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

Design by Eye

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

PH:   There was a lot of intuitive stuff that went on. You would see men working on the boats or working a sheer line of a boat. And they’d get a ladder and they’d climb up on top of the boathouse and look at it. And then they’d go all the way to the other side of the field and climb up on another boat and look at it. And then they would say, “Well, you know, she looks fair from this direction, but if you get over this way, it doesn’t look fair.” So they would do like little corrections. There was a process of always taking the kinks out of everything. I think they actually did some stuff that was what you would call like a visual correction. Like on the side of a cabin, if you made the two sides of the cabin perfectly plumb, and then you looked at them from a distance, they gave the illusion that they were splayed out at the top. Then it just looks dumb. But if you tilted your level so they tip in about a quarter of a bubble on a two-foot level, you’re like that little bit out of plumb. I don’t know why, but it just looks right, you know. They didn’t use “aesthetic”. They would talk about a boat that like looked “dumb”. It just didn’t look right.

PH: They built a boat for Captain Irving Crouch up in Rock Hall. And he wanted it a certain way, because he was doing this fishing. And he was going to put this big winder on it for winding in his nets and everything. And they were like, “You know, that was a really nice-looking boat. And he was a great guy. But it was one of the dumbest boats we ever built.” Because it just wouldn’t act right in the water. When they went to back it up, for some reason it just didn’t respond or do the way they were used to. But that’s what they referred to as a really a dumb boat.

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

Plank-on-frame hull under construction in Bronza’s boat shop. Undated.  [0000.1401.0004]

Power cruisers under construction in Bronza’s boatyard. Undated.  [0000.1401.0277]

Power yacht in Bronza’s boatyard.  August 1956.  [0000.1401.0006]

Hull under construction in Bronza’s boat shed.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0008]

Workboats or power yachts in Bronza’s boatyard.  August 1956.  [0000.1401.0012]

Draketails, Dovetails, and Torpedo Sterns 

PH: People refer to what my grandfather built as draketails. But they’re really not draketails; they’re dovetails. There are a lot of draketails that were built further south in Virginia. And if you look at a round-stern boat, if the long point of the stern is facing up, away from the water, that’s a draketail. It’s meant to help lift you if you have a big following sea.

PH: With the dovetail, the long point goes down to the water. It’s not so great in a following sea. But the whole purpose of that was to increase hull speed. When they were built, if you had like a 100 or a 110 horsepower in a boat then, that was a lot. And with a boat, it would get to a point where you can only put so much power in it, and it’ll reach a certain speed, and it won’t go any faster unless you make it longer. And that was why they were using those long planks and trying to extend the stern that extra two-and-a-half or three feet further back. Johnson Fortenbow had asked me if I ever heard of the dovetails referred to as a torpedo stern. And actually I have. Apparently back in the days when they still had some wooden, early PT boats, they were looking at trying to make those go faster. And I think my grandfather had seen some kind of article where a submarine architect had taken existing boats and they added that stern to them to put that length on them. And that’s how they kind of came up with that.

PH: People down there [around Wingate] were always trying something a little different. There’s a lot of tradition and all, but they were also innovators and trying to be forward thinkers, because you had to survive, you know, to sell the boats and all that.

Cabin Curves & Tumblehome

PH: The cabin always tilted in just a little bit, like about a quarter bubble out of plumb. And I don’t know why it is, but if you make the cabin sides plumb, and you put that sash in there, and then you get out on the water, it looks like it splays out at the top. It just doesn’t look right. You tip that in just that quarter of a bubble, and that’s a trademark of his boats. And on the side of the cabin, where the window met the windshield, there was always a little cyma curve right at the bottom. That was out front. And that was so if you saw the boat from a long ways away, you could tell it was one of his boats, because they all had that. It’s like just a little touch that he did on that.

