As many as four or five two- and three-mast sailing vessels at a time were often tied up at the Denton wharves. I often had the job of leading the mule forward to lift the bag out of the vessel’s hold, and backing him up again to drop the bag onto the wharf and to lower the tongs back into the hold for another bag. You get the picture – the mule and the boy – back and forth all day until the last bag was out of the hold.
[Excerpt from Bridges To My Maturity, Delightful Memories of What It was Like to be a Young Lad in the 1920s Along the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Copyright 1983 by George W. Swartz]
Without a doubt, I grew up loving the activities that surrounded that old bridge [at West Denton] and [the Choptank] river. Of course, I practically “ate, slept, and drank river” since Dad’s store was at the edge of the bridge and our home was diagonally across from it, facing the river and the vacant lot beside the steamboat wharf.
Shipment of freight by water was a big thing during the ’20s. As many as four or five two- and three-mast sailing vessels at a time were often tied up at the Denton wharves. I have spent many hours on the deck of a sailing vessel or down in the captain’s galley. A portion of the bowels of the sailing vessels was always reserved for the cargo, was partitioned off near the stern in most cases for the captain’s galley and sleeping quarters.
Frequently, in the evening the smoke from the old iron woodburning cook stove in the captain’s galley would drift across the river bank, and it was a sure sign to me that a hot biscuit with butter or jelly would be tendered by some sympathetic old sea salt if I would but venture to the galley door and slip down the steps. To this day the smell of wood smoke from a fireplace anywhere brings back memories the ship’s galley known to me in my boyhood days. In fact, I can almost revive that smell without the benefit of the fireplace.
By far, the major cargo coming to Denton in sailing vessel was fertilizer. Products from the canneries were often shipped out on the same vessel that brought fertilizer. Fertilizer then was shipped in 167-pound burlap bags (except for sodium nitrate which always came in 200-pound bags).
One of my earliest math lessons was that it took twelve bags of regular fertilizer to equal a ton and ten bags of sodium nitrate. Usually I was a little too small and light to handle those bags when they were stacked on their sides eight or ten bags high in the warehouse. It took two men to swing them by the ears on the corners and stack them this high. However, there were some jobs that a boy could handle, such as hooking the tongs around the individual bags in the ship’s hold, tripping the tongs on the wharf to release the bag, or even pushing the two-wheeled bag truck from the wharf into the warehouse. Most of the time the men in charge did not want boys around because the younger set would want to work a few minutes and then resort to foolishness. I found that if you were serious about really working and could gain the men’s confidence, you were welcome.
Hoisting the bags out of the hold was done then by one of two methods, the use of a mule or the use of a gasoline engine windlass on the deck of a boat. A strong rope fed through pulleys on the ship’s mast and containing tongs on one end was used. The tongs, of course, were lowered into the ship’s hold where a worker fastened them around a sack of fertilizer. The other end of the rope was fastened either to the mule on the riverbank or the gasoline engine windlass on the shjp’s deck. If a mule was used, I often could have the job of leading that mule forward to lift the bag out of the hold, and backing him up again to drop the bag on the wharf and to lower the tongs back into the hold for another bag. You get the picture – the mule and the boy – back and forth all day until the last bag was out of the hold.
Occasionally the tongs slipped or the man on the wharf tripped them too soon and a bag would miss the wharf and slip down between the boat and the wharf into the water where it became fish food. The mule and the boy usually got blamed regardless of who made the mistake.
I have also operated the gasoline engine windlass on the deck but this was considered dangerous because of the chance of getting your hand between the rope and the drum of the windlass; so the captain was usually a little reluctant to let a boy operate it.