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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
Richard Weatherby
Anchored to a "Maurice River" Way of Life

 

"I love the river," said Richard Weatherby. Weatherby was born and raised in the grasp of the Maurice River. A man of many experiences and few words, Weatherby sought to explain the depths to which he is anchored in its midst.

He'll readily admit that there was nothing easy about making a living as a waterman. In fact, he said, it was "extremely hard work." As he sought to explain the pull of that Maurice River tide, he put it in the simplest terms: "It was something that was important to me - and always has been."

Weatherby said that it might be hard to imagine how the river could be so important to one person. But when he begins to talk about his experiences, it's as if he's tossed a pebble into the water. The concentric rings radiate in ripples of memory that are as vivid as the rays of sun shining over the surface. And those stories come full-circle as each tale returns him to his beginnings.

When the Depression hit in the Maurice River Valley, it hit hard. The Weatherby saga is similar to that of many residents in the area during that era. Prior to the Depression, Ephraim Milton Weatherby, Sr. made a real good living. Each winter he traveled to West Virginia to work as a glassblower. It was a very lucrative occupation, the pay being better there than what he could make in Cumberland County. He owned a nice farm in Haleyville and his wife kept the home fires burning and waited for his return for the summer months. But he lost the farm during the Depression.

Richard Weatherby, grandson of Ephraim Sr., explained that the next chapter in the Weatherby family history opened "on the old Ferguson property, where Straubmuller is now." That was the beginning of several generations of farming, fishing and trapping to provide for the needs of the growing family.

Richard Weatherby remembers his early indoctrination to this way of life. "I started trapping when I was 6 years old. I caught my first muskrat with a steel trap." He never did bring a muskrat to the dinner table. "I've never eaten one," he said. "They are a delicacy. A lot of people love them, but I skinned too many of them." He just couldn't bring himself to eat one, he said.

Weatherby said that he has memories of traveling along the Maurice River as a tot. " A lot of people say you don’t remember that old but I remember," Weatherby said. He said that he was about two years old when his uncle put him on his boat. "Uncle Carl used to put me in a bushel basket in the front of the boat. That contained me and kept from going overboard, I guess."

Weatherby said that he would ride along as his uncle tended the snapper fykes and picked up the carp nets. "I remember taking up net up there in back of the barge," Weatherby said, referring to the sunken vessel that sits in the Maurice River a bit north of the Maurice River Bluffs. "We used to shut those reaches for carp - and that barge was there. I can still remember going there."

By that time Weatherby's grandfather, father and uncle "controlled" quite a bit of meadowland that lay below the farm they leased. Sets of tall oak poles, sunk into the river bottom, marked the ditches and meadows where the watermen set their nets. "We'd have hundreds and hundreds of poles stuck in the mud," Weatherby said, explaining that the poles were put into the river after the "last ice" and they were gathered up just before the next winter's freeze. He recalled how these poles were inspected and stacked up each winter. The men used the winter months to find replacements for wood that was split or broken.

The sale of carp was a lucrative venture at the time. Weatherby said that his family netted their catches in the upper reaches of the Maurice River. "We used to shut from the boat ramp in Millville all the way down to below Spring Garden," he said. The term shut is the name of the method local watermen used in rounding up the carp.

Weatherby explained that the process began on the "top of the tide", or high tide. The net was laid along the ditches and the jutting banks of the meadowlands. The way the net was laid out actually "shut" off the reach during the high tide. The carp would find their way into the stands of wild rice in the flooded meadows and ditches. Weatherby explained that because carp are bottom feeders, they siphon everything off the bottom. "They go down and just suck everything up - and then flush it through their gills."

Weatherby said that it was easy to spot the schools of carp during low tide. Once a good feeding spot was located, the men would make plans to lay their nets. "You'd go down and shut it at the top of the tide, no matter if it was day or night," Weatherby said. "Then you'd go back to that spot when the tide was down and fish it out." The men would load the fish into the boat and bring them back to their landing. The men used "live cars" to keep the carp alive. Weatherby described their live car, which was an old boat whose sides were built up with wooden frames and stretches of wire allowing the water to flow into and through the boat, but keeping the fish in. A hatch on top made it easy to load the carp. Weatherby said that some folks called these holding containers catfish cars or carp cars, but they were all pretty similar.

"We sold a lot of carp to Atlantic City - to Becker's Fish Market. The carp would stay alive out of water for 3 or 4 hours. They were a real hardy, durable fish.
They had a Rabbi there at Becker's to bless them before the fish were killed." Weatherby added.  "They were the biggest carp dealers around. We would also sell to the Huffs, Skillfonts, Schmucklers, and all those big carp dealers. They would often put them in holding ponds and hold them until the Jewish holidays. Carp was a delicacy for the Jewish people around their holidays."
 
