Legacy of the Baymen

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on October 6, 2002

America’s coastal waters long have provided a livelihood for those who know the sea. From Alaska’s Cook Inlet to California’s Drake Bay, from the barrier islands of Florida’s gulf coast to the rocky shores and river mouths of Maine, tidal water fishermen have found the sea abundant.

Few have been more blessed by its bounty than the Jersey Shore baymen. Their history reaches back nearly 400 years, nourished by the coastal waters of Little Egg, Barnegat, and Absecom bays. With the opening last year of Tuckerton Seaport, a 45-acre Maritime Village Museum, the baymen of Tuckerton—who ply their clamming tongs and raking baskets from craft scarcely larger than rowboats—have reaffirmed their link to the sea.

Tuckerton, N.J., (pop. 3,500) known for “fowling and fishing” ever since visiting Quakers explored its waters, has a long history as a seaport. The town’s namesake, Ebenezer Tucker, was a collector of custom tariffs with a commission, signed by George Washington, dating to 1791.

Tuckerton Seaport’s signature building is a replicated Tuckers Island Lighthouse—erosion toppled the 1848 original into the sea in 1927. The new lighthouse houses hundreds of duck decoys made by the baymen—a name Tuckerton’s residents proudly gave themselves and still claim today—who lived off the area’s shellfish and marsh birds. The baymen’s carvings, from red breasted mergansers to black bellied plovers, created for wealthy 19th-century New York and Philadelphia families, are considered works of art today.

The Perrine Boatworks—one of 13 structures in the maritime museum—celebrates the area’s boat builders. Carpenter Gus Henrichs still builds Tuckerton’s unique 19th-century “sneakbox” fishing boat—so-called for its low profile in the tall marsh grasses, used both as a craft for fowling and as a clammer.

Although open for more than a year, the village is a work in progress. Marjorie Halloway, 85, is thrilled about a tribute to her father’s boatworks in a planned reconstruction of the “Marine Railway.”

“Tuckerton’s history was a lost story until now,” Halloway says. “My father owned the marine railway on the canal. Boats were placed on a large cradle on the canal and sent by rail from the canal to his shop to be rebuilt or repaired, then sent back up the canal. This will all be brought back to life,” she says.

Paul Spencer, 86, is excited about a re-created Tuckerton Railroad station that’s in the works. His father was a baggage master for the railroad, founded in 1871. Trains took passengers to Camden. It also carried clams and oysters harvested by the baymen.

“Passengers going to Philadelphia had to take a ferry across the Delaware River because there was no bridge,” Spencer recalls. “They had to walk up a hill into Philadelphia. At 6, I remember sitting on the lap of the conductor and working the train’s throttle.”

Parson’s Clam and Oyster House has been re-created in the village. In its best year, Parsons shipped 9 million clams a week to Campbell Soup in Camden. The Parson family’s ancestors are still involved in the clam business. Buildings include a sea captain’s house and the Sunny Brae saltbox house, built in the 1700s with clamshells and clay mortar. Seventeen more buildings are in the works—all relating to fowling and decoy carving that followed. Tuckerton is also famous for its seafood eateries and has been called by some, “Clamtown, USA.”

“We must hang on to the baymen’s knowledge of the local waters and their trades to pass on to future generations. We must preserve the legacy of their craftsmanship,” says John Gormley, director of Tuckerton Seaport.

Pat Johnson loves to talk about local history. Johnson, 49, grew up in Tuckerton, where her father owned the DeLuxe Diner. Though she lived for a while in New York, she returned seven years ago and now is president of the Tuckerton Historical Society and a reporter for the Tuckerton Leader.

“I think generations have remained because of a sense of family that goes back generations,” Johnson says. “It’s a living sense of history with a strong sense of community spirit.”