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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
Joanne and Frank Murphine
Cultivating a Connection

When they built their family home near the shores of the Maurice River, Joanne and Frank Murphine both became interested in gardening. Flowers are Joanne's passion. Frank has enjoyed tending the patches of vegetables for the family dinner table. While their other endeavors limit the hours they spend playing in their plot near the banks of the river, the Murphines continue to cultivate their relationship with the Maurice River.

Both Frank and Joanne grew up in Millville. Joanne's family home was just a few minutes walk from Union Lake. She remembers that they had a boat which they kept tied to a tree with just a chain. "A little wooden fishing boat," she recalled, without a motor - or a fishing rod and reel, she lamented. She fished with a bamboo pole - and cork bobbers that probably came from the local Armstrong cork plant. "We used worms from the manure pile," Joanne remembered. "Once in awhile, we got lucky and netted some minnows for bait." Joanne said that she has always enjoyed fishing.

When she was older, her family purchased one of the summer cottages on the shore of Union Lake. That's how Frank came into the picture. He would often visit a nearby cottage that his grandparents owned. Like Joanne, Frank loved being on the water. By the mid-50's, the became friends and began venturing onto the Maurice River together, often joined by a group of friends to water-ski. In the summer of her graduation from Millville High School, when most of her classmates were buying cars, Joanne bought a 15-foot boat, "with a 45 horsepower motor," she chuckled.

"I had to buy the car - to tow it," Frank grinned.

Joanne D'Agostino and Frank Murphine were married in 1957, in Leesburg. They bought a home in Millville, "right downtown." They admitted that this wasn't where their hearts were. In 1960, they purchased a two-acre lot on the east side of the Maurice River, still in Millville but closer to nature. By 1962, they were able to move into the home that they built to raise their family.

What made this piece of property extra special to them were the conditions of the sale. The land, which had been in the Clunn family for generations, was a thickly wooded tract that supported a variety of natural plant and wildlife. The family held onto the land with plans to build a place where the elder Clunns could retire.  When that time came, Henry Clunn and his brother opted to retire elsewhere. Their love of the environment was reflected in the terms of sale. The Clunn brothers made stipulations so that future owners would have to preserve the woodsy character of the property.

"That was absolutely great with us," Frank said. And because the Murphines abided by their wishes, Henry Clunn agreed to sell them more of the family tract. By 1985, the Murphines owned 15 acres. Recently they subdivided, with a portion reserved for their daughter and another section sold to The Nature Conservancy.

The property is located just north of the diked lands of the Burcham Farm. "I understand that years ago there was a farm over here between the Burcham's and that end of the (Menantico) creek," Joanne said. "A dairy farm." She recalled a clearing where the trees now stand. "We used to walk there when our son and daughter were little. We'd walk all the way to the point. I was told that that was probably the most fertile piece of land in Millville."

Joanne and Frank described how wonderful it was to raise their family on their little corner of the earth. There were plenty of opportunities to observe and enjoy the vast resources of the Maurice River. Boating, fishing and water-skiing were the family's favorite recreational activities. The river was their playground and many of their family adventures took place in and on the water. They did enjoy stopping for an occasional picnic at the Maurice River Bluffs, or a stop for lunch at Matt's Landing. Other times, Joanne and Frank would spend time hiking and hunting. Frank likes to talk about "the one and only day Joanne spent with him in a deer stand," after which she decided that her garden was a better place for her.

And Joanne recalls one very memorable Easter hike: "We had the boat out. We decided we would walk through the marsh for awhile. Needless to say, the tide came up and floated the boat away," she said, as she sailed her imaginary boat toward the horizon.

Frank remembered that day. "That was at Easter…and it was cold! I was out there trying to get the boat."

Joanne nodded and said, "Luckily, a man who used to come down to the Burcham's, Toots Peterson (who used to net fish and eel) happened to be riding by. We signaled him…and he helped us get the boat. He was the only person on the river that day besides us. It was so cold!"

Frank admitted that the fluctuations of the seasons - and the changes in the natural landscape over the years, have been both fascinating and troubling. Frank is a monitor for the Delaware River Keepers. For the past 10-12 years, he has been one of the organization's volunteers who regularly monitor the quality of the tributaries that eventually flow to the Delaware River. Volunteers test the levels of elements like phosphates and other chemicals. In the samples Frank has collected from Menantico Creek, (which he calls "crick") he has observed changes in the water content. Frank explained that while the creek is still one of the cleanest streams in the vicinity, the levels of phosphates and nitrates have risen. Frank speculated that this increase may be relative to the increase of development in the area. Run-off may be one of the biggest culprits. Frank said that he wasn't sure about how much water could be "pumped out" of the river before the reach of the salt line traveled further upriver on the Maurice. While he records the results of the water monitoring tests, Frank records his observations about the impact the changes seem to be having on the river's wildlife populations. That's what he really likes to talk about. 