Weatherby became the consummate fisherman - with some of his own fish tales to tell.
"We've been up the river many times," he began, "with just an inch of freeboard on the gunnels left - loaded with carp - in the middle of the night, ice and everything else." He explained that there was no time to be bothered by the cold or the weather. "You just kept right on going," he recalled. He voiced one of the realities of the situation: "The boat could have sunk at any given second."

Realizing that the jargon may be foreign to a landlubber, Weatherby explained the lingo: "Freeboard - That is how much boat you have left sticking out of the water. The gunnels are the sides of the boat and the top rail on the boat. Progger is what they called the commercial fisherman, trappers, duck hunters and such."

The traditions, procedures and lingo have been passed through the generations, "We'd shut for carp. We'd do some haul seine work at the Mud Haul, the Little Haul, the Yawp Shore and several other hauls." (Another way to fish was to haul seine, using wide nets from shore to boat.) "And my grandfather would go market hunting for ducks on the Maurice River. But that's outlawed now," Weatherby said. Then he smiled. "This is just an old progger's jargon."

While sitting in the cheerful kitchen of Weatherby's home, this might sound like an adventure. But Weatherby will stop and draw the picture of the way it was. "Just stop and think of what I said," he'll say. "You come up the river in the middle of the cold night with ice on the river," he said, reliving the moment. "You have a load of fish on the boat, so heavy that you only have that much boat sticking out of the water," he said, measuring less than a 12-inch span. "How easily you could have gone the other way - and drowned," he said, momentarily weighed down by the seriousness of the thought.

"I almost drowned one time," he said, adding that it is the one experience he will never forget. "I was taking out a carp net. I got washed off my feet. I slipped and got tangled in the bag formed by the carp net. I couldn’t stand up." Weatherby described the frantic scene as his father and uncle worked to twist the net upside down. Weatherby said that he was able to get free, even though he was swept down river by the current. I would have drowned, if it weren't for my father and my uncle," he said. He had a respect for the river. "It is a tremendous power."

He remembered an incident involving his father: "My father was duck hunting when this meadow went out in a storm." Weatherby said that his father and another hunter almost drowned when the banks broke. This was one of the hazards along the Maurice River. Not only were the banks of the meadows costly to maintain, but they were constantly being pulled and tugged by the tides and needed constant monitoring. Navigating the river was often challenging, yet local families like the Weatherby's found the fortitude to make a living from its abundant resources.

Richard Weatherby's grandfather, Ephraim Milton Weatherby, Sr. had two sons by his first wife Ella. Richard's father, Ephraim Milton, Jr., was born in 1915.

When he left home to start his own life, Ephraim, Jr. moved to Thompson's Beach. In the 1950's, a storm devastated the shoreline. "We lost our house," Richard said. The young family was forced to find a home somewhere else. "We started living in a cabin up the river because we lost everything we had," Richard said.

The cabin Weatherby referred to was built by Ephraim, Sr. and his son by his second wife. This was Richard's Uncle Staff (Thomas Stafford Weatherby.) The cabin was built for Holly Sayers, the superintendent for George Pettinos' sand mining operation. Sayers was not using the cabin at the time. Another local resident, Tony DiBruno, who owned Setter Inn up on Delsea Drive, was leasing the property and cabin from Pettinos. Richard Weatherby said that his father and DiBruno were good friends. When DiBruno heard of his plight, he offered them the use of the cabin.

This was well before the little local landmark became known as "Owl's Cove." It's location, up on the Maurice River Bluffs, was more than a lucky coincidence for Ephraim, Jr.  The elder Weatherby had leased a house - and the large tract of land that edged close to the Maurice River, just behind the cabin. The Weatherby farm had taken root.

When young Richard Weatherby got his driver's license, he went to work delivering produce from the Weatherby farm. A few years later, he and Joanne Wettstein were married. In 1965, he went to work driving a truck. "I knew that wasn’t the right thing for me," Richard admitted. Looking for another way to support a family, Weatherby started running equipment used at the local plants. "I ran the first fully computerized asphalt plant in the United States. That was right here in Millville," he said. Now Richard works out of Local 825 - operating engineers, running heavy equipment.

But Weatherby still knows that river, almost better than anyone in the region. "I can run that river in the dead of night and not even turn a light on," he said, with a hint of pride.

Weatherby is firmly anchored to his family. He and Joanne have been married for 42 years. They have two children and five grandchildren. Richard Weatherby is a quiet man with a big heart. His lifetime of experiences helps define the sense of place that is the Maurice River.