Modest crab house in Aberdeen gets ready to crack open its 58th season

April 10, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

The frail 68-year-old woman takes a puff on her cigarette, coughs painfully and tries again.

She's not well, she says. It's been a difficult year for Irene Gabler.

Her husband, Bud, died last May, and the exhausting world of the family's crab house in Aberdeen has taken its toll.

"It's been a bumpy road," says Ms. Gabler, a former West Virginian who arrived in the Harford County town 46 years ago, wondering, "What am I going to do out here?"

The young nurse had come to the secluded spot on the Bush River because, "I married the man."

The man, Walter "Bud" Gabler, was "the backbone here," says his daughter, Jean Harkins, who helps her mother run Gabler's Shore Restaurant on Perryman Road.

"Last year, it was hell," she says, recalling the busy season at the restaurant without her father. "I remember my dad sitting on No. 10 [table] reminiscing with customers and telling crab stories."

They were stories about how his parents, George and Edna, who are now deceased, started the restaurant in 1936 and even opened it at 4 in the morning to cook breakfast for fishermen over a stick fire.

Not much has changed since then at Gabler's, which launches its 58th season Wednesday. The crabs still will be seasoned with Edna Gabler's special blend of Old Bay and other spices, and the beer and sodas will be frosty cold.

Decades ago, Bud Gabler expanded the white building, which stands at the end of a winding gravel and dirt path, to seat 121 people. But for the most part, it's still an unadorned room with simple wooden tables and straight-back chairs -- with the exception of a deer head (George Gabler's trophy) on the wall and shells from the nearby river.

"People often call asking for a window seat, so they can see the water," Mrs. Harkins says. "And I look around and think, 'Where can't you see the water?' "

She's right. On a recent chilly day, the building's many windows are closed. But when the season heats up, they are hooked upward on the ceiling, while fans whir lazily to catch the river's breezes.

The waterfront location has been a draw, Mrs. Harkins says. But so has the owners' resistance to modern facilities. "People don't want change," says Charles Harkins, who works with his wife at the crab house.

L "It's authentic, rustic and comfortable," Mrs. Harkins says.

Even the utilitarian outdoor bathrooms don't discourage people, they say, although they do laugh about the rainy night a woman asked to borrow Irene Gabler's shoes so her sandals wouldn't get wet on the short walk.

"We get the nicest people in those old, beat-up doors," says Mrs. Gabler, gesturing toward the entrance.

The warm feeling is reciprocal.

"I love Mrs. Gabler," says Clyde Nissley, who drives two hours from Hershey, Pa., to visit the restaurant several times each season.

"He's been showing up every opening day since before I was born," says the 42-year-old Mrs. Harkins.

Because of an allergy, Mr. Nissley can't eat the crabs but is content to watch his wife, Dot, and now his children and grandchildren attack the spicy crustaceans.

But he doesn't go hungry. The restaurant has other offerings, from fried chicken to steamed shrimp.

This year, Mr. Nissley may have to break the April tradition because of his wife's illness. She was hospitalized with a heart attack last week but is doing well, Mr. Nissley says.

"I told the doctor to get her out of there by Wednesday, so we can go to Gabler's," he says.

Most of the nine restaurant workers have been there a long time. John Oals started working in the crab room, where the crabs are steamed, when he was 13. He left for a stint in the military but returned.

Twenty years later, he's in charge of cooking the more than 3,000 Chesapeake Bay jimmies the restaurant serves on a busy weekend.

Irene Gabler's niece, Libby Guy, and stepdaughter, Natalie Kelbaugh, also keep showing up year after year. Mrs. Kelbaugh, who lives in Delaware, comes back to Aberdeen every weekend to work as a waitress.

Mrs. Harkins has also worked in the family business since she was a teen-ager. She didn't expect to stay. "I couldn't wait to get away," she says with a laugh.

Now she is the next generation that will soon be taking over Gabler's, according to her mother.

"I'm getting tired," acknowledges Irene Gabler, lighting up another cigarette as she gazes out the restaurant window on a foggy morning. "This may be my last year here."

Somehow one is doubtful that this seasoned owner could easily say goodbye, as she talks about her memories at the restaurant and gets ready for a new season.

"I think I've got some caring back this year," Mrs. Gabler says. "I was in zombieland [last summer]."

And as the quiet restaurant starts to come alive with delivery people she hasn't seen during the winter, Mrs. Gabler's resilience and feistiness starts to surface.

"My head is cleared up now," she says with a smile, as she gets up from a table to go into the kitchen to see what everyone is doing. "I'm ready to crack the whip."

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