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.

Clients: Workboat Captains and Out-of-Towners 

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

PH: If it were like a simple workboat, generally speaking they probably cranked those out in a little over a month. A yacht would take considerably longer. Like a Chesapeake Bay sport fishing boat. There were a couple of them that would come over from — reminded you a little bit of an Elco. They were like really long with some big cabins on them.

PH: Typically his work boats had just a little cuddy cabin in the front, and then a place where you could stand up and steer the boat, and maybe have a stove inside of it.  Dr. Pfeiffer’s boat had like bunks and all and that. I don’t know who he is, but I know his boat really well.  And that boat that my grandfather built would remind you more of like a Chris Craft yacht. And he just had Papa build the boat. And it was kind of a big deal.

MH: He built some very fancy yachts in the early years. I remember there was a very large food processing company in Cambridge here that was probably as large or larger than Campbell’s is now [2002]. It was owned by the Phillips people. Dad built for a yacht for Mr. Levi Phillips – one of the first yachts that I recall. It had a high cabin on it, and it was all mahogany. He didn’t get the mahogany wood from the Spicer’s. He had to order that from some of those large lumber companies in the cities.

MH: The dovetails [workboats], I believe, were all made for people who were nearby. They were not made for people out of town. The out-of-towners she would cook for, because there were no restaurants. You were like 30 miles from a restaurant.

MH: [Finishing a boat] was an event for everybody to come see it. I remember a preacher might stop by and climb up on the boards and look over the boat. You know, people just like to see it. … There’s the one named Vanderscoot that always brought his girlfriend, not his wife. I remember he always was drinking.

MH: It was usually my mother’s job to have lunch for them when they came to look at the boats. And it was always on a weekend, you know. And my Aunt Iva, who was mother’s sister, would come out to help her in the hot summertime. In later years, we didn’t have to use a wood stove in the kitchen. And it was cooler because we had a kerosene stove. And they would fry oysters and crab cakes and things like that to have real fine meals for these people when they came from like Baltimore, Philadelphia or somewhere down to look at the boats.

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

Bronza with the owner of the power yacht in the background, identified as Dr. Fifer and as Dr. Etters in the CBMM documentation for this photos.  Possibly the same as Dr. Pfeiffer in the interviews.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0005 & 0000.1401.0184]

Unidentified worker or client in Bronza’s boat shed.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0230]

Jim Lewis at Bronza’s boatyard.  Lewis was the brother of Bronza’s wife, Katie, and was Bronza’s client for the skipjack Martha Lewis, see in background on the left.  Rosie Parks is on the right.  Lady Katie is visible, unpainted, in the far background. Undated, probably late 1955, near the completion of the “Three Sisters”.  [0000.1401.0038]

Power cruiser built for Levi Phillips of the Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0162]

Unidentified probable client.  Undated.  [0000.1401.0131]

The Du Pont Skipjack

The following is an excerpt from “Negotiating For the Skipjack Barbara Batchelder”, by Irénée du Pont, Jr., published in the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Quarterly Report, Fall 2003. Construction of Barbara Batchelder began in Bronza’s boatyard before the ”Three Sisters” were completed.

On weekends [in August 1955], I toured the Eastern Shore of Maryland looking for an old boat for sale, hopefully a skipjack that might be made into a pleasure boat. In Cambridge, MD, Mr. Orville Parks offered to sell me his 50-foot skipjack Joy Parks, built in 1936. She was well maintained, but larger than anything I had in mind. He suggested I talk to his brother who was building him a new skipjack in Wingate, MD. “To meet him, go to the Acme Market on Saturday morning. He does his shopping there at 9:30.”

The next Saturday, I was at the Acme Market in Cambridge well before 9:30. I asked the girl at the checkout counter if she knew Mr. Bronza M. Parks. “Yes.” “Would you point him out to me when he comes in?” “Yes.” I took up a position by the cigarette vending machine. In a short while, the checkout girl pointed to a fast-walking, broad-shouldered man coming in the door. I introduced myself, told him my interest, and received his card with an invitation to visit his boat yard a week from tomorrow.

On Sunday, August 14, 1955, …. As I rolled into Wingate ready to ask directions to Mr. Parks’ boat yard, the harbor bulkhead was a beehive of activity. After several days of rain, people were bailing and pumping their workboats. Some guys were fussing with a portable fire pump, trying to free a fishing boat that was perilously close to foundering. The pump motor was running, but the device that was meant to prime the pump wouldn’t suck out the air.

My college thesis was on using exhaust energy to create a vacuum for drawing cooling air over motorcycle cylinders. Instantly, I recognized the priming device on the fire pump and why it wasn’t working. It had simply slipped partly off the engine’s exhaust pipe. I jumped down into the boat, picked up an oar and swatted the device back into place, causing the pump to give forth with a mighty stream of water. Some smiling onlookers pointed out Mr. Parks’ boat house with his name in large letters on the roof.

