Francis Randolph Goddard
83 year old Francis Randolph Goddard of Maryland has seen the ups and downs of life as a waterman. His deep blue eyes, white hair and voice of contentment reflect that he embarked upon a satisfying journey.
“I’ve had a full life,” Goddard said. “I‘ve always had something to do the next day, and I always will until God takes the breath out of me.”
Goddard’s family was known for living off resources of the land and local waters in Maryland. For several generations