PH: On a lot of the workboats, if you looked at their stern, they are basically like a box stern. They splayed out a little bit at the top, but they were usually straight. It’s easy to bring the boards to the straight. But if you looked at Papa’s from the chine to where the toerail was, the stern’s got quite a curve in it. And that’s what they would call tumblehome. And the other thing that it does is when you bring the sheer line, which is where the washboards on the boat are, from the bow down, because you’ve tumbled that in at the very back of the boat, it makes it come back up a little bit, that sheer line. So it’s like a little tuck up that happens there.

PH: His sign used to say “B.M. Parks Boat Builder”. And then as the years went by, it became “B.M. Parks, Designer and Builder of Boats”. I think that’s kind of significant. Most of [Bronza’s boats] look pretty good. And usually what I try to figure out is if it’s a real early boat of his or a later boat of his. And a lot of times, you can tell that by looking at the stern, how the roll of the tumblehome is on the sterns. And each boat has its own little significant thing that happens. There were a lot of things that were trademarks of his. But then when you really start looking at them, you know, this one’s maybe a little different than the other. And they could be, depending on who was working on it in the yard, also.

Power yacht rolled out of Bronza’s boat shed.  May 1953.  [0000.1401.0003]

Power yacht in Bronza’s boatyard.  Probably 1950-52.  [0000.1401.0030]

Power yacht probably ready for launch.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0376]

Floating on the Chine

PH: Papa did everything out of his head. He had a lot of knowledge. And he would try different things. I have pictures of like a very early skiff he’s got where when you look at the sides from the stern going up, all of a sudden they start to just turn in just a little bit. And then in later years, they become really graceful curves. And they call that tumble home. Where he got all of his knowledge, I’m not really all that up on. But way, way back in our family, they crossed paths with these folks that were named the Deanes. I think they were from like northern England, like lower Scotland. But those people were boatbuilders. And somehow, through marriage or whatever, they all got connected in some way. All these men had a good eye and good skills.

PH: A real old-timer waterman one time said to me, “You know what’s so great about a Bronzie Parks boat is they all float right on the chine, right at their chine line.” And the chine is where the side of the boat meets the bottom. And most of his boats were hard chine. If you look at a boat and that area is curved, say like on the Rebecca Ruark, they call that a soft chine. It’s a displacement hull. But with a hard chine, there’s like a sharp angle there where the bottom meets the side. If you really start looking at boats, a lot of times the chine is like two or three inches in the water. Or part of it’s out of the water, and then it curves up. And so I really got thinking about it for a long time. And I just really just couldn’t figure it out. So I asked my Uncle Ralph about it: “How do you do that? How do you get the boat to float right on its chine?” Because Uncle Ralph did a lot of that work there also. He said, “Well, first of all, you have to have done a lot of it and be pretty slick. But really when you think about it, it’s really pretty simple.”

Probably a power yacht based on Bronza’s workboat design, with larger and taller cabin.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0141]

Probably a power cruiser near completion. Vessel in the background is probably the Lady Katie, which was built on a later schedule than the other two of the “Three Sisters” skipjacks.  August 1956.  [0000.1401.0002]

Workboats staged in the boatyard, probably in front of the Parks residence.  View looking southeast.  August 1956.  [0000.1401.0015]

Probably a power cruiser near completion.  August 1956.  [0000.1401.0016]

The Three Sisters – and More 

PH: I think all of his boats were pretty nice. But everybody kind of referred to his workboats as being his best work, including the skipjacks. They were really kind of ahead of their time. But I guess they were lucky that they survived all this time. You figure over a half a century. That’s a long time for a skipjack. They were kind of a disposable. You try to keep it up. But once they were gone, they just went and got another boat, you know. They were supposed to be an inexpensive way to harvest oysters.

MH: There were [15 boats] in progress at about the time that those three skipjacks were under way. They were built outside the boathouse. And at that particular time, when my father first built the boathouse, it was 50 feet long. And then as he came to be building more boats, he added another 50-foot extension. In later years, another 50-foot extension. And then he added 50 feet beside that. So he ended being able to build like four vessels inside the boathouse.

