ROCK HALL — This town is known for a way of life that deserves to be preserved. And the board of the Rock Hall Marine Restoration & Heritage Center wants those traditions to live on as more than just a memory.
Robin Wood Kurowski, the chairman of the board, said in a phone interview Jan. 18, “When we started, we were very concerned about the protection of our heritage and what we believe this town is truly about. … We want the children in the community to have the same kind of experiences we did as children.”
To that end, the board recently welcomed a group of Rock Hall Elementary School fifth-graders to the center to share their knowledge about and love for all things Rock Hall.
“Our generation is the last generation who knows what happened years ago and if we don’t tell the story, nobody will hear it,” said William “Scratch” Ashley, chief operating officer of the center, in a phone interview Jan. 19.
The students visited the heritage center, which is housed in the historic Rock Hall Clam House, Tuesday, Jan. 12. But this was no typical field trip. The board planned a full slate of hands-on activities highlighting life on the water, particularly fishing and boat building.
The 18 students were split into two groups. One half started their morning by building old-fashioned boat bailers, which they were able to take home at the end of the day. Board member Liz Smith helped drill the bailers’ handles into place while another board member, Linda Davis, began an informal lesson on fishing boats, using a model of a historic skipjack to illustrate the differences in modern-day workboats. They also went over nautical terminology.
Meanwhile, the others were busy helping Ashley strip the deck of a Cricket boat built by Stanley Vansant in Rock Hall in 1920. Ashley said there are very few wooden boat builders left, so experiencing that kind of work was an important element of the children’s visit.
Not only that, Kurowski said, “We need more marine workers. Who’s not to say we can’t have more boat building in this town like we used to. … We want our children to stay in this community and raise their families like we have.”
Along with serving as COO, “a fancy title for a worker bee,” Ashley said, he is a retired waterman and tugboat captain.
To re-create a vanishing tradition, a lunch was prepared the way the watermen used to eat back in the times when they spent much of their lives on the boats. “We just went ashore twice a day and cooked,” Ashley said.
For this feast, the children were treated to a variety of fried foods, including bread, potatoes, oysters and rockfish that had been caught just that morning, then cleaned and cut by Ashley right before going into the oil.
The meal was a hit among nearly all the children, who seemed to like the fried bread and rockfish the best, though a few couldn’t get enough of the oysters.
After their bellies were full, the two groups switched so each student would get the chance to try every activity.
At the end of the day, Kurowski and the rest of the adults seemed to have enjoyed the visit as much as the kids, if not more. “I got kinda of teared up when they left,” Kurowski said. “It made me really, really happy we can involve the children from the community.”
That particular set of children turned out to be the perfect group to be the first welcomed to the heritage center — as it turns out, one of the boys is the great-great-grandson of Vansant and the grandmother of one of the girls used to be a clam house worker.
But that doesn’t mean they will be the only students to visit the center. “We’ll take anybody who wants to come down here,” Ashley said.
Kurowski said there are no set plans with other groups at the moment, “but, sure, we’ll do it upon request.” She said she would like to open up the opportunity to high-schoolers and middle-schoolers.
Ashley said he is currently building new frames for the Cricket and will have the boat set up for the next group to help put a new deck on.
The fifth-graders’ teacher, Kris Hickman, said she thought the day was a wonderful learning experience and hopes her students get to see the boat they helped take apart once it is refinished.
The center has a second Cricket — out of only 85 built by Vansant in total — that could serve as the next project when the first is complete. Another boat also was recently donated, so there will be no shortage of projects for any future school groups.
And if word of the success of the first foray spreads, there will surely be others who sign on.
RHES Principal Brenda Rose called Ashley earlier this week to tell him the students are still talking about their heritage center visit. “They had a ball,” Ashley said.
For more information about the center, visit www.rockhallheritage.com.