Bean soup, Miss Mary and memories on Susquehanna

Bill Burton HC

October 01, 1991|By Bill Burton

DARLINGTON -- Maybe you can't go home again, but this writer did the next best thing Saturday. And it was like old home day.

The winding road took me past Broad Creek, then the long lane came to a farmhouse built in 1749, now fully modernized and overlooking cornfields and meadows where deer, squirrels and other wildlife romp.

There, presiding over a pack of river rats, family and friends was a grand old lady known to Susquehanna River regulars as Miss Mary. Her full name is Mary McCann, and for 17 years until 1970 she kept busy cooking for the fishers of the Susky.

Some had tremendous appetites, two ex-Colt guests of mine as an example. Steve Stonebreaker ordered six eggs and all the extras for breakfast, and left her daughter Butch a $5 tip -- her biggest ever. Billy Ray Smith ordered a dozen eggs before we headed out for shad, and asked for home fries, ham, biscuits, and sliced fresh tomatoes.

He got them; all anglers got what they wanted. Miss Mary loved her fishermen, she opened early for them and stayed late. And if ever one needed incentive to call it quits on a chilly evening, there was Miss Mary's legendary country bean soup. It came steaming hot in big bowls from a pot big enough to feed an army.

After the soup, her husband George could always find a bottle of his famed homemade peach brandy to take the rest of the chill out of one's bones. Once the hired man back on the farm fed the pigs the pulp from the brandy makings -- and they were immobile for three days, and had a hangover for four more.

Saturday's occasion was a belated 80th birthday celebration for Miss Mary. The big day was Aug. 7, but she was in a Washington hospital undergoing heart procedures. Now she's home, sometimes in a wheelchair, other times walking about, and always alert and full of ginger.

Paying tribute was guide Earl Ashenfelter, now approaching 75 and a river rat for 59 years. There was Roy Chronister and Robert Neff, the Roy-Neffie team with the story of catching a white shad last March 1. No one remembered them coming that early.

Pity the poor folk who never enjoyed a Susquehanna shad run, whether it was whites or hickories. You could leave Baltimore in midafternoon, and be catching shad a bit over an hour later.

McCann's Rock Run Landing was on the Harford County side of the river; the best fishing was off the Cecil shore, but the fun was at the landing. Pete Bauer kept his boat there, too. He liked the camaraderie, and he also enjoyed renewing it at the farm.

In the late '50s, the late Kenneth Dulaney Thomes stopped by the landing with some flashy shad darts, which he suggested Ashenfelter and I try. These weren't the standard red, white and yellow combination; instead a gaudy and luminous red, and shad loved them.

Eventually, they became the best shad catchers anywhere, but then they needed a catchy name to advertise their flash. Ashenfelter and I suggested Liz Taylor, but thought it would be more tasteful to spell the Taylor part Tailer. Thomas agreed, and never did a complaint come from the real Liz.

There was the day Bob Pond, while testing his new Atom Popper, got an 18-pound rockfish, and from then on it became the best known topwater artificial lure for rock on the Susky -- and eventually along the Atlantic Coast.

There were stories of the late George Fetterman and his $H Susquehanna herring pickling when the smaller cousins of shad filled the river, Mr. Peterson who fished daily, but no one ever knew his first name; the curmudgeon guide named Carter who when finally confined to the veterans hospital downriver walked out into his beloved water and drowned.

Who can forget Doc (Dr. George) Sherwin's stone house next to the landing where a 25-cent limit poker game ran continuously when fishing was slack? And his two cohorts, brother Ed and friend Damon, whose last name no one could spell.

Doc lost his stone house, and the McCanns' the landing when the state developed the property for Susquehanna State Park. Another river rat Joe Wolney took Gov. Ted McKeldin rockfishing there, the guv loved it, and the idea for a park was born.

That was the beginning of the end of an era, but imagine what that stretch of river would be like today had not it been saved from developers. And for some years to come, the good old days will be relived by river rats like this one who must admit to three bowls of Miss Mary's bean soup on the big day.

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