MH: They weren’t started at the same time really, and they were not finished at the same time, but they were all under construction at some point at the same time. There are many pictures of them side by side.

PH: There was not a lot of difference between the three skipjacks, because he never had drawings or plans like that. But when they were doing the Martha Lewis, the Lady Katie, and Rosie Parks – the three sisters – they were building everything in threes. So there were some times when they might cut out a certain part and then take something and trace that, you know. And then have that be a template for the other to try to help speed up the process. Because the real object was that he wanted to build a nice boat. And he wanted it to look good and work good. But you know, they were for working. So they also wanted them to be somewhat as economical as you can make them. People had to be able to afford to buy the workboats.

MH: The Rosie Parks was named after my father’s mother. But Uncle Orville actually picked out the name for it, because he was building the boat for Uncle Orville. And her name was Rosina Parks. But everyone knew her as Rosie. So that’s who that one was named after.

MH: The Martha Lewis dad built for my mother’s brother, Uncle Jim, and his older son, Earl Lewis. He built it for a partnership of the two of them, and that was named after my mother’s mother.

MH: The third vessel [Lady Katie] dad was building for a man who had a heart attack and died before the vessel was completed. And dad said that he’s never been able to really own a boat that he built. Somebody would always come along, and they’d want the boat and he’d sell it. So he is going to keep this sailboat for himself. And if the times ever got slow, he would dredge it. And he did dredge it for a while after it was built. But when the boat was almost complete, I kind of snuggled up to him, and I said, dad, why don’t you name that boat after your best girl. (Laughter.) Name it the Proud Mary. And he says, “Well honey, I already have named it after my best girl, but I’ve named it the Lady Katie”, and that was my mother.

MH: The Barbara Batchelder is Mr. DuPont’s wife. That’s who she was named after. The Wilma Lee, the other skipjack, was built for a partnership of my Uncle Orville, dad’s brother, and my Uncle Asbury, who is mother’s brother. And the Wilma part of it was from Uncle Orville’s daughter. And the Lee was Uncle Asbury’s granddaughter. That’s where that name came from. But they always said that next to a man’s heart, other than his wife or girlfriend, was his boat. So they named the boats usually a she name, a female name. And they generally named them after the people that they were closest to.

PH: The Three Sisters weren’t his last boats. They were being built in 1954, around there. So he still had four years of boatbuilding after those. The Wilma Lee was a fair amount earlier than that. I’m pretty sure she belonged to Orville Parks. And when he got the Rosie Parks, my Uncle Ralph [Ruark] bought the Wilma Lee.  Somebody else had the Wilma Lee before Uncle Ralph got her. I don’t think he got her directly from Orville.

PH: The Rosie Parks is in the Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. The Martha Lewis is in the Maritime Museum at Havre de Grace. But the word is that she’s on hard times. They’re having trouble raising money to keep her up a little bit. The Lady Katie – Scott Todd has bought her and has really done a lot of work. He’s basically rebuilt her. And he dredges with her and you know, races with her and all that. He’s a great guy. And the Wilma Lee is in Ocracoke, North Carolina. [2012]

PH: He built a skipjack with a very long cabin on it that had bunks on it for Irénée du Pont, the Barbara Batchelder. And she stays down at Rock Hall. She’s still there. [2012]

The Three Sisters.  1955.   [0000.1401.0007]

The Three Sisters.  1955.   [0000.1401.0017]

The Three Sisters.  1955.   [0000.1401.0020]

The Three Sisters.  1955.   [0000.1401.0025]

Bronza Parks standing in cockpit of a vessel under construction in front of hist boat shop.  Undated, probably early 1950s. [0000.1401.0232]

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 small open boats on the Chesapeake and its tributaries at  Sail+Oar – Chesapeake Log.