I was doing a weekend of salt water fishing last summer down in my old home place on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. A cousin from South Carolina had come up, and when he is there fishing is the order of the day, for he really loves it. We fished the better part of three days and when the fish ran low we explored some of the numerous muddy inlets and creeks, frequently getting stuck on the mud flats.
All of this seemed just like reliving many happy hours spent as a boy doing the same thing along the same creeks and catching the same kind of fish about the same size. White perch, spot, hog fish and salt water trout ranging in size up to 10 inches are what may be expected in the inland waters of this area, though further out bonita and red drum fishing is excellent. One can also expect to land a small dog shark or two which is considered excellent eating by many in that area. Actually, on our best day we caught nearly a bushel of white perch and a few trout in a little over an hour. Frequently one would pull in a fish on both hooks. The size was small, eight inches or less, and bait was peeler crab.
My lifelong love of motors caused me to reflect during our cruising around upon the great increases in reliability, flexability and portability which have been accomplished in small boat power. When as a boy I finally was allowed to use a motor-boat instead of pulling oars to get out of the creek, it was a great thrill. The motorboat belonged to two local gentlemen who were granted permission to keep it at our dock and use our creek for access to the fishing grounds. My numerous questions about the motor and general interest in it finally persuaded them to allow me to borrow the boat, with the help of a colored fellow, to take out a fishing party of my relatives who always spent their summer vacations down at the old family place.
On the agreed morning I went over to the owner's home to obtain the necessary boating equipment. This consisted of oars, detachable rudder, bailing scoop and a box containing a hot shot battery and the special combination coil and spark plug. This latter item I have never seen since. It consisted of a spark plug shell the same as that foe a Model T except it was of bronze. However, in place of the porcelain a large circular coil was built with sturdy external covering and on top was a small round box containing the vibrator points. The top of this box was knurled and when rotated adjusted the point gap during operation if needed. It carried a commercial name plate and a couple of binding posts for the battery wires. This unit was obviously for marine use due to the all bronze and brass construction, and was screwed directly into the spark plug hole of the engine.
After mixing the proper gasoline and oil mixture we assembled at the dock and cast off. I had never started the motor before but felt confident I could do it. The boat was an open one of about 15 feet in length, equipped with a single cylinder Gray water-cooled 2-cycle engine mounted inboard with the usual bronze shaft and packing gland through the skeg. It gave about 4 horsepower at 500 RPM and with its huge exposed flywheel turned a sizeable bronze propeller. A small amount of oil was mixed with the gasoline for cylinder lubrication. Grease cups were provided on the main bearings and a small brass container with a hand plunger pump was mounted on the crankcase. This had to be pumped occasionally to inject a squirt of oil on the rod bearing. A plunger type water pump was eccentrically driven from the crankshaft as was an ignition vibrator contact.
Well, I got the motor started all right, the procedure being to retard spark, set throttle, squirt some gas into the priming cup, pull the flywheel through by hand a couple times, then close the knife switch on the battery box and heave for all you are worth on the flywheel. After starting one must lean out the carburetor needle for smooth running, advance the spark and then look for water squirting out the engine exhaust pipe over side showing the water pump to be working. Then take a turn on the main bearing cups, a couple shots on the rod oiler and settle back to enjoy the ride out the creek as the remains of last trip's bait, dead fish mixed with mud and lots of water dance around on the boat bottom from engine vibration. But the smell of salt air and marsh mud and the cry of gulls soon remove concern over the boat bottom shaking loose. And then my friend and helper, though he can't swim a stroke, is known for always getting back in fine shape and with fish, no matter what the local opinion regarding the season may be.
On the way out I began to experiment with the motor by running it up and down rapidly with spark and throttle. Naturally its response was quite dead, even compared with a Model T engine, so I stopped. We dropped anchor in the fishing grounds and during the next hour caught 14 dog sharks up to 2 feet long, assorted small fish and one sizeable sting ray which had to be cut loose. We decided to move to another location and this is where my experimentation caught up with me. The motor started fine and we were cruising on out when suddenly the engine speeded up and the shaft slowly came to a stop. Quickly killing the motor I looked in horror at the stub end of the propeller shaft, a square shaft key on the boat bottom and much bronze powder on the keel. My experimentation with the motor had loosened the shaft in the motor coupling and it merely slid down until it disengaged but not before banging itself up considerably. With much embarrassment the fellow and I rowed considerable distance to a small sandy area, beached the boat and tried to drive the shaft and key back in. We had no luck for it let go again after only a few yards under power. The long pull home was most discouraging and so was facing the owners. I made good by fitting a new key, tapered to wedge in, and made from the tang of an old mill file. However, the shaft never ran quite as true thereafter and had to be repacked frequently.
Speaking of our old home plantation, it is named 'Brownsville' and is just east of a place called Nassawadox on the Eastern Shore. The home was built in 18?? and the impression where the slave quarters existed is still visible in the yard. It has been in the Upshur family for generations and has acres of yard with sheep, cows, dogs, cats, chickens, etc., much to my children's delight when we visit. It consists of about 1,000 acres of timber, marsh and cleared fields, the latter being only about one-third of the total. My two elderly aunts and a cousin with three lively boys now hold forth among the antiques in an environment rich with the nostalgia of a past era when this southern American way of life was filled with both dignity and grandeur.