TILGHMAN — It’s a story of being in the right place at the right time. But mostly, it’s a success story by dint of a long life of hard work.
It shows on Capt. Willy Roe’s face. He’s earned his wrinkles and thinning hair. But there’s a cragginess, a waterman’s weathered visage that tells its own story of too much sun, frigid gales and choppy seas on the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and creeks.
An official old-timer at 85, Roe still is working. Instead of bringing in his own nets and bushels full of the Bay’s bounty, he gets a kick out of ferrying amateur fishermen on his 42-foot workboat, the Big Will II, to haul in their own catches. Page after page of the photo albums he keeps onboard show smiling customers proudly showing off their rockfish.
He doesn’t have to work. He could sit back and enjoy the fruits of his and his wife Jane’s labor. After all, he’s been working his whole life. “I was raised to work, and I love to work,” Roe says. “Best people I ever met was from working.”
Born July 12, 1934, on Tilghman Island, Roe tells story after story of growing up on Tilghman Island, working and playing hard during the Great Depression and World War II. He spins his tales with a Chesapeake waterman’s cadence — contracting words, adding syllables and omitting prepositions — all accomplished naturally to give sentences and stories their lyrical sound.
“I was raised different than they raise kids nowadays,” Roe says. “I lived six years on Tilghman’s Island — we were awful poor. Everybody down here was poor then. It was right after the Depression. I lived six years with no electricity and no water in the house.”
“I told my daughter that. She said, ‘You never had a shower?’ I said, ‘No, we washed in a basin in the winter, and the summertime, we washed in a washtub or went down the shore.’”
“You’d go down the shore, take a washcloth and go swimmin’ — big sand beach here then — and you see a woman goin’ down there with all these kids with her, and she’d take ‘em swimming, and then you’d hear ‘em hollering: She was scrubbing ‘em. She’d give ‘em a bath. That’s the way it was then,” Roe says. “All down Phillips Road where I lived – never had bulkheads then. All down this bay shore was sand beach.”
Roe was raised with his younger sister, who left the island to go college, later working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Roe stayed, and he remembers fondly his parents and work ethic. He speaks plainly, without apology.
“My mother was real religious; my father wasn’t,” Roe remembers. “He didn’t drink. He told me he never tasted whiskey, and he’d rather drink horse piss than drink beer. That’s what he told me. I’m gonna tell ya, you can print whatever you want, but I’m gonna tell you how it was.”
“He gambled — he was a good poker player. He was also a good fisherman, but this was right after the Depression when I came along, and ever’body was broke,” Roe says. “The bank actually went broke.”
“My mother had two chicken houses.” Roe says. “She had one — what we called a hen house. She had 400 hens, and she sold eggs, and the other was a brooder house. Then — if you wanted fried chicken, frying chickens — you got ‘em from a farmer’s wife that had a brooder house; there wadn’t no Perdue back then. People would come ‘ere and buy ‘em and want ‘em picked. She could pick one in two minutes.”
“Time I could walk, I helped her in the morning feed those chickens, and she paid me a little bit o’ money,” Roe said. “She didn’t pay me much — I was a little boy. It wadn’t much ‘cause she didn’t have much. And she took me to the bank, and she paid me every Friday. Every Friday, she paid me a little bit o’ money. And I went to the bank — and she got me a bank account — and I put my money in the bank. And when I got 6 years old and started school, I fed those chickens. And she paid me more money. I fed ’em with her in the morning, and then in the evening I fed ‘em after school. I collected the eggs — we got three to four bushel o’ eggs — they had wire baskets you used to put ’em in.
“I got so when I was a teenager, I remember coming home, and one o’clock in the morning and she was packin’ eggs in crates, and during the Second War, shippin’ ‘em to the government,” Roe says. “And I delivered eggs all over Tilghman’s Island on horseback, bareback with the eggs in bags on my arms.”
“She worked all the time, my mother did,” Roe says. “She never seen me play ball. Never saw me throw a ball or catch one or play, and I played a lotta ball. She was always working. And she was a working woman, I’m telling ya. She could work a man right to death. She had a big garden, she had them chickens, her mother had a boardin’ house, the Sinclair House up here — she went out there of an evenin’ and helped her cook ... Beth’lum Steel bought Black Walnut — she run that place. She ran Rhodes’ hunting place down at Bar Neck.”Roe’s mother was born in Baltimore, but lived on Poplar Island until she was 12 years old. “My grandfather (Sinclair) was the last child born on Sharp’s Island. As a young man he moved off Sharp’s Island to Poplar Island.” Sinclair moved to Tilghman when the steamboat from Baltimore stopped running to Poplar Island. By that time, the Bay also was steadily devouring the island that once was home to a thriving community.“
Roe’s father was a waterman. “I started going with my father commercial fishing when I was 6 years old. When I got 10, I could do as good as a man. I knew what to do. A young boy, if he wants to, can do as much work as a man — if he wants to, more,” Roe says.
“My father caught a lotta fish after the Second War started,” he says. “They couldn’t sell ‘em before that, hardly, because there wadn’t no money. Nobody couldn’t buy ‘em. After the Depression, my father had pound nets, and they were full o’ fish. And the buyers couldn’t buy ‘em, they had lost all their money and the banks crashed. It was a different world here, I’m telling ya.”
