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By Anne Carson
Alton Kersey leans back in his chair on his peaceful screened porch that looks down Back Creek and closes his eyes. Solomons is his home. He cares so much for this place, it hurts sometimes.
To visit the Kersey home, one enters a hidden drive that beckons through spreading laurel and azalea bushes, then circles the three and one half acres in expansive view of 1,100 feet of waterfront. Gentility has shaped the landscape here, and a visitor could get the notion that Alton Kersey has lived the life of a gentleman of privilege. He graduated from Virginia’s prestigious College of William and Mary, where he met his wife Joann, and together they raised three children who were also well schooled.
But Alton Kersey’s determination to bring tribute to Solomons’ working man was honed out of his own grit and twenty-two years of sun-up to sun down toil, “working on the payroll like everybody else,”at the J. C. Lore & Sons Oyster House on the island, and he will spend the rest of his days making sure reverence is shown to those who carved an honest living out of the water. Evidence of his ambition goes beyond the swells of the Patuxent River that flow past the Watermen’s Memorial, an imposing granite and marble monument, erected on the island by Alton’s dogged persistence.
“Seventy thousand had to be raised for the monument, and that was no easy task,” Alton acknowledges, but pertinacity clothes this man like boots on a waterman and time does not deter him. As we speak of years past when resourcefulness equaled survival, he gestures toward his carefully constructed water bank. “It took thirty-five years to build this seawall.”
“He placed every stone on the seawall himself. Every single one. And if it didn’t fit, he hammered it until it fit,” says Joann Kersey. She is soft-spoken and gentle, devoted to family and easily loved by all who know her.
“And behind the walls are oyster shells,” continues Alton. “In those days, there wasn’t filter cloth.”
In those days, money was hard to come by. Alton went to college on a baseball and basketball scholarship, and he learned to value life’s lessons beyond the books. “My parents sent me five dollars a week. When you don’t have anything, that was a lot,” Alton speaks from clear memory.
He married his college sweetheart, the lovely Joann Lore in 1954, and they settled into family life. Alton had a ten-year teaching certificate, but because his father-in-law, J. C. Lore, Jr., had been so good to the young couple, Alton decided to work for him. Joann’s grandfather had founded the J. C. Lore & Sons Company in 1988, at the height of the Chesapeake oyster industry, and in 1912, he established a packing house that became one of the most successful seafood packing companies in Southern Maryland. By 1956, the year Alton Kersey began working at the oyster house, the original structure, destroyed in a storm, had been replaced by the 1934 building in evidence today. It was a setting that was to change Alton’s life.
But the work was demanding, Alton recalls vividly. “Out on the floor, ten dollars a day, six days a week. Wasn’t any eight hour day either, six in the morning until six in the evening. I worked mainly in the packing room, unloading boats or doing whatever needed to be done. J. C. Lore & Sons were actually planters and packers. We had our own oyster seed beds that we planted every year and harvested about every three years. At that time, the Wm. B. Tennison (now the historic 1899 cruise boat at nearby Calvert Marine Museum) was our working dredge and buy boat, and it could take up probably 600 to 700 bushels of oysters a day, “ Alton speaks proudly of the log-built bugeye, now a National Historic Landmark, that both he and his son, Joe, captained.
Through the years at the oyster house, working with the watermen and experiencing the harvest of the waterways, Alton grew to love the life like a man who draws his breath from the rise and fall of the tides. As he took over more of the business details, his propensity for leadership served him well, but he drew stature from his own sweat and the examples of those around him. “A fella named Joseph T. Gross worked there practically all his life. Was a laborer, couldn’t read or write, but a worker-he could work you under the table. He was a model of a working man . I don’t know a man I respect more than him,” Alton reflects.
In 1978, when he saw the business failing due to the demise of the oyster crop and labor lost, with shuckers getting up in age or finding jobs at the power or gas plants recently established north of Solomons, he realized he had to close the house to salvage what was left. Alton grimaces as the memory hits. “Can you imagine? A business that was founded by my wife’s grandfather, and here an upstart from Virginia shows up to close it down.”
Alton speaks haltingly now, “Last day I worked there, I took a load of oysters to Baltimore. Then, I took my boots off. Was enough to bury me.”
Two years later, Calvert Marine Museum purchased the facility and the packing equipment inside, and with restoration and adaptation for exhibits, opened the venerable building to the public. By June of 1984, the J. C. Lore & Sons Oyster House was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, it houses two major exhibits: “Seasons of Abundance, Seasons of Want” which presents the history of the region’s commercial finfish, crab, oyster, eel, and clam fisheries and “Built to Work” which portrays the present traditions of wooden workboat building in the area. One of the actual shucking rooms and the packing room have been restored to their original appearance and much of the equipment remains where it was when the building was functioning. Black and white photographs of a young Alton Kersey working alongside his mentor Joseph Gross are treasured mementos as are the worn shucking stalls, where oysters were pried apart one by one, and the gleaming oblong skimmers, where they were filtered, that keep a haunting vigil of a era gone, on uneven flooring that floods at high tide but holds steady with oyster shells piled solidly underneath.
“All the way down to the Methodist Church.” Joann Kersey sweeps her arm to show how high and far the piles of oyster shells went. Joann refers to the building like a second home. “When my sister and I were little, we used to go down there, because it was cool. We would hide under the table when Daddy came around, so we could stay.” She speaks of the familiar details with laughter sweetened by memory.
“And, the sign outside says three generations of Kerseys but it’s really four generations. Because all of our children worked there, even Melissa, our youngest, when she was six years old. She went over to the post office, which was right next door, and filled out an application for a social security number so she could work,” Joann adds.
“At least, when my father-in-law went down the road, while he was still alive, he could take pride in the building he created,” summarizes Alton.
Alton Kersey can take pride in what he has done for the watermen and his community of Solomons. In 1993, the year the Watermen’s Memorial was erected, the Board of Directors of Calvert Marine Museum recognized Kersey as one of the museum’s principle founding fathers. And in 1977, the Board of County Commissioners commended Alton Kersey for his commitment to having a pavilion built on the island and who according to their citation, “took it upon himself to oversee the design and construction . . . and personally helped build components of the pavilion.”
The personal involvement and commitment of Alton Kersey to his family, his community, and his fellow workers have set him apart as a liaison for those who, in his words, “gave it their heart and the best shot they had,” to cull a living from the waterways during a time when a man’s word counted as much as his backbone. Such persons would need an individual worthy of the calling.
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