Oxford Vignettes: Volunteer Fireman and a Visit to Smith Island

By Cathy Schmidt

Bill and Sara Benson were dear cousins of my family who lived up the street from them. Throughout their lives, they enriched those who surrounded them with their community involvement, faith, grace, and generous neighborly manners. Sara kept a journal every year of her life in Oxford and Captain Bill kept a daily weather book throughout his time as Ferry Captain of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. They were anchors in the town of Oxford, steadfast and kind; they were a pleasure to know.

In this undated photograph, Sara and Bill Benson sit on their front porch in Oxford.

The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of these journal entries with the readers of Attraction. Smartly titled “Oxford Vignettes,” by Susan Benson, I invite you to enjoy reading these daily snippets of life in Oxford in their day.

William Lindale Benson was born in Bellevue on October 20, 1908. Sara Valliant Newnam was born on August 10, 1913 and grew up in the Grapevine House in Oxford. They married on Christmas Day in 1936 at the home of Joseph Newnam, her brother. After living in an apartment above the “Towne Shoppe” in Oxford, they moved to 315 North Morris Street in 1943, the year their son, Dale Jr., was born. At their new home, Sara could watch Captain Bill and the ferry from her sink window and front porch. Captain Benson took over operations of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry in 1938. His summer schedule ran 80-105 hours per week. Only winter ice kept the ferry from running, and the only day he took off was Christmas Day which was also his anniversary. He retired in 1974.

Saturday, June 4, 1977

50th Anniversary of Talbot County Volunteer Fireman’s Association Inc.

Right after breakfast, Bill got Sammy Taylor to help him move the stove out. Bill found the stove and stove pipe unusually dirty this time. I did laundry and made mandarin orange salads. Shared them with the Newtons, Miss Erma and the Gerhardt’s. I rode out to see Doris Clark and she had gone to Easton. I will see her at her father’s funeral. The Wesley Group went to Hershey and Lancaster for the day. Sarah Crockett visited for a few minutes.

At 6:45, Bill and I went to the Oxford Firehouse to a covered dish dinner to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Talbot County Volunteer Fireman’s Association. It so happened it was organized in Oxford’s Red Man’s Hall in 1927. Interesting the 50th anniversary was celebrated here. About 125 attended. Roast beef, rolls, butter, coffee, iced tea, and sheet cake were furnished. Rest of the dinner was covered dish. I took baked pineapple and lima beans. Richard Smith of Oxford was outgoing President, all past presidents were recognized including Bill Benson. Silas Simpson of Trappe was the only person present who had attended the organizational meeting 50 years ago. He spoke and so did George Mayer, Sr. A dinner ticket cost $5 per couple this year, donation price $6. Shortly after 9:00 the dance started; we stayed until 9:45. We sat at the table with Phil Harrison.

Tuesday, June 26th, 1979

Smith Island Trip

Dick Newton picked up Sarah Crockett, Bill and I at 10 a.m. We drove to Crisfield, and arrived at 12:30 and we 4 and 19 other passengers boarded the cruise ship Betty Joe Tyler for the hour-long trip to Smith Island. We docked at Rhodes Point, Maryland and walked the short wharf and into the restaurant across the road. Had a delicious dinner of home cooked food served family style, crab soup and crackers, clam fritters, crab cakes, ham, wax beans, potato salad, corn pudding, seafood salad, hot rolls, iced tea, coffee, and a slice each of devil’s food and pound cake topped with chocolate pudding. It cost $6 each with tax and tip. We were all then taken to the town of Ewell on a school bus. Our woman driver was also an interesting guide. After we got back to Rhodes Point, we walked all over it. We stopped at the General Store that has been in operation for over 100 years. It was run-down looking from the outside like it was ready to fall down. Inside we found the owner, a 92-year-old lady in a rocking chair with a cane. The whole place was such a mess we couldn’t believe our eyes. The dear lady told us if she knew we were coming she wouldn’t have been there because the store wasn’t looking the way she wanted it. She lives in a big house across the street, alone. We went into their lovely Methodist Church. The boat left for Crisfield at 4:05. We got back to Oxford at 7 p.m. We enjoyed this trip even more than the trip to Tangier Island, Virginia last year. I heard squirrels again during the night.

In case you were wondering…

Captain Gil Clark (husband of Doris Clark) ran the ferry after Captain Bill Benson. Valerie (his daughter) and Dave Bittner took the helm after Captain Clark.

Red Man’s Hall was located next to the old Oxford Post Office on Main Street. It was torn down in 1944. Movies were shown there!

Photograph of Red Man’s Hall circa 1912 is courtesy of the Nancy Newnam Newton Collection.


Sara Benson’s Old Fashioned Potato Salad with Cooked Dressing

2 qts. cooked potatoes cut in pieces and cooled

1/2 sweet onion diced small

1/4 red onion diced fine

2 ribs of celery diced small

3/4 of a green bell pepper chopped small

Celery seed (important) to taste

Salt & pepper to taste

Place all in a large bowl.

Cooked Dressing

2 eggs (beaten)

2 cups of sugar

1 cup of white vinegar

1 cup of water

3 T prepared mustard

2 T cornstarch

Combine all dressing ingredients, whisk together and bring to a boil stirring often. Cool and use about 1/2 of the dressing on the potato salad. The remainder will keep in the refrigerator for a week or so and can be used on coleslaw too. *When combining dressing and potato salad ingredients, everything should be cold.

Sara Benson’s Old Fashioned Potato Salad with Cooked Dressing is perfect for a summertime picnic.
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