The Bronza Parks Boatyard Tours – 1950-1956

Wingate, Maryland

Bronza M. Parks (1900-1958) was a legendary designer and builder of Chesapeake Bay skipjacks, deadrise workboats, and pleasure yachts.  He built the famous “Three Sisters” skipjacks – Rosie Parks, Martha Lewis, and Lady Katie – during 1953-1955 at his boatyard in Wingate, Maryland.  These three skipjacks are still maintained by maritime museums in the Bay region.

These digital tours are composed mostly of photos and selections from interviews about Bronza Parks and his boatyard operations, found in the online collection of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM).  See my notes below for details, and to access the collections.

He had a sign for a while that said,  B.M. Parks, Boat Builder

And then later it said, B.M. Parks, Designer and Builder of Boats.

I think that’s kind of significant.  Uncle Ralph told me he built 438 boats.  He started off with one skiff in the yard.”

– W. P. “Pres” Harding, Bronza’s Grandson

In the Boatshop

[MH: Mary Parks Harding, Bronza’s daughter.]
[PH: “Pres” Harding, Bronza’s grandson.]

PH: Being around the boatyard was really interesting … The machines are turning, and men are doing stuff, an they’re spitting and laughing and joking. They all did that. It looked like a great time. And it was always busy there. There were some times where you’d want to think you’d do something.

PH: I can remember there was a time where the men were planing the sides. They had some electric disk sanders by the time I was little in there. But they would still take long joiner planes. And after they had all the planks on the side, take the planes and run down the sides and take imperfections out, and roll it a certain way that they’d want to. And one day Uncle Ralph and Koosie were planing a side. And they would be like, “I’ve got one that’s six feet long.” “Oh, yeah. Well, mine’s seven-and-a-half feet long.” And they got into this thing about who could make the longest shaving with their plane. So it got to the point where my Uncle Ralph had a shaving that was 10-and-a-half feet . And all these men are gathering around and it’s becoming a big thing between Ralph and Koosie. And the next thing you know, you hear somebody go, “Oh, here comes Bronzie. Here comes Bronzie.” Because they’re all supposed to be working. And Papa’s like, “What’s going on here?” And finally the guys say, “Well, look at these shavings these guys are making.” And he’s like looking and says “Mm-hmm.” And he looked at O’Neal Dean and he said, “O’Neal, let me see your joiner plane.” It’s like about a 24-inch hand plane. He grabbed that plane and he looked and he’d click it, and ran it down the side of the boat. And I think his shaving was like 16 feet, three inches or something like that. And he just handed the plane back to O’Neal and went on. (Laughs.) Yeah, it was great.

MH: My father had gotten a band saw that was the first mechanical tool he had of any kind. I can’t remember the year, but everybody came to look at this band saw. It was a big thing, and he could split the boards open and do lots of things with that band saw. But then he was able to get a planer and a joiner, and that was really big time for us. And my little sister and Shirley Wheatley, who lived next door to the boathouse, would play for hours with these big, long, curly shavings in their hair, and they clipped them to their hair like they had big blond curls hanging down from the top of their head.

MH: It was a fun place to play. The smells were nice, and there were no mosquitoes inside the boathouse. The boards were treated with pine oil and all. If you’ve ever been to Wingate, you know what mosquitoes are, almost all year round. But inside the boathouse, the windows could stay up all day long, and there were no mosquitoes inside the boathouse.

[CBMM catalog number appears with each image. Click images to see the catalog items and full-res images.]

Smaller flat-bottom and deadrise (v-bottom) workboats were planked while upside down, then turned over for interior work.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0357]

Deadrise workboats ready for bottom planking in the boat shed.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0010]

Probably a power cruiser under construction in the boat shed.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0004]

Boat Lumber

MH: When the trees were cut, of course the lumber was green, it was alive. So my father stacked them up with little board separators in between, and they stayed in the yard at least two years, I’m sure, getting cured. They stayed right out in the weather. And so he had lumber stacked up outside, and some of the larger boats were built outside, or he finished them outside after they were turned over and moved out. 

PH: I think a lot of the wood was local. Now, something like the white cedar, that usually came from a little further south. And they brought that in. But the yellow pine was certainly, lowland, Dorchester County, long-needle pine – loblollies. 

PH:  My Uncle Ralph said that one time up near Cambridge on the Talbot County side of the Choptank River, there’d been a big storm and it knocked down all these trees over.  They went and looked at them, and they said they were gorgeous.  And they were nice and big, and long and straight. And they cut them up, made gorgeous planks. But my Uncle Ralph said the only problem with them was they were upland pines. And for some reason, from growing where the ground was high, they didn’t have the same extractives in them, and the same pitch as the ones that were growing down in the marshes. The sap is the pitch in the pine. And it’s like this oil. And for some reason, the ones that were down in the lower part of Dorchester County in the marshes were much more resistant to like rot and stuff than these uplands. 

