- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

GRASONVILLE, Md. — Just east of Kent Narrows, on a thin finger jutting out of the Eastern Shore, stands a waist-high slab of granite the exact gray-green color of the Chesapeake Bay.

Atop this foundation will soon stand a hulking, bronze sculpture of two watermen hauling in a catch of striped bass.

It is the first statewide monument to the workers who are the heart of a fading Maryland institution.

“It’s not a nail in the coffin, but the water business is going away,” said artist Tilghman Hemsley, who designed the sculpture. “This is something to leave there to let people know the water business was a very viable business.”

George O’Donnell, former waterman and former Queen Anne’s County commissioner, started the effort seven years ago. He raised $285,000, enough to pay for the massive, 13-foot high monument, and he’s still collecting money to pay for future additions — a visitors’ kiosk and a circle of flagpoles.

If the monument becomes what he envisions, people will come to see a symbol of how glorious working on the water can be. They’ll see in the sculpture what they want to see — a memorial to a way of life or hope for its future, Mr. O’Donnell said.

“What this site will become … is a place where people can come and reflect on whatever watermen and the seafood industry mean to them. Then it becomes a hallowed place,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who prefers to stay optimistic about the watermen’s future.

“Hopefully, it will be a beacon of hope” for the industry, he said.

Mr. Hemsley designed the bronzework from an old photograph of two unidentified watermen in the 1950s. They wear rumpled hats and oilskin pants, and they’re struggling against a whipped-up bay to return their skiff to a head boat and unload their catch.

Each holds an oar. One looks downward as he paddles; one wears a grave expression as he looks out at the water. Each has a job to do as the boat digs into the waves.

“Watermen are fiercely independent people. The monument shows their dependence on each other,” said Mr. O’Donnell, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were watermen at times in their lives. The names of his parents, Conaway and Betty O’Donnell, were two of the first to be engraved in the granite — alongside names of other donors and their families.

The art doesn’t try to unravel the mystery of the waterman or what is behind his intense drive. But it may help people better appreciate watermen, Mr. O’Donnell said. What they do is something ancient — gathering food from the sea. But outsiders rarely see the action of the job. People don’t know how watermen accomplish this task or appreciate the determination it takes, he said.

“They go out early in the morning, in hot and cold weather, and they come back with something live, and people say, ‘Where did that come from? How did you know where to go to get that?’ Nowhere in the country can you go somewhere to learn how to do this,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

After 400 years of making their living gathering oysters, crabs and fish from the bay, watermen are leaving the business every year as harvests decline due to overfishing and pollution.

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