Frank was pretty young when the banks were still diked, too young to walk them like his elders did. But he does remember when the fresh water line brought carp into the Maurice River. "It was a different time," Frank said. "There were things you just can't see now." He stopped and closed his eyes. "I've seen ducks so thick that they would actually block the sun." He was serious. "It would get dark when you scared them off. It’s a shame…," he grimaced, adding "It's safe to say that anyone in their 50's has not seen that."

Frank didn't mind the chance to reminisce. He talked about his boyhood adventures on his cousin's property - what is now the Harold Peek Preserve. Frank and his cousin Charles Peek would roam through the woods, building forts, scouting for arrowheads (which was "no big deal" at the time because it was reasonably common to find them) and invariably coming home with poison ivy.

Frank said that he got an "education," out on the Maurice River. When Frank was younger, local fisherman Toots Peterson gave the youngsters a few lessons about the river - and about life. But Frank didn't care to elaborate, laughing at the thought of repeating some of those "lessons."

Frank remembers quite well that, even as a youngster, there was more to life than just having fun. One of the toughest responsibilities he had was clamming. "Today you 'rake' clams," Frank said. "But back then, we'd go to Jack Howell's Hardware. (It's still there in Millville). We'd buy sailcloth. (You can still buy that.) We'd make shoes from sailcloth." Frank explained how he found clams. "You'd rub your feet back and forth over the mud. With just sailcloth on your feet, you could feel the clams right underneath of you. You would just reach down and pick them up."  That was a challenging task, even for a youngster. But it was a simpler time, with fewer restrictions about you could or couldn't clam. And no areas were off limits, Frank recalled.

Frank continued: "And then in wintertime, when it was too cold for that, you always tonged clams. I don't think anyone even tongs clams today." Frank said that some watermen still tong oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. "But in this area, I don't think anyone even knows what tongs are," Frank said, shaking his head.

Frank and Joanne proceeded to describe tongs and how they worked. They were "big long poles. Rakes - that cross. That come together," they explained.

Frank demonstrated: "Tongs have prongs on the bottom of them. You'd drive them down into the mud. You'd close them and bounce them - up and down - to wash the mud out. Then you'd pull them up -and your clams would be stuck in there. Trapped in there. That was work! They were probably 15 foot (poles) and you'd have to drag them up," Frank said, looking exhausted just explaining the procedure.

Frank and his family would go clamming in the "sounds" of Sea Isle, Ocean City, and Avalon. His uncles would travel to Philadelphia, to 10th and Vine Streets, to sell the clams they collected. One of Frank's relatives, George Cheeseman, pickled the clams.

Frank explained that process: "Way back then, we'd lay out about 30 feet of old refrigerator grills (or other similar racks). We'd wet burlap bags and lay them over the racks. Then we'd lay all the clams on them." Frank said that another layer of wet burlap would be used to cover the clams. "Then someone would light a wood fire under the racks," Frank explained. "That's how we used to steam them. We'd steam thousands at a time. Then George would take 'em - pickle 'em and then jar 'em up," Frank said.

Frank said that his Uncle George would go around to all the different bars in the area to sell his pickled calms.  "That was his living," Frank said, explaining the simplicity of the operation. There were no labels, no lists of ingredients. Frank said there were no bills of sale or receipts. "You just gave him cash, " Frank said. People knew George and they looked forward to his pickled clams.

Joanne said that one member of the Cheeseman family still pickles clams. They do it  "just a little bit different," she said.  "They do it in the backyard - on an old grill they found." And you can bet that Joanne usually has a few jars around.

The Murphines have cultivated a connection to the community and to the river. In addition to her day job in the local school system, Joanne has been, and continues to be, an active volunteer in the community. She is a trustee for Citizens United. She is still very active in the 4-H. She's been 4-H president, as well as a member of the youth organization's county and state boards. "I'll probably always be active with 4-H," Joanne said, adding that she especially enjoys working in the horse division.

In between her obligations, Joanne tends flowers that she has coaxed from the little garden spots on their wooded property. Frank continues to monitor the water quality of the Delaware River tributaries. And when he has time, he does some gardening. Frank and Joanne no longer water-ski. But they enjoy going down to the river's edge to see what's flying, scampering, looking for its next meal.

Frank and Joanne are now content to be observers, watching as Mother Nature sets the direction for the Maurice River - and for the future generations who will become connected to it.