“Jus’ kicking lightly, m’am, kicking lightly.”
Captain Arthur Jones is among the best of gentleman and a fixture of the Kent Narrows, Maryland landscape. While the seafood industry has produced many interesting stories, there is none more so than that of eighty-eight year old Jones, who began working at the Narrows at the tender age of twelve. In the summer of 1930, young Arthur joined his brother and cousins to walk the 70+ miles from Accomac, Virginia to Hurlock, Maryland. Following the railroad tracks and walking day and night, they reached friends in Hurlock early on a Monday morning, secure that these friends would help them reach Kent Island where Arthur’s mother worked a seasonal job, shucking oysters for Mr. Polk Thomas at Little Creek.
It was a joyous reunion, I expect, but a relatively short one given the hard poverty of a shucker’s life. Young Arthur would need to find work too, and eventually was hired to steam crabs for the picking & packing operation of Mr. Benny Austin at Kent Narrows. “He had a old round steamer with a great big lid” recalls Captain Arthur “and I was too small to reach it and he had to get someone to help me.” But Arthur persevered, staying on even after his mother returned to Accomac. Jobs were hard to find.
He remembers when Kent Narrows was a marsh latticed with boards that served as walkways, when crabbers got $5 in gas as part of the pay for their catch, and when he and other boys spent their summers shoveling oyster shells into boats for planting in Eastern Bay and the Chester River. He worked for Benny Austin for a number of years, becoming foreman and staying at the Narrows until the early 1940’s when he entered the U.S. Army. “Back then we worked from cain’t to cain’t” remembers Jones — “it is so dark that you cain’t see when you go to work in the morning and so dark that you cain’t see when you go home at night!”
Jones returned from his World War II army service in France, to find that Benny Austin had gone out of business. He worked for a time in the wood business with his brother George and then went oystering with his brother Tom, until taking a job as foreman at the oyster house of Harvey Ruth. In the early 1950’s, Ruth was approached by George Pappas of Ipswich Shellfish in Ipswich, Massachusetts with a proposal regarding the harvesting and shucking of local maninose or softshell clams. While the clam had been considered a delicacy in Massachusetts for years, locally the clam was virtually ignored.
“Nobody knows about shucking clams down here” said Ruth. “’People go out and get an old spade and dig them for bait.” But Pappas, with an expanding market in Massachusetts, argued for the profits to be made from clamming, though the method of shucking and processing clams locally was still to be resolved. “Arthur cleans up the oyster house” said Ruth. “He’s the foreman. If he wants to do it, it is up to him, because I will be out on the boat”.
“Somebody came in with some clams—some maninose” remembers Jones. “It was only Popeye, Miss Della, Miss Violet and my wife – five of us. We were all day long getting a half- gallon shucked. But we got better at it, and along about Thursday we did a five gallon bucket. It was just us; oyster shuckers would not shuck clams – they thought clams would put oysters out of style”.
“Someone said ‘Arthur Jones and them is shucking clams down there’. And then Miss Mary Queen joined us and she said ‘my sister will come down and shuck’. Ok, I said, I’ll go up and get her.” And then someone else said, ‘my cousins will come down and shuck’. O.k., I’ll go up and get ’em. Mostly it was friends, people from Grasonville; they could make 5-6-7-8-9-10 dollars a day. That was good money.”
People came from Kent Island, from Grasonville down to Skipton, from way back on the farms. “I had an old school bus and would go to pick them up” said Jones. “Children as young as 8. I had open house. I took ‘um 8 to 88. That’s what I opened that shucking house with – if you wanted to work you could. We got to shucking 50-60-70 gallons and that was headlines!! Mr. Pappas — he sent a truck here to transport those clams clear to Massachusetts and that was the talk of the town!! We got to 75-80 gallons and then to 100-150 gallons a day, then 400-500 gallons a day!
In 1958, in the midst of a major snow storm, Jones got up at 3 A.M. to make his run. “We had to get back clear to Carmichael, and the farmers dug a tunnel – took their tractors and dug a tunnel so I could turn that bus around, so I could get those shuckers. We didn’t miss a day. I’d walk in old hip boots and knock on the door and say ‘I’m up the road, I’ll wait fer you’.”
“When we got to 200-250 gallons a day, Mr. Pappas, he got a foreman to come down here. He was the only one they sent. They had the money, but I had to get everything together. Most I had was 101 shuckers; most clams we did was 565-1/2 gallons in one day.”
Eventually, Pappas bought property and on February 11, 1962 opened his own processing plant at Kent Narrows. United Shellfish became the third in what would grow to be five seafood processing and distribution plants owned and operated by Pappas.
“Arthur’s relationship was mainly with my brother Angelo who managed the operation. They thought a lot of each other” remembers Pappas. “When Angelo died, Arthur asked me what was going to happen now. I told him he was going to have the same relationship with me that he had with Angelo. Arthur is a tremendous worker, conscientious and honest. I learned a long time ago that in business you can only do so much for yourself; you have to surround yourself with good people — and Arthur is the kind of person you want to have on your team.”
Jones officially retired in 1972. But you can’t take the Narrows out of the man — so he continues to report to United Shellfish each day to perform a variety of jobs necessary to running the present day business.
“How you doing, Captain Arthur?”
I’m kicking lightly, m’am. Kicking lightly.”
Janet W. Freedman, 2001