PH: For masts, they used the same thing – those pine. I’ve got a picture of the old Army truck that my grandfather’s got. And they’ve got the tree for the mast strapped to the side of it. Like in the middle of it. It’s balancing there and they’re moving it across the yard to get ready to shape it up. But I think he got a lot of his pine too from Arthur Spicer. 

PH: Spicer had a big lumber operation. And it was just before you get to where the road splits, and one side goes to Hooper’s Island and the other side goes to Wingate, just before you get to Gootee’s, where Gootee’s Marine is now. But, man, they sawed a lot of lumber. He and my grandfather were good friends. 

PH:  But Papa would also get mahogany from MacLean Brothers in Baltimore. He certainly got a lot of the white cedar from way down south.  I guess then you could still get some on the eastern shore of Virginia, but mostly North Carolina. And always when they were saying, “Oh, so and so’s going to pay for a white cedar bottom”, all the guys would go, “Hey, buddy. Hey, buddy.” Because they all liked working with it. It’s a nice material to work with. 

PH: He used mahogany for the sterns of the boat. Sometimes they might use it for a bit of trim in the cabin. But mostly on the stern of a boat. They would make that out of mahogany. I think just for looks. Just for looks to make it you know, dress it up, make it look good. 

MH:  He bought most of his lumber from the Spicers. Every now and again he had to go into Baltimore. I remember that I drove a little truck in a couple times to pick up lumber for him. That was at McLean Lumber Company in Baltimore.  But most of his lumber came from Spicers. 

PH:  I remember going to Baltimore in his car.  When I knew him, he always had a black Lincoln Continental.  He had other cars early on when they were first getting that. And he had an old Army surplus, big four-wheel drive truck that he kept around the boathouse for pulling and hauling. But I think that a lot of the stuff he got at Baltimore, he would go there and pick it out, and they would deliver it. 

PH: And we went to MacLean’s one time, and they were showing him some mahoganies. “I don’t know about that. You don’t have any other mahogany around here besides this stuff because, you know, I just can’t use that.” The guy was like, “Well, no, not really.” And finally another salesman came over and he said, “Well, Mr. Parks, I think you need to come walk over to this other shed with me.”  We went in there, and there were planks that were like 20 inches wide and just gorgeous. But I think the first guy was trying to get rid of some of that stuff. And when Papa wasn’t going to buy that, it was kind of … ah… well. 

[Read more:  Loblolly Pine in Eastern Shore Sailing Workboats ]

Skipjacks Martha Lewis, Rosie Parks, and Lady Katie under construction. 1 September 1955.  [0000.1401.0037]

Danial Barrett’s workboat  under construction at Bronza’s boatyard.  Undated, probably before 1950  [0000.1401.0031]

Skipjacks Martha Lewis with new planking.  Undated, probably August 1955.  [0000.1401.0007]

Skipjacks Martha Lewis on left, Rosie Parks on right,  under construction.  26 October 1955.  [0000.1401.0025]

Bronza Goes into the Woods for Timber

MH: Almost all of [the lumber] came from Spicer’s Lumber Company. …  Many times I went in the woods with him to pick the trees that he wanted.  He would go in with a couple of those Spicer men. It wasn’t the Spicer’s Lumber as it is today that I recall. The first one that I recall was Mr. Theof Spicer. And he was a brother to Arthur Spicer, I believe. But my father would go in and make a big “X” on a tree that he wanted, or some kind of big mark on the tree. And then the Spicers would go in, cut the trees down, and deliver them to him. 

MH:  He could walk into the woods and find trees just the size he wanted, and he taught me lots of things about geometry. I could get answers to geometry in school that other kids couldn’t, but I couldn’t do it the way the teacher told me. But I recall my father lying on the ground. He was just six feet tall, and he’d lie on the ground.  I would hold the six-foot ruler up by his feet, and he would look up – after measuring accurately the distance to the tree.  You’re talking about a right triangle that he was getting, and that’s the way he measured the height of the trees. 

MH:  He told me how, when a truck came to deliver lumber, I could stand there come close to getting the number of board feet on the truck because I knew the size of the truck, and the width of those boards.  And it’s a bit unusual, but my father [only] finished the eighth grade in school. And so he just knew a lot of arithmetic. He knew how to do those things. 

PH:  He had some real mathematical ability. I can remember somebody’d be talking about whether they would use this one particular tree for a mast. And they’d say, “Well, how tall do you think that is? We need it to be such and such a length.”  And Papa would walk to the very end of the shadow of the tree and stand there.  And then he would tell me or somebody else to go and stand where his shadow ended.   Once he had that marked, he would walk from where he was standing to where the other person was and pace it off. And then he could tell you, “Well, it’s so many feet to the first limb.” And you know, he was doing triangulation and ratios in his head.  