By the time I got to the yard, word of the fire pump incident had preceded me. Mr. Parks looked at the old car and said I was the only one who had gotten into Wingate since the flood. That made me a double hero who seriously wanted a boat.

We talked about the kind of boat I wanted and he agreed to design a smaller skipjack with an extended cabin. He seemed delighted that anyone would want the kind of boat he wanted to build. He showed me three partly built oyster dredges (50-foot skipjacks)—one for his brother, one for his wife’s brother, and the third on speculation. (Later on, they became the Rosie Parks, the Martha Lewis, and the Lady Katie.) He showed me lots of old photographs and said, “Counting the little ‘uns with the big ‘uns, I have built over 450 boats in my time. Give me a couple of weeks, Honey, (he called all his friends ‘Honey’) and I’ll show you what we can do.”

It was getting late afternoon when word came that, with the outgoing tide, the road to Cambridge was now clear. I took that as the signal to head home. …

June 19, 1956, we sailed away in the 40-foot skipjack Barbara Batchelder to begin a lifetime of sailing pleasure. The Barbara Batchelder is starting her 48th season [in October 2015, just finished her 60th season] and counting.

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

PH: For some time in the spring and summer [Uncle Ralph] would run Stine’s Railway down there [near Wingate, after Bronza’s death]. He would do some repair work. He also was the guy who kept up the [skipjack yacht] Barbara Batchelder for Mr. and Mrs. du Pont … until it got to the point where he passed away. Now [2012] they keep her at … Lankford Bay Marina [Rock Hall]. But she always would sit right there by Stine’s Railway [for annual maintenance].

PH: Maybe five or six years ago, I met up with Mr. and Mrs. du Pont. I said, “Oh, it’s so great you guys still have the boat.” And she goes, “Well, you know, our friends for years have been saying, ‘When are you going to get a new boat?’” And she goes, “Ralph Ruark gives me a new boat every year.”

Bronza Parks standing in the cockpit of the skipjack yacht Barbara Batchelder at the Wingate waterfront.  Probably autumn 1955 or spring 1956. [0000.1401.0228]

The Du Ponts’ skipjack yacht Barbara Batchelder in Bronza’s boatyard, forward launch cracle in place.  Autumn 1955 or spring 1956. [0000.1401.0116 ]

The skipjack yacht Barbara Batchelder under sail.  Location and date unknown, probably 1956. [0000.1401.0119]

Du Ponts’ skipjack yacht Barbara Batchelder under construction in Bronza’s boatyard.  Probably autumn 1955 or spring 1956. [0000.1401.0113 ]

The Du Ponts’ skipjack yacht Barbara Batchelder ready for launch near Bronza’s boatyard.  Autumn 1955 or spring 1956.  [0000.1401.0114]

Citizen Bronza Parks

PH: Bronza was just really something. He was somebody of such stature. Wherever he went, you could see heads turn. Like, “Here comes Bronzie.” He was the head of [the firehouse campaign] and saw to it that they got the ambulances. He had this Army surplus, big four-wheel drive truck that he used to pull boats down to the water. But they also put a big ditch pump on it and then bolted it to the front of the bumper. I guess you could hook a three-inch diameter hose to it. So that if there was a fire, they could try to fight it. They’d throw one part of the hose in the ditch and turn on the pump and just go at it. But the problem was, if there was real low tide, there wasn’t very much water in the ditch, and they ran out of water.

MH: He donated part of [the land for the firehouse], and I know Mac Wheatley donated part. Their lots ran side by side. And he took men off the job to do it. I remember one man who worked for him for a long time, for a lot of years, Clarence Jones. [In the photos], you see what they did in dad’s boathouse.

PH: He gave the property right next to his boathouse. He got some men together, and they bought some block and just started building this little fire house. The fire house was also the church hall, because the church didn’t have hall for dinner and all that. They had a kitchen in the fire house. So they would always have the oyster and ham dinner, or crab cake dinner. And that’s how they would always raise some money.

PH: And when he was trying to get the ambulance, he went around the community, and people bought a share of the ambulance.

Bronza Parks and Clarence Jones holding line square for laying out cornerstones of the new firehouse on land that Bronza donated .  [0000.1401.0300]

Bronza Parks and Clarence Jones lay the southeast cornerstone of the new firehouse on land that Bronza donated.   Photo on display at the Lakes & Straits Fire Hall, Wingate, MD.

Bronza Parks and Clarence Jones lay cornerstones of the new firehouse on land that Bronza donated.  View faces northeast.  Boatyard is to the right.  Photo on display at the Lakes & Straits Fire Hall, Wingate, MD.

