Waterman dredges up history and treasures on the half-shell

December 12, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHESTER -- The living room shelves and garage are stuffed with stone spearheads, ax heads and flint knives. Rows of bottles, big and small, jugs and bits of broken pottery are crammed in every corner.

The Eastern Shore home of William "Billy" Baxter provides ample proof that one man's trash is another's treasure. Every bit of his 5,000-piece collection came from the muddy bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Some of these things are one-of-a-kind," boasted Mr. Baxter, a 54-year-old Kent Island native whose waterfront home overlooks Crab Alley Bay. "That makes them irreplaceable to me."

Like generations of his ancestors, Mr. Baxter is a waterman. Thick, calloused hands and ruddy, weathered features attest to the long days he has spent harvesting Chesapeake Bay seafood.

He baited eel pots before he could read and caught soft crabs as a 5-year-old, wading barefoot in the thick eel grass. Mr. Baxter's 45-foot-long boat, Sherrie P., is the eighth in a string of diesel-powered workboats he has owned.

But you could also call Mr. Baxter an accidental archaeologist. For the past 30 years, his harvests of soft-shell clams dredged from the Chesapeake floor have produced a secondary catch: the opportunity to sift through history on the half-shell.

Among watermen, Maryland's clammers are a unique breed. They are the only ones who use a hydraulic dredge, an elaborate device that shoots high-pressure jets of water into the bay bottom, boiling up clams or anything else buried in the silt.

The catch lands on the 18-inch wide, 40-foot-long wire-mesh conveyor belt and is carried up into the workboat. There, the clams are generally culled from the rocks, shells and other debris, which fall back over the boat's stern and into the water.

Mr. Baxter, who claims a lifelong affection for Maryland history and can trace his family's roots for more than three centuries, soon noticed some oddities mixed in with the clams: Indian artifacts, old crockery, medicine bottles.

He began collecting them and, in the process, learning more about history. A rounded wine bottle turned out to be Spanish and dated to 1780. A heart-shaped stone he discovered was a pendant once worn by the chief of some Chesapeake tribe.

"I have never yet dug up any treasure," Mr. Baxter said. "I've waited a long time for Blackbeard's treasure, but it never comes."

Instead, he has hauled up 1,500 bottles, ranging from the familiar blue Bromo-Seltzer to empty liquor flasks. He once found a skull, and experts at the Smithsonian Institution determined it to belong to a 34-year-old Indian woman who died and was buried centuries ago.

He exhibits a sampling of his discoveries each year at Kent Island Days, the island's annual heritage festival. He is justifiably proud of the objects he has recovered although, as his wife points out, he doesn't have to clean them every day.

"I'm the one who dusts everything," Patricia Baxter reminds her husband. "And they do attract dust."

Mr. Baxter is not the only clammer with a collection of artifacts, but fellow watermen say his is one of the largest and most varied. He has developed an appreciation for Indian tools and can spot objects that appear as ordinary rocks to the untrained eye.

Home to some of the best clamming in the bay, Kent Island's waters also are rich in history. Until clammers began dredging in the 1950s, the bay's bottom was virgin territory. Objects discarded centuries ago were sealed safely in the mud.

J. Rodney Little, Maryland's historic preservation officer, said watermen like Mr. Baxter are a great help in underwater archaeology. The relics they find "provide important clues" to historians, he said.

Perhaps the best example was a piece of pottery discovered several years ago by a waterman, Mr. Little said. Dated 1593, the pottery is the oldest ever found in North America and possibly traceable to William Claiborne, who established Maryland's first permanent settlement on the shores of Kent Island in 1631.

"The watermen have been a tremendous resource for what we're vTC doing," he said. "Early settlements were near the water's edge and a lot of that is now underwater."

Times have been hard for clammers lately. After bountiful years in 1989 and 1990, soft-shell clams have all but disappeared from the bay.

Of the 340 watermen who clam, fewer than a dozen are probably still at it, said William "Pete" Jensen, fisheries director for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Such cyclical die-offs are normal for soft-shells since the Maryland portion of the bay is the species' most southern habitat. Watermen are confident that the resource will spring back; clams grow quickly and spawn twice yearly.

Since October, Mr. Baxter has been diving for oysters. But he would be happy to return to dredging the familiar waters around Kent Point, Matapeake or Conquest Beach in search of soft-shell clams and adding to his collection.

"It's my intention some day to turn this over when Kent Island has its own museum," Mr. Baxter said. "You never know what's going to come up next when you're out there dredging. The bottom's shifting and changing all the time. . . . You never know."

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