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Chesapeake Bay buyboat: Dudley

Chesapeake Bay buyboat: Dudley

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by Larry Chowning

Chesapeake Bay buyboats were the largest wooden deadrise boats built and many were handcrafted without the use of electric tools on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

Years back, seafood buyboats owned by fish, crab and oyster packing houses were sent to fishing grounds to purchase seafood from watermen working in that area and then hauled the payload back for processing—thus the name buyboat.

Several of the boats coming to the annual Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association Reunion Cruise rendezvous being held in Urbanna, Deltaville, Hampton and Poquoson in August were built right here in Rivah country.

Last year, one of the area’s well known and most beloved vessels, Dudley, left the Northern Neck for Maryland waters to be used as an educational boat. The 80-year old Dudley was built at Foxwells in Lancaster County in 1938 and was owned by the Biddlecomb family of Northumberland County for 79 of those 80 years.


The builder

Gilbert White built the Dudley on a narrow peninsula between Antiposion Creek and Little Bay in Lancaster County. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Foxwell area was extremely remote by land but was fairly well accessible by water as boats went by there going and coming up and down the Bay.

White was born in Mathews County in 1869 and he had moved to Lancaster around 1900. He and his family lived in a two-story house just yards from the water’s edge.

He built unique “elliptical” (spoon shaped) chunk sterns, cross-planked bottom deadrise boats in his backyard under a giant oak tree with no electricity and no modern tools.

Those who knew him say he never owned a foot adz, but built mostly with a hatchet and a “wood pile” axe. He also built the 61-foot Mundy Point in 1929 and the 50-foot Elva C. in 1922. These buyboats are still living and are moored in the Reedville area, not far from where they were built. The Elva C. is owned and maintained by the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.

Family builder

Chesapeake Bay buyboat: Dudley
The Dudley was on the rails at Reedville Marine Railway in December of 2012 for her yearly maintenance visit. The late Captain Fred Biddlecomb, son of Walter Biddlecomb who had the vessel built in 1938, kept the Dudley in shipshape during his time of ownership.

Brothers Walter, Alfred and Ralph Biddlecomb had White build them several boats. White built the Dudley and Fred, a smaller deadrise, for Walter.  He built the Mary Trew for Alfred. Ralph owned a White boat named Mabel. The Dudley was named for Walter’s oldest son and the Fred for his other son. The late Fred Biddlecomb was the last of the family to own the Dudley and he used it in the pound net fishery and in the charter fishing business.

On February 23, 2003, a Biddlecomb family interview was conducted at Maria Biddlecomb Rogers’ home in Reedville. Four of Walter’s five children—Fred, Maria, Winifred and Dudley—talked about the boats and the man who built them.

“I knew Gilbert White,” said Dudley. “I was just a little boy when the Dudley was built but I remember him building the Fred.

“Mr. White had a small railway and he built under a big oak tree,” said Dudley. “He started all his boats, even the big ones, bottom up and that’s why he got such a good fit on the bottom planking.

“The Lawson (now the Mundy Point) was bigger than the Dudley and Daddy wanted Mr. White to model the Dudley after the Mundy Point,” said Dudley. “I don’t know that he built one any bigger than the Lawson.” (The Lawson built in 1929 is 67-feet long.)

“I made several trips down there when the Fred was being built,” said Dudley. “Mr. White was getting some age on him then. The way he put sheer on a boat was with a string, and he would put tension on the string until he got it about right, then he would back off and sight something at a distance on that string and make marks on the ribs that were sticking up. That’s the way he got the sheer.

“The Fred always had a little more sheer on one side than the other,” said Dudley. “I don’t know whether the string dried out while he was working or whether he went in the house to eat his lunch and there was a shower of rain and maybe it shrunk up or stretched.

“My Daddy knew Mr. White well and he told Daddy that he started out building log canoes,” said Dudley. “Mr. White had a dry type of humor and was sort of a comedian. He said his first experiment with boatbuilding was a log boat and she was so lopsided you only had to paddle her on one side.

“Captain John Robins said he remembered the first plank boat that Mr. White built,” continued Dudley. “It must have been around 1900 and he was building right there along the road. He started building this boat and everyone that came by gave him advice on how to build it. When the boat was about halfway finished, he stopped and went on the other side of the road and started building another boat. When people stopped by to give advice, he said, ‘No, wrong boat, that’s everybody’s boat over there; this is my boat.’

“His oldest son told me he was from Mathews County and he probably learned to build boats from someone over there,” said Dudley. Mathews County has been a center of boatbuilding since Colonial days and Mathews builders were very active in building fishing boats when Gilbert White was a young man.

“I think Mr. White started the Dudley in late summer of 1937 and finished it the next spring in 1938. Daddy got the boat that spring,” said Maria.

“I think you are right,” said Dudley. “When he got her from Mr. White, Daddy already had herring traps out that spring and they had work to do on the Dudley before he could use her. She had to be painted, rigged and her engine installed. Daddy pulled the engine out of another boat to go in her and they had her ready to draw stakes out of the bottom at the end of that fish season. He had a stake drawing rig especially made for the Dudley.