Candidate Bronza Parks

PH: He was running for county commissioner of Dorchester County. And his whole life, he was a die-hard Democrat. But when he got ready to run, they said that they already had someone on the ticket. They didn’t want him on the ticket. So then he was kind of like, “Well, I’ll run as a Republican. It doesn’t matter.” So then he talked to them and they really didn’t want him to run. But he refers to himself as a Democrat, but on a lot of brochures it would say the first man to appeal directly to the people as a member of the People’s Party. But he was basically running independent of anything.

PH: I would ride around with him when he was running for county commissioner. He had boards across the top of his car and PA speakers that looked like a bullhorn, you know. And he had like a little mic like for the radios they would have in trucks, where you push the key and you can talk in it. And he would let me push the thing and say, “Vote for B.M. Parks. Vote for B.M. Parks.” And on the front seat in between us, they rigged up this record player. … So when you weren’t talking on the speaker, you could put this record on, and it would play music, as you were riding around, and everybody could hear it. His favorite song was “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. The other side was “In the Garden”. They were both hymns. And once one was done, my job was to flip the record over and put the needle back. It was a little 45 record.

PH: He was running on the people’s ticket and the first man ever to make a direct appeal to the Dorchester citizens for support.

[PH reads Bronza’s campaign brochure:] “Vote for Bronza M. Parks, a self-made businessman, a loyal Democrat all his life, a community worker for the past 25 years, a friend to the watermen, the working man, the firemen, the businessman and the farmer. A man with a program in mind. A man who believes in wider roads so two cars can pass without endangering the lives of others, and smooth enough to guarantee more than 6000 miles on one set of tires. A man who believes in a good drainage program along Dorchester County roads, and an effective mosquito control. A man who has sent five daughters to college, and is in favor of good schools with many courses to better educate the boys and girls of Dorchester County. A man who believes in a good health program. But with all this, still believes in keeping a good, honest watch on the taxpayers’ money. A man who likes people and who will not hide from them, and who is not afraid to say yes or no. A man in whom 700 people demonstrated their confidence by coming out on a rainy night to help in a campaign kick- off.”

PH: When he died,  I was seven-and-a-half years old. But it seems to me that whenever I was with him, wherever we went, it was like everybody knew who he was.

Studio portrait of Bronza Parks on display at the Lakes & Straits Fire Hall, Wingate, MD.   Date unknown, probably mid-1950s.

Bronza Parks campaign business card.  Probably 1958.   [0000.1401.0220]

After Bronza’s Death – Skipjack Auctions and an Empty Field

PH: A lot of the activity at the boathouse after his death pretty much stopped. Uncle Ralph [Ruark] would do things. At one time he had to build a mast for the Barbara Batchelder, Mr. du Pont’s boat, and he did that in the boathouse. But it became more storage and that sort of thing.

PH: When my grandfather was killed, all that property in the boatyard went up for auction to pay off debt. My Aunt Lucille’s and my Aunt Irene’s husbands bought the property. Aunt Lucille’s husband was in the Air Force. I think Aunt Irene’s husband worked for DuPont. He was something like a chemical engineer. So they had some resources, and they bought the property, so that my grandmother could stay there at the house.

PH: Mr. du Pont, I believe, talked to Uncle Ralph and said, “If you want to buy the Lady Katie, I’ll pay for it.” But Uncle Ralph really didn’t bite on that. But he did buy some of the tools that were in the boat shop – the big bandsaw and the joiner, and a couple of things like that. He was one of my grandfather’s foremen. But really after Papa’s death, the boatyard became Uncle Ralph’s spot to supplement work that he would do sometimes in the summer on people’s boats at the railway. Like repair work and upkeep.

MH: We sold the Lady Katie. My mother needed the money, and it was sold at auction, and George Powley bought it.  And I think in one paper it says that Gene Wheatley bought it. I don’t know whether Gene ever did or whether it always belonged to George. But Gene worked the boat. Gene was always the captain of the boat. But I was happy to see Scott Todd with the boat [in 2002]. And knowing Scott’s family, those Elliotts. His grandfather was a dear friend of my father, way back as a child, I probably thought he was an important relative or something, because he and dad were so friendly. And dad built boats for his father, for Mr. Elliott, too.

PH: The house is still there. After my grandmother passed away, it was sold.

The boat yard was located between the present Lakes & Straits fire hall, on the left, and Bronza’s residence, which is still standing on the right.

When I pulled up at the Lakes & Straits firehouse, volunteer Del Pritchett knew what I was there for.   He walked me around back to the empty field where Bronza’s boat shops stood.  And walked me through the details of Bronza’s murder in 1958 – where the client’s boat was at the time.  The neighbors’ impulse to lynch the killer.  The trial and the insanity plea.  [Read eyewitness accounts here.]  After a walk about, Del takes you into the fire hall and shows you portraits of Bronza on the wall.

Bronza Parks and his brother-in-law, Capt. Jim Lewis, next to the boat shop.
1 October 1955.  [0000.1401.0032 ]

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 selections I present above have been edited to improve readability and clarity.

 

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.