Oxford Vignettes: Winter in Oxford 1964

By Cathy Schmidt

 Bill and Sara Benson were close cousins of the 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; they were a pleasure to know.

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.

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

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 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.

Bill and Sara Benson’s devotion to the ferry was unwavering.

Captain Bill Benson ferries antique cars across the Tred Avon river in the Fall of 1966.
Photograph courtesy of the Sara Benson Collection.

Winter in Oxford 1964

January 3, 1964. Newnam Valliant gave Bill a wild goose. Susie Haddaway picked and dressed it for us.

January 9, 1964. Light rain started falling early this morning just as Bill was ready to head out at 6:20 a.m. Then it began to rain hard with hard gusts of wind at times. ‘Bout noon, thick fog began to roll in. Mother and I watched the fog spread from the yacht club and across Bellevue and then up to Peck’s Point as far as we could see…When Bill came back from Bellevue, he came on up and called Phil Smith and asked him to make the trips with him while the fog was so thick. Phil did and at 2:30 the fog lifted but it got colder. Barometer down tonight. Bill hopes he didn’t make a mistake leaving the ferry out in front of the island* instead of going into the creek.

January 10, 1964. This was a four-page entry so I have taken the liberty to summarize: As night fell and the weather deteriorated, Sara was concerned that Bill had not come home from the ferry. Everything was starting to ice up so she drove their car down to the ferry and shined the lights on it to check on Bill. When the ferry was tied to the wharf, the only way on and off at that time was a gangplank. Sara jumped the gangplank and found Bill was working on the bilge pump. Something wasn’t right with the way he was acting and talking. He wasn’t making sense. Bill was prone to low blood sugar and always kept milk nearby. Sara got him into the pilot house in the pitch black and found the milk on the floor. She tried to get him to drink it, but he kept saying he was alright, but his speech was slurred and his movements awkward. She wanted to get help but didn’t want to leave him. She knew she had to get the milk in him or he would never be able to jump the gang plank. After much persuasion and insistence from Sara, he did drink some of the milk that was left and after some time his speech improved. Sara then knew she needed to get him off the boat.

From Sara: “Not knowing if Bill was strong enough to make the jump and knowing what the result would be if he didn’t, God only knows the fear in my heart. I didn’t know how I would ever save him if he fell in the river and that would mean both of us would drown. I got Bill to jump first, and I held my breath, and thanked God that he made it. I was shaking so much from the cold and the fright that I didn’t know if I would be able to jump that far. It was an “up jump” because the gangplank was higher than the ferry. I made it and got Bill home and warm and gave him some more milk. Then Bill became aware of a numbness in both arms and legs, and then he began to shake.”

Bill ended up in the hospital with very low blood sugar. Bill had to eat six small meals a day to keep his sugar up. I remember Sara religiously running to the ferry with food for him at mealtimes and he always kept some raisins in his pocket. When I was a child, he would share the raisins with me. In the severe weather I’m sure he became distracted with his duties to his ferry “The Tred Avon.” Imagine how different Oxford would have been if Sara and Bill missed the gangplank. I don’t even want to think about it!

January 12, 1964. Cloudy early with a northeast wind. Began to snow about noon and continued on into the night, hard at times and mixed with sleet – the wind was very strong at times causing snow to drift. Temperature stayed at 20 degrees. When 8 a.m. weather came on Bill heard we were going to get gale winds, snow and sleet. He phoned Clarence Cox to see if he would help him take the ferry into the creek. He tied up at Valliant’s on the island. Bill checked on the ferry midafternoon. I had a pleasant surprise when Louise Willis stopped by and stayed for a long visit. The fire siren blew at 6:30. There was a fire at Julia Nixon’s house in Screamersville.

January 13, 1964. Blizzard! All night and all day we were thankful that Bill had taken the ferry into the creek yesterday. Strong wind today and stronger winds tonight. Snow and sleet continued all night – between 3 and 4 a.m. there was hard sleet and even thunder and lightning! It continued throughout the day and very hard wind caused the dry snow to drift badly. The temperature got up to 26 degrees this morning but then dropped to 20. All schools closed. Bill and I were up early as usual even though Bill knew it wasn’t fit to run the ferry. Right after he ate, Bill checked things down at the wharf and rode down to the island to check the ferry.

January 14, 1964. Wind blew hard all night and most of the morning with drifting snow. Six inches fell today, down to 14 degrees this morning and stayed cold all day. Creek froze over but river isn’t but halfway this side of it. Schools closed. Bill and Joe Thomas went down island to get snow off of the ferry, and Bill did some work below deck.

January 15, 1964. River froze over!

January 16, 1964. Book, State of Maryland Tidewater Fisheries, came today. Ordered by Bill Newnam. Did a huge hand wash – even though clothes froze as I hung them on the line, but by night they were fairly dry. Many driveways blocked by snow.

January 17, 1964. A small Coast Guard tug cut tracks in the river this morning. Bill checked on the ferry this morning and at dusk.

