By Cathy Schmidt
Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of my family who lived up the street. 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, and they were a pleasure to know.
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 the 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 to 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.
The Benson family has graciously decided to share some of Sara’s 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.
The Oxford Carry-Out
Just two of many, many entries about the Oxford Carry-Out in Sara’s journals:
Tuesday, August 10, 1965 – I had a lovely birthday! My darling treated us to three Carry-Out dinners from Nollmeyers. Mother had fried chicken, Bill had crab cakes, and I had steak. Instead of a birthday cake, we had fresh strawberry pie from the Robert Morris Inn…it was all so delicious…
Tuesday, September 7, 1965 – Miss Wilsie Gibsons’ 76th birthday….Clarence (Cox) took over the ferry for a little while, so Bill could rest but he spent most of the time at his desk. We got Carry-Out from Nollmeyers. Bill took the ferry over again at 6. Mother and I went to the Oxford Cemetery to cut the grass on Miss Ida Bryant’s grave.
The Oxford Carry-Out was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s and I felt privileged to be able to sit down with Leo Nollmeyer, son of the owner, recently and discuss how it came to be. The amazing picture he shared facilitated our conversation.
Before it was Capsize, Scottish Highland Creamery, Schooners, Town Creek Restaurant, the Carry-Out and The Oxford Packing House, the business was the Oxford Seafood Company. Leo Nollmeyer’s father, Bill Nollmeyer bought the Oxford Seafood Company from Captain Lafe. It took him a while to change the sign. In this picture we see two cars, a dark station wagon and Bill Nollmeyer’s brand new 1953 Chevrolet.
As Leo tells the story: “The station wagon was my ‘date’ car. It also happened to be the car we ran oysters and crabs around in local trade with other packing houses. Woody Jones at Pier Street was a good friend of my father’s, and they would barter back and forth to make their quotas. The car was lined with rubber and on nights I had a date, I would pull out all the seats in the car, wash them and the entire interior with lye soap. Once it was dry, I put the seats back in and drizzled it with a heavy duty pine oil disinfectant. You know, after all that prep work, I never got a second date?” He went on, “After my father bought the new car, he told me he was making me work like a man and so he should treat me like one and gave me the new car for a date when the car was only one week old. When I arrived at my date’s house to pick her up, her father said, ‘Well, if your father trusts you with that brand new car, then I guess I can trust you with my daughter.” Leo laughed.
Work hard he did. “Mondays were the toughest,” he said. “Monday morning, I would arrive early around 7 a.m. and start my day by cleaning out the eel barrels on the docks. Even though we kept the lids on tight, by Monday, they would be full of maggots, and so I would wash out the barrels on the dock and then re-salt the eels. Then I had to wash the maggots off the dock, and then I had to wash the maggots off myself. The watermen would come to the docks to sell their crabs. The bushel baskets were prime, that is fat males that were at least 6” from point to point and had at least one claw. The bushels weighed about 40 pounds. The barrels (which can be seen on the picture at the top of a stack against the wall; they are a darker color) would hold the culls that is the crabs that were less than 6” or were 6” and light, or with both claws missing. The barrels were 100 pounds. These were lifted by hand onto the docks and moved by hand cart into the steaming room. (This is the area of the building on the right where there is a tall dark pipe). Once steamed and handpicked, then the cans would be packed in ice by order into larger barrels (pictured on the front of the building on the bottom of the stack, a lighter color).
“Filled, these barrels weighed about 200 pounds. We had no loading dock so these 200-pound barrels would be lifted by hand into the truck you see on the far left of the picture. The truck had no refrigeration, as such it had small holes in the bottom, when the ice began to melt it would run out the bottom. After working the docks all day, at 6 p.m. I would climb into the delivery truck that had been loaded with crabs and canned crab meat and drive to Baltimore. We delivered to many restaurants including Housers, which was a fairly famous restaurant back then. My father was such good friends with the owner, that we always had a standing table. Once I had delivered about 2/3 of the crabs to all the restaurants it was very late, and I was able to take a short nap near the wholesale fish market. I would set my alarm for when it opened. When I went to unload, I would have to nudge all the drunks off my back fender where they had fallen asleep or just sat to rest. Once all my cargo was sold, I would go to the abattoir (slaughterhouse) to buy tripe (cow stomach) for bait. We sold this along with the eels to the watermen for baiting their lines. Usually, I would return to Oxford around 8:30 a.m. and start working the docks for the day. By 4 p.m. I could go home and rest. I took turns with the other men, so no one had to drive to Baltimore two nights in a row.
“In 1955 I joined the Army as most young men did back then. Once I had served my time in the military, I went to the University of Maryland to pursue an accounting degree. Then I only worked the summers at the docks. I worked hard enough to pay my way through college. Once I graduated with a degree in Business Administration and Accounting, I moved to the Western Shore where I got an accounting job with C.J. Langenfelder, Inc. near Rockville and my wife Jean, had a job as a Foreign Agricultural Marketing Specialist.”
At this point I asked Leo if he missed Oxford, and he replied very quickly, “Yes! But I did not miss working the docks!” he laughed.
As the seafood business showed signs of slowing, which according to Leo’s father, Bill, was when prices soared to $1 a pound for crab meat and $10 for a seasoned, cooked bushel of crabs, he changed course. Bill Nollmeyer then began dealing in soft crabs, which was a 24-hour operation. This didn’t last long before the “Carry-Out” was born, sometime in the early 1960s.
Bill was already known as a good cook around town and business took off. Leo, being an accountant and all, approached his father one day about his prices. That perhaps he could charge a little more, maybe an extra 25 to 50 cents here and there, but Bill had other thoughts on the matter. Leo’s father said, ‘If I raised my prices like that I would make money on the tourists but my local friends, family and neighbors are my steady customers, and I’m not going to do that to them.’
So, the Carry-Out carried on with great food and great prices for almost two decades. Their quality reputation carried across the Bay and boaters sailing to Oxford for the weekend would call in their orders from Annapolis and pick them up at the dock. The excitement was palpable when your name was announced on the loudspeaker that your food was ready. I remember sailors dancing up to the window to pick up their dinner.
Toward the end of my interview with Leo, his wife Jean shared a few words. “The first time I came to Oxford and walked into the packing house I was horrified by the smell,” she laughed. “But I soon got used to it because after only being here for a short while, I knew this was a special place. Where I grew up in the city, you didn’t always know your neighbors. When I went to the bank with Leo’s check for the first time, the teller said, ‘Oh, you must be Leo’s wife!’ And when I went to the post office, I met Sara Benson, who ended up saving my life!”
I was instantly excited to hear more. Jean continued, “When I met Sara Benson, she asked if she could stop by sometime. Not long after, she came to our house with a covered dish in hand and met my mother who had moved here with us. Sara and my mother became close. My mother didn’t go out much, but Sara always had something they could go and do together. It was a godsend as my mother was so new in town. My mother’s name was Sara Budd and so soon enough I called the pair the two Sara Bs.”
Want to hear more about the Oxford Carry-Out and see a menu from the early 1970s? Check out my “Food For Thought” Column.