“People were different then than they are now. I was raised different,” Roe says. “I bought my Christmas present every year — bought my own Christmas present. My mother would ask me, ‘What you want for Christmas?’ right before Christmas. One year, I wanted a horse, and she said, ‘Well, you go to the bank, take your money out o’ the bank, buy your horse, and I’ll build you a barn.’”
“One year, I wanted a baseball glove. She said, ‘Take your money out o’ the bank (that she had paid me and I saved ever’ penny of it), and I will buy you four dozen baseballs.’ I wanted a shotgun. ‘You buy your shotgun, and I’ll buy you four boxes of gun shells.’ And I could go on and on. I didn’t know what she was tryin’ to do, but I do now. She was teachin’ me to work, make money, save it and buy what I wanted,” Roe says.
One of the ways Roe earned money was by working alongside German prisoners of war who worked the fields here during World War II.
“When I was comin’ up, in the Second War, they come to elementary school and got us boys to work on the farms because there was no young men — they were all drafted, and I worked in some of these fields around here with German prisoners,” he says.“They had a prison camp in Easton where the airport is, they had one in Rock Hall close to where Tolchester was, and they had one over Sandy Point,” he says. “And when these guys planted tomatoes and all and they would work on the farm, they couldn’t get no help, and they’d bring ‘em down on the truck – about 25 head of ‘em – and they’d come to school and get us boys, and we planted tomatoes on the island or up around Sherwood. They had a shoveler and a dropper. And they paid us a little bit o’ money by the hour. They had a guard, but he’d get up on a fence row and go to sleep. They weren’t going nowhere. They didn’t want to go nowhere.”
“I was about eight or ten, most of them was about 15 or so — ‘course they weren’t much older than I was. And they always had one in the group who could speak English, and I worked with him one day planting these tomatoes, and he told me, he said, ‘When this war’s over, I’m comin’ back here.’ He said, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’”“Anyhow, she was waitin’ for me when I come home, my mother – she said, ‘What happened up ‘ere today?’ And I told her, I said, ‘She fed us today.’ She didn’t say a word; she just turned around and went on, and I know damn well if she hadn’t fed us, she’da got an ass-whippin’, I can tell ya that, ‘cause she was going up ‘ere,” Roe says, laughing.
“Anyhow, I got about 16 and I could play baseball real good, but I had to go to Sunday School every Sunday, and if had been up to her, she’da never let me play ball, Roe said. “But my father made her let me play ball, and I started playing with men when they had a game ... after the Second War, and I was about 15, and when I went to high school, I played two years before I was supposed to play, on the senior team (as a third baseman).”
“Also had two scouts come to talk to me and my mother and father, and told me I had a good chance of making it — wadn’t no money involved, and the same year —the very same year — I was playin’ ball in Delaware, and got broke up, crushed all in my shoulder ‘n’ all, and I couldn’t play for another year, and I never did get back to where I was, because I quit school the same year, when I was 15. I wadn’t even allowed to quit, but the last ball game — we had it in May in St. Michaels — we played Centreville, and when we come home, I got my stuff outta my locker, and I never went back to school,” Roe says. He’s kept his baseball gloves from those days.
“My mother cried and everything to make me go back, but I had learned to commercial fish with my dad, and he was makin’ a lotta money fishing, and I was goin’ with him and other people, and I made a lotta money — I made as high as a couple o’ thousand dollars a night, and all that,” Roe says.
“Anyhow, if I had it to do over again, I woulda never quit school because I loved baseball, and I couldn’t practice after I quit school — I was out on the boat all the time fishing — we’d fish seven days a week,” he said.
And I played ball after that, but I never did get to be as good as I was when I was 15,” he said. Roe played on the Tilghman teenage league. “We won the championship every year” against Cambridge, Easton (which had two teams), Centreville. There weren’t any Little Leagues then,” he said.“Back then, a professional ball player only made $10 or $12 thousand, and when I started commercial fishing, I was 16, I was making probably $4,000 a week, some weeks,” Roe says. He remembers selling crabs for 80 cents a bushel, oysters for $1 a bushel and rockfish for 4 cents a pound.
“I made a lot a money. I made my first home in 1955 and paid for it in one day. I made $4,800 one Saturday commercial fishing. I bought my first home in 1955 when we got married, and I paid $4,500 for it, and I had $300 left that I made that day,” he says.
Roe married Jane Ross from St. Michaels in 1955. In the early 1960s, she bought a piece of waterfront property for $500 without telling her husband. It’s now occupied by their modest brick rancher on Harris Creek at the end of Willy Roe Road. She bought it when it was just woods and a sandy marsh where she and a friend would go crabbing with the kids.
Today, the Roes enjoy the expansive view of the water across a green lawn where the woods and brambles once grew.
It’s a comfortable house full of memories, as well as artifacts left behind by native Americans and long-gone watermen, decoys and dog figurines, commemorative plates and prized dishes, and photos of favorite dogs, of Tilghman baseball teams and workboats, and of their daughters Donna Jo and Lori, and their families, including five grandchildren and four great-grands with two more on the way this year.
“I’ve been offered a lot of money for it,” Roe says. “Not for the house, but for the property,” which comprises about 2 acres. He says he loves wildfowl and the many deer that stroll into his yard — even if they snack on his garden.
“Anyhow, I’m trying to live here the rest of my life,” Roe says. “I love it here.”