January 18, 1964. Down to 22 degrees this a.m. River still covered in ice – except for a track made by an oil tanker.

January 20, 1964. We awoke to find fog, not too thick, shortly after 8 a.m. It lifted so you could see across the river. Bill took Noah Williams down to the island and they brought the ferry out of the creek. They went right to Bellevue and took the “no ferry” sign down. They took a few trips before noon. Just after noon Bill took on Koester Bread and Sealtest milk trucks in Bellevue and right after he left the dock the fog set in so thick that Bill had to use his compass and in doing so had to put the ferry into thicker ice than he wanted. So, Bill didn’t make any more trips until the fog lifted some at 3:30. He and Noah took two of Franklin’s pickers over. There was so much drifting ice that Bill tied the ferry as soon as they got back to Oxford.

February 8, 1964. Gladys McCarter here! I was sweeping melting snow off the porch when I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked and saw Gladys McCarter walking down the street to our house! She, Nan, Bobby, Susie and Charlie had arrived a few minutes before from Alexandria, Virginia. They had lighted the gas stove in the kitchen and turned on the electric (closed the kitchen off). While Nan was fixing lunch, Gladys visited with us. She said they are grand to her in Virginia, but she is so homesick for her own house she doesn’t know what to do. She thinks she will come again when the weather is warmer and stay alone. Later, Gladys, Nan, and children came down together to visit before they left for home at 3. They took Gladys’ sewing machine with them.

February 11, 1964. Blizzard! Letter from Gladys – she loved her little visit on Saturday and is homesick to come back and stay. It started snowing last night and a fine snow fell all day until 8:30 p.m. Bill had told his regulars yesterday evening if it was snowing this morning not to come because of strong wind and snow. Bill didn’t operate the ferry today but he did run the engine several times. No school. Snow drifted across our driveway. When Bill went down to check the ferry, Wally was getting gas. Wally asked Bill if he wanted to take the ferry into the creek that he’d go with him and that suited Bill just fine. Wally went and got young Herschel Pope. After the three of them got the ferry in the creek and tied up at Valliant’s, Bill phoned for me to come and pick them up. Car got stuck in the snow. Johnny Fortenbaugh came along and tried to dig me out, but I was getting stuck all the deeper. He went down the shore with me and we got Wally’s car and picked up Wally, Hershel and Bill. It was not until Franklin Coulburn helped that the four got the car “unstuck.” Bill and I had just gotten our boots off when Frank Coulburn came from the Strand because he got stuck on a drift at the corner. Bill and I went out and helped him. It was a job to get him out!

February 12, 1964. It blew hard all night until middle of the morning. Temperature was in the 20s early but got above freezing this afternoon. Sunny. Snow drifts everywhere from the street to our garage door – very deep in some spots. Bill left here to walk to the island to bring the ferry around to the wharf. Joe Thomas made the trip with him. The tide was so low it was nearly noon before Bill could carry cars or trucks. Joe Thomas and Zeke dug our driveway out, then Joe and Bill cleaned off our sidewalk and Miss Erma’s. Edwards were stuck in their driveway, so Bill and several others helped get them out. Joe Thomas went back to the ferry at 5 to help Bill tie up. I walked to the post office this afternoon.

*In case you were wondering… the “island” Sara Benson refers to is the area just past the current Strand parking lot. In a 1707 map it consisted of possibly 7  3/4 acres at the northeastern end of town. The “island” was never developed until modern times. Passing down over the years from Nicholas and Elizabeth Lowe to John Leeds Bozman, to his nephew Senator John Leeds Kerr. In 1877 it was called Kerr’s Island even though it belonged to James Stewart. It was also known as Vancouver Island. In 1882 it was owned by a Captain Botts, when a causeway joining it to the mainland was authorized (Preston, Dickson. Oxford, The First Three Centuries. Historical Society of Talbot County. 1984, page 40).

Jeremiah Valliant owned the Oyster Packing house on “the island” from the late 1800s until his death in 1919. Photograph courtesy of Elaine Valliant Cox Collection.

Current Oxford Resident Elaine Cox’s grandfather, Jeremiah Valliant, owned the Oyster Packing House on the island from the late 1800s until his death in 1919. He built the road to the island out of oyster shells so his employees could get to work. Before the road was built, they either rowed or waded across the water depending upon the tide. The children that lived on the island before the road had to row or wade across to get to school. The parking lot you see now was Marsh for a very long time, flanking the road to and from the island. It was eventually filled in over the years as Town Creek was dredged.

In this writer’s childhood, “the island” was occupied by Mears Yacht Haven and an old orchard along with a few other houses, one being my cousins’ Jerry and Louise Valliant. Growing up, my mother also referred to it as an island, although it had been attached to the mainland almost a hundred years prior. Therefore, I grew up calling it the island.

Two children pose with Captain Bill Benson aboard the Tred Avon.
Photograph courtesy of the Sara Benson Collection.
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