“Mr. White was an old-time builder, I’ll tell you that. He would go out into the woods and find a tree just right for a knee and cut it right there,” said Dudley. “Daddy said he never saw a foot adz on the place and that most chopping was done with a hatchet or a wood pile axe. It was very sharp and keen, but it was just a common axe.

Chesapeake Bay buyboat: Dudley“On all the boats, my father and uncle supplied the lumber and they paid Mr. White for his labor,” said Dudley. “At the start of the job, Mr. White figured the labor for the job for the Dudley to cost $550, but the deck beams on the Dudley were sawed out at Humphrey’s Railway in Weems. So, when Daddy went to pay the balance, Mr. White turned around and said, ‘You gave me too much’ and gave him $20 back.

“Daddy, asked him. ‘What is this for?’

“Mr. White said he figured the cost of cutting the deck beams in the original cost and it would have taken right much labor to cut those beams by hand.

“Instead, he cut a pattern and took the beams to Humphrey’s and had them cut it out on a band saw,” said Dudley. “Daddy tried to give him the $20 back but he wouldn’t take it. So Daddy went to the house, went inside and put the $20 on the table and told Mrs. White this was for her.

“Daddy worked pound nets in spring and summer in the Dudley, dredged oysters in winter with the Fred or the Mary Trew, and he hauled bricks in the Dudley too,” said Dudley. “I remember going to a brick kiln and watch bricks being loaded onto the Dudley. We hauled bricks in the hold and he shored the decks up with trap stakes and hauled some bricks on deck. He hauled brick to St. Mary’s City, Maryland, on the Potomac River.

“We’ve never known a time in our lives when we didn’t know Gilbert White,” said Maria. “He built our boats. He built them well and you don’t ever forget that.”

When the Dudley left Cockrell’s Creek last year bound for Maryland, it marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new era in the long life of the buyboat Dudley.


Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association announces plans for its 2018 Reunion Cruise

On the weekend of August 3-5 in Urbanna, approximately 10 to 15 of the large traditional freight and seafood industry buyboats will travel the southern Chesapeake Bay as part of the Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association Reunion Cruise. The boats also will visit Deltaville on August 6-7, Hampton on August 8-9, and end their tour at Whitehouse Cove Marina in Poquoson the weekend of August 10-12. They will be open to the public in Urbanna, Hampton, and Poquoson.

Chesapeake Bay buyboat: Dudley
The late Fred Biddlecomb at the wheel of the Dudley in 2008 was the last Biddlecomb to own and captain the vessel. The family owned the boat for nearly 80 years. (Courtesy of David Wright)

From the early 1900s through the 1980s, buyboats traveled the length and breadth of the Chesapeake Bay. At one time numbering several thousand vessels, there are now about 30 still active in the Bay area. Their tasks included the buying, transport, and selling of oysters from oyster tonging skiffs to shucking houses (hence the name “buyboat”).

The large-decked boats with a large boom for lifting cargo also carried lumber from sawmills, tomatoes to packing plants, pigs to Smithfield, and watermelons from as far as Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where the sweetest varieties were grown, to Baltimore for shipment further north. Soft crabs were shipped quickly from southern ports.

As highways, trucks, and fast engines took away the buyboats’ freighting duties, the vessels became active as crab and oyster dredgers, and a number of the boats were active commercially into the 1990s. The Delvin K. of Tangier and the Poppa Francis of Piney Point, Maryland, have continuously worked to the present.

The mission of the Chesapeake Bay Buyboat Association is to bring an understanding of these historic vessels to ports where they were once numerous but often now forgotten. The wooden workboats, which average 60 feet in length, are still voyaging to the far reaches of the Bay as privately-owned vessels and museum educational boats.

Visiting communities where generations of watermen once plied the tributaries of the Chesapeake, the owners, at their own expense, open their buyboats to visitors so that future generations can celebrate their long heritage and continued existence.

Today, the boats often welcome those watermen who once greeted the dawn of a cold day on a Chesapeake workboat, heading out to shovel oysters or dredge crabs. Nowadays, the work aboard a Chesapeake Bay buyboat is far less demanding of her crew, but the upkeep is no less onerous.

Buyboats registered to attend the Urbanna “homecoming” include: F.D. Crockett, Deltaville Maritime Museum; Peggy, Mathews Maritime Foundation; Elva C., Reedville Fishermen’s Museum; Muriel Eileen, Georgetown, Maryland; Nellie Crockett, Georgetown, Maryland; P.E. Pruitt, Rock Hall, Maryland, East Hampton, Chester River, Maryland; Thomas J., Rowles Wharf, Maryland; Samuel Bailey, Bushwood, Maryland; Propwash, Dumfries, Virginia; Linda Carol, Bavon, Virginia; Veteran, Urbanna, Virginia; 55th Virginia, Urbanna; and Joy, Wanchese, N.C.

More information is available at www.oysterbuyboats.com.