, began as he watched the older boys and hisfather work the bay. They sailed log canoes and hand-tonged for oysters.

"It's all hard work from the go on an oyster boat," says Captain Roy. "I went by myself out for six or seven hours. On a good day,we'd get 50 bushels a day, or 60 bushels. I sold oysters as low as 40 cents a bushel."

Unlike today, an abundance of oyster bars thrived all over the bay. Captain Roy tonged for his crop at Sandy Point and Holland Point.

"Sometimes we caught so many we couldn't sell them," he says. "During the Great Depression, we couldn't sell no oysters. Nobody had any money. Whiskey was illegal, but there were bootleggers. We'd trade a bushel of oysters for a half-gallon of whiskey. Wecouldn't get nothing for oysters. Still, we got by."

At 18, Captain Roy got a license to run charter boats for fishing parties to the Eastern Shore and Sharps Island. The May-through-August tours became popular with government workers from Washington. Roy Ward captained boats for 30 years.

He crabbed in the summers, too, selling his catch for 25 cents a dozen.

The year he took a charter license, 1927,Captain Roy's father bought eight acres beside the creek, for $5,500. He built a house. By 1932, he'd built Deale's first tavern, also onthe creek, and called it the Herring Bay Inn.

While their father worked a government job, Roy and brothers Gilbert, Louis and James ran the tavern, steaming crabs in summertime, shucking oysters in wintertime, serving up sandwiches and soft drinks year-round.

The Herring Bay became the village gathering spot. In the space of a few years, Roy, Gilbert and Louis built homes side by side, across from the tavern and down the road from their parents. Captain Roy lives there today, surrounded by photographs of one son and two daughters from two marriages, 10 grandchildren and "four or five great-grandchildren."

Gilbert Ward has since sold his house and moved to Shady Side; the other brothers have died. A sister lives in Florida.

Five years ago, longtime Deale resident Barbara Sturgill bought the tavern. It hadbeen renamed the Happy Harbour Inn and expanded to include a restaurant. While the tavern remains a central gathering spot and still books charter boats, Deale has grown. There are more restaurants along the creek, insurance agencies, auto body shops, beauty parlors and pizza shops.

But some things never change.

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