A vanishing breed

While Md. pickers have dwindled away, two sisters have been picking crabs for more than half a century

September 03, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

HOOPERS ISLAND — HOOPERS ISLAND-- --There's no real need for these two aging sisters to start work two hours before dawn. No reason for Nellie Flowers and Edythe Thomas to keep up their relentless pace, pulling fluffy white meat from bushel after bushel of crabs in the same processing plant where they've labored for more than half a century.

Then again, Nellie, 79, and Edythe, 77, say they've never been the kind to just sit still. Where would they go, if not to work? How would they fill their days from April to November, when the traditional cash crop is scooped from the waters that surround this marshy sliver of the Eastern Shore?

Retirement, says Nellie, can be downright lethal - or at least it has been for lots of friends who died practically before they could settle into the rocking chair.

"We just want to keep at it," Nellie says, barely pausing as she crams lumps of crab meat into 1-pound plastic containers. "Picking crabs is something we've always done. We enjoy doing it. I've always been one for working. It used to be we'd start at 2 a.m., but that was before air conditioning."

One thing's for sure: Neither plans to quit. The women are matter-of-fact about it - it'll take illness or death to make them stop.

Much has changed since the pair of farm girls from nearby Golden Hill, about 20 miles from Cambridge, started at W.T. Ruark and Co. - Nellie in 1948 and Edythe in 1954.

In those days, the sisters worked surrounded by neighbors and friends, folks they'd grown up near. Back then, Hoopers and other little waterfront towns all had several crab factories - more than 50 in all across the Shore.

Nowadays, fewer than 20 Maryland crab processors still ship crab meat around the country.

Few local pickers

Unable to find local residents willing to do work that was featured last year on a segment of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, processors have come to depend on Latin American workers.

There are about 450 pickers working in the state, according to Jack Brooks, an industry leader whose family owns a large plant in Cambridge. At least 90 percent, he says, are Mexicans allowed into the country through a temporary visa program that has come close to expiring in each of the past three years.

Even on Smith Island, where the wives of watermen formed their own crab-picking cooperative, the number of native crab pickers is dwindling.

"There aren't any more local folks like these ladies," says Brooks, who'll be in Washington this week, lobbying to extend the visa program. "As the years have gone by, there are so many more opportunities and better education. And most locals just plain aren't interested in seasonal work."

Nellie and Edythe work their way through tall mounds of the steamed crustaceans, armed only with small, dull knives to pry out the meat, their thumbs wrapped tightly to ward off painful crab shell cuts.

The sisters could almost pass for twins. They're barely 5 feet tall, with identical auburn hairdos from a Cambridge beauty parlor where Nellie drives every week. Each is particular about safety-pinning her throw-away apron to the pastel T-shirts they favor for work.

"There was a time when we had two crab factories on this island. We'd have 65 workers in each, all Americans," says William "Billy" Ruark, 76. His current work force consists of 29 Latino men and women, Edythe and Nellie.

"It used to be there were plenty of crabs and all the workers were friends and neighbors," he says. "Now, I have to buy a lot of crabs from other places to be sure I can keep up with my customers."

Back in the day, pickers jabbered and gossiped their way through their shifts, occasionally singing a few verses of favorites from the Methodist hymnal.

In recent years, often the only sound is the clicketyclack of knives deftly pulling lump meat, with shells flipped across the handmade stainless steel tables that have been at Ruark's plant for decades. Music, if there is any, comes from a Spanish-language radio station.

The sisters say they tried to overcome the language divide, but without much success.

"We took Spanish classes a couple of times down at the firehouse," Edythe says. "It just didn't seem to help us. We didn't seem to learn much."

Life on the Shore

Their lives have been virtual mirror images - each has two children and two grandchildren. They were married six months apart, Nellie to waterman Marcus Flowers, who died 18 years ago, and Edythe to Carlton "Buck" Thomas, now 78, who spent parts of his working life with the state's Natural Resources Police and in the Air Force. After retiring from both, he worked for nearly 16 years as a crab potter.

When Marcus and Nellie married on Christmas Day 1948, they couldn't afford a honeymoon. The next August, when Edythe and Buck married, the two couples took a trip to Philadelphia to catch a Phillies-Dodgers baseball game.

Buck can't remember the score. He reckons he was too distracted by his new bride.

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