The Bayman

A Life on Barnegat Bay

by Merce Ridgway

222 pages, 23 chapters,
38 photographs, index.
$24.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-945582-62-5
• excerpts

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The following excepts are from The Bayman: A Life on Barnegat Bay, by Merce Ridgway, Down The Shore Publishing.
© 2000 Maurice Inman Ridgway and Arlene Martin Ridgway

The old ways on Barnegat Bay are rapidly vanishing. Few today see the bay, the wetands, and the pines as holistically as generations of baymen families did — a place from which to make a totally self-sufficient living, a home, a school, a place of spiritual connection. In The Bayman, from which these excerpts are taken, Merce Ridgway shares some of this connectedness with readers — as if we sat down next to him at the clam dock at the end of the day.

 

Merce Ridgway and Sam Hunt during an inpromptu pickin’ session along Barnegat Bay.
A Young Boy of the Pines
The earliest memory I have is cloaked in a beautiful fall day. I have followed my father to a place in the woods where he is cutting pine. He kneels down on one knee, and looking me in the eye, says, “Stay within the sound of my axe, but not too close; wouldn’t want a tree to fall on you.”
These were thrilling words to me. It was the most gentle of tethers, leaving me free to wander through the pinelands of South Jersey and practice the new knowledge I was gaining of the land.
At first I watched from a safe distance the rhythmic and powerful swings as my father worked. With each blow of the axe, chips as long as my face flew high in the bright morning air. I watched and a certainty grew within that one day I would do the same.
Soon the lure of the woods beckoned, and I would wander off to practice the things my father was teaching me: to read the signs of life there, to forage for berries or look for lady’s slippers to admire. The teaberry provided a snack and leaves to chew. A laurel cluster offered a place in the sun to dream. When I realized that the sound of the axe had stopped, I knew the direction to go, and headed back.


Life, it appeared, held many wonderful activities that a person might take part in when he grew up. If there was one thing I most wanted, it was to have a boat to go out on the water. I don’t know why, I just wanted to.
By the edge of the field between our house and Grandpop June’s there was an old boat. It was a pretty large sneakbox, it seemed to me, and remembering it now, it must have been eighteen feet long. Even though she was old, she was all clean inside because she’d never had a motor in her. Evidently they had sailed it at one time.
I loved to crawl inside that boat and inhale the fragrance of old cedar. That smell was better than anything I could think of. There is something special about an old boat that has been out in the bay in the salt water when she sets upon the land. Funny thing about that particular scent those old cedar boats have.
I was five in 1946 in my earliest memory of Barnegat Bay. My father had an ancient sea skiff. Chugging sedately out Forked River creek was a dreamlike experience, which turned into a sort of nightmare as my father opened up the motor to full throttle on reaching the bay. The roar of the engine, the flying spray, the vibration all conspired together to scare the wits out of me.
Seeing that I was upset, he slowed the boat down. I quickly recovered to enjoy the gleaming expanse of bright blue water and sparkling sunshine.
There were no houses in sight and the dunes at Island Beach seemed to beckon with a golden glow. I was fascinated not only by the water but by what must lie beneath the water. I thought perhaps sunken pirate ships and golden treasures might lie there. I was overcome by a passion to know and explore the vast body of water, but this would come later.

The Scallop
Scallops have a rough, sharp edge where the new growth is occurring. We used cotton gloves through the season, as they provided the manual dexterity to sort out the catch. Some days we would wear out two pair, the catch would be so rough.
The first shock of cold water through the gloves seems unbearable. On a winter’s morning, when the wind is blowing, our hands would quickly grow numb. As we worked, sorting out the catch and pulling the dredges, a wonderful thing happened. We began to feel the tingle of the returning heat to our hands and soon our hands felt perfectly warm. As long as we kept on working, our hands would stay warm, as would the rest of our bodies. Take a break for a sandwich and coffee, and you had to start all over again! We didn’t break much on cold, windy days.
Dredging for scallops was like tonging for clams. You got real sore for the first couple of weeks, particularly the hands, from the constant pulling on the ropes as you hauled the dredges. Then you would get “broke in,” and you would harden up to the work.

Philosophy of the Bayman
For the baymen of my time, it is a double tragedy. Not only do we have an unproductive bay, but also we have also lost the use of the wetlands that were a part of the bayman’s life. At times or according to the season, they were a source of income, food and even fuel for the stove.
My people were religious and did not work on the Sabbath. That meant there was one day a week that was open to recreation, after church on Sunday morning.
My brother and I used to head for the woods. It was about a mile through the woods to the meadows. The route to get there passed through swamps where the flies and bugs would eat us alive in the summer. When you got out on the meadows, though, the afternoon breeze would clear the air. Most often it would be the prevailing southeast wind off the bay. As you got closer to the water of the bay, the temperature of the air dropped. We spent many happy summer afternoons roaming the bayfront.
And so the meadows were a source of recreation to the bayman from the time of his youth. As I grew older and began to work on the bay, there was less and less time to enjoy idle days. It became more important to get the day’s work done than to satisfy an urge to take a walk or to catch soft crabs.
Never mind, I would say to myself. I will not work forever, and when the time comes, I will do as I did in my younger years. I will feed myself from the bounty of the bay and the meadows. That, I said, will be my reward for years of hard work. I will build myself a nice duck boat, carve a set of stool ducks and set them out when the northeast wind blows. I will feast on the broadbill and black duck.
All this and much more I promised myself. As the years passed I began to see it was never going to happen.
What we did not lose to the developers we lost to government programs that bought up large tracts of wetlands in order to preserve them, and then banned us from going on them. If I want to shoot or walk, I must get a map and see where I am allowed to go. Much of the land is off-limits. Along with the loss of land went part of the baymen’s cultural legacy.

The Music
Looking back now, the Homeplace holds fond memories from those years.
Finding it that first night was something of an adventure. Out Route 539, across from the area where Wells Mills Park is now, was a dirt road that ran back into the woods. Along the way were road signs that people had brought in from other areas, and here and there, people had leaned mirrors from dressers up against trees. At length we came to an intersection marked by a construction that we came to call “the phone booth.”
Inside was a stuffed animal of some description, and other oddities, which in general created a feeling that we were in the wrong place.
It was starting to get dark as we drove into the parking area, and the deer were walking all over the place. Joe and George had a number of foxhounds, and they began to howl and bark. Added to all of this were the strains of music drifting out of the hunting cabin. We were in the right place after all. We got out our instruments and went inside.
The kitchen was clean and neat with a wood cooking stove, gas lights glowing and a gas refrigerator. There was no electric. A hand pump on an old-time sink and a table with some chairs completed the picture.
Beyond was where the music was going on. The main room had bunks around the outside walls, and inner layers of chairs filled with friends and musicians. The walls were hung with pictures and memorabilia of hunts. There were some sayings that they had hung up, my favorite being: “Bad breath is better than no breath at all.”
And so for about fourteen years we went to the Homeplace. I was to watch it grow and grow, and meet many musicians there on Saturday nights...

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