[Read more:  Bronza Goes Looking for Old Growth Pine ]

Timber for boat mast transported through the yard.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0014]

Bronza’s crew shaping a mast.  Probably the skipjack Lady Katie under construction in the background.  October 1955.   [0000.1401.0345]

Skipjack Rosie Parks being prepared for transport and launching.  26 October 1955.  [0000.1401.0045]

Springing Planks from the Stem 

PH:  You go out in the field and you dig a post hole, and you stick the stem post of the boat in the ground. And you try to get the angle just right. You tamp the dirt around it.  And then you take two 40-foot boards and fasten them to that stem post. And then some distance back, you put a stretcher in there. And then you put a tourniquet on the end and you start twisting it until it starts to bend and starts to look right.   

PH:  [Bronza] said, “Now, when you bend a board, it’s either going to hump up or hump down. It never stays straight.” So you’d get it so the curve from the stem to the stern and all looks right. And then you get that set. And then you level a line all the way around it and you plane it level. And when you think about it, the water’s level. So now, all of a sudden you’ve got the level line. And then once you start adding the keelson.  They would use sticks, and they would shave a little bit here, and cut on the keel to get the angles because the angles change. But he said the more deadrise you put in the boat, which is the amount of V in the bottom, the easier it is for it to displace the water. Flat bottom doesn’t displace very well,  so you’ve got a V side-to-side and fore to aft so to speak. And then you splash them in the water and that’s where they float, because they float on the chine. 

PH:  It sounds simple, but it’s hard. I can remember watching my Uncle Ralph after they had the keel. And they’d be there with an axe and an adze, and this big square chunk of wood’s going from stem to stern. He’d lay a stick across from there to the side. And he’d look at it and start chiseling.  He would keep doing it until that stick laid on there just the way he wanted. And then it was ready to plank up.  

PH:  They didn’t really get involved with repair a whole lot.  I know O’Neal Dean told me they had a couple of boats that were what they would call “Jonahs”,  because it was almost like they were cursed from the beginning.  Sometimes no matter how good you are or how good your crew is, some things just go south on you. And I’ve heard O’Neal speak about a couple of boats. And my Uncle Ralph. They would both chuckle about that. 

Deadrise workboat hull in Bronza’s boatyard.  Ridon Powley’s house in background.  August 1955. [0000.1401.0383]

Deadrise workboat launched into the ditch near Bronza’s boatyard.  Undated. [0000.1401.0161]

Bronza with skipjack Rosie Parks.  26 October 1955.  [0000.1401.0233]

The Bronza Parks Boatyard Photos and Interviews at CBMM

Photos

While browsing the CBMM online collection, I came across 230+ photos taken around the boatyard during 1953-55.  This was the time when Bronza was building the famous “Three Sisters” skipjacks – Rosie Parks, Martha Lewis, and Lady Katie – side by side in his yard.  The photos give us a close look at family members, boatyard crew, work methods, and the launch of skipjacks, workboats, and power cruisers that had to be moved a quarter mile from his yard to the water.

This photo collection was a gift to CBMM from William Preston Harding, Jr.  “Pres” Harding was a grandson of Bronza Parks; he spent a lot of time at the boatyard and in the household of his grandparents until he moved away from Wingate with his mother at age 14, after the tragic and violent death of his grandfather.

The entire collection of 238 Bronza Parks Boatyard photos in the CBMM online collection is here.

 

Interviews

W.P. “Pres” Harding was interviewed by CBMM in 2018.  The full transcript is here.

His mother, Mary Parks Harding, was interviewed in 2002. The full transcript is here.

 

The Empty Field

I made a pilgrimage to Wingate in February 2024, looking for the site of the Bronza Parks Boatyard.  With help from “Brian” at Honga Oyster Co. down at the waterfront, and from Del Pritchett of the Lakes & Straits VFD, I found the site and walked through the empty field where the Three Sisters and B.M. Parks, Designer and Builder of Boats, had stood.

More about CBMM Collections

Items that are not exhibited around the CBMM campus are kept in the Norman & Ellen Plummer Center for Museum Collections.  This is a climate-controlled facility that was expanded and modernized in 2023.

You can search all the collections online here.  Look for the links at lower left to search these collections separately:

  • Objects, Photographs, Manuscripts, Ships Plans
  • Regional Oral History Database
  • Books and Periodicals

See my CBMM Collections Search Tips.

The collections and library are accessible only by appointment.  Email collections@cbmm.org or visit the Library and Research page.

Voile-Aviron | Sail & Oar

 

I also write about sail-and-oar cruising in traditional open boats on the Chesapeake and its tributaries at  Sail+Oar – Chesapeake Log.