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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Ralph DiPalma
Sailing into a River of Experiences

In 1952, Ralph DiPalma moved from Vineland to Port Norris to work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. During the two-and-a-half years DiPalma and his wife Rita stayed in Port Norris, they became acquainted with the people who had a life-long tie to the oystering business. They mingled with the Robbins brothers, the Riggins family, Fenton Anderson, Dr. Sharp and Dr. Day, a person DiPalma described as a very colorful character.

The DiPalma's came to Port Norris at a time when the once thriving oyster industry was in deep decline. During that period, the effects of devastating MX virus were wide-spread. Not only were the oyster beds devastated, but so also was the economic base of the region. The State of New Jersey closed off the oyster beds from 1957 until 1961. During his stay in Port Norris, DiPalma listened as his new acquaintances told of the "good old days" when Port Norris was the "Oyster Capital of the World."

The state lifted the Delaware Bay oyster ban in 1961, and even though the prospects of reviving the industry to its former heights looked slim, some of the oystermen returned to the Bay.

In 1961, DiPalma was offered an opportunity to experience the life that his Port Norris neighbors had reminisced about. DiPalma's colleague, Dayton Warfle of Dividing Creek, had a proposition and was looking for a few investors to join him on the reopened oyster beds. DiPalma and his long-time friend Lou Miller each put up $1000 to "do some oystering."

"We went to Fenton Anderson," DiPalma said, explaining that Anderson owned two oyster boats, the Martha Meerwald and the Russell Windgate. "He was only going to take the Martha up the Bay for himself; the Russell was going to stay tied up to the dock," DiPalma said.

DiPalma and Miller leased the "bugeye." DiPalma explained that that meant the Russell was pointed at both ends. "It doesn't have a square stern," he said. Having learned the lingo, the new captains gathered their crew and supplies and went out into the Bay. "That year, we ran 25,000 worth of oysters for 2 weeks work," DiPalma reported.

That experience stoked DiPalma's enthusiasm, and Miller's, too. They wanted their own boat. "We bought the Lindbergh," said DiPalma, explaining that their vessel was built in Gloucester Point, VA. in 1927 -  the year that Lindbergh flew across the ocean. The Lindbergh  was a "Chesapeake boat", and that was different from a "Delaware boat". DiPalma proudly gave the details: It had a flat or a V-shaped bottom, where a "Delaware boat" had a round bottom. The Lindbergh was 50-feet with a 4-foot beam. And it was already 35 years old when they bought it.

These were some of the things that both puzzled and fascinated the new captains. "We knew nothing about oystering, or how to run a boat," admitted DiPalma. "There's a knack to it. You have to know how to run a boat because of tides, depths. You need to know how to work a "lump of oysters."  (A mound of oysters,  he translated.) DiPalma and Miller spent six years on their floating classroom, oystering from 1963 until 1969, "until things got slow," DiPalma said. "We still had our jobs at Metropolitan."

DiPalma tells his stories about this learning experience, about their successes, and about the colorful characters that worked in the oyster industry. He especially enjoys telling about the one "high mark" that the Lindbergh set. When the new bridge was being planned at Mauricetown, DiPalma and Miller received a letter asking how high the Lindbergh's mast was. "We were the only ones with a mast that high," he said, explaining that it measured about 25 feet.  "That determined how high the new bridge was going to have to be," he said, gleefully.

After their stay in Port Norris, DiPalma and his wife Rita returned to Vineland to raise their eight children, leaving the Lindbergh docked at Port Norris for the summer, and bringing it up to Millville for the off-season. "Our kids use to love it when we used to take her down from Millville to Port Norris. They always rode down the river with us."

DiPalma said that there were plenty of oystermen who could still tell some good stories, but his three years of experience gave him some of his own to tell.  He showed one of his prides, a painting of the Lindbergh,  that helps preserve those memories. (DiPalma's son purchased the painting for him at a fundraiser for the restoration of the A.J. Meerwald, the Official Tall Ship of New Jersey. The artist's husband donated the painting, after it was discovered in the artist's attic.)

The painting, which shows the Lindbergh at the dock in Millville, reminds DiPalma about the commitment that it took to make a living off of the waters, even during his relatively short oystering career. "We spent a long time getting her ready for oyster season," DiPalma remembers. "It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun."

A recent news article in the Press of Atlantic City, dated Nov. 8 2004, mentioned that after a series of owners, the Lindbergh's newest skipper is the daughter-in-law of local resident Jack King. The front-page article said that the Lindbergh is still one of the best oyster catchers on the Bay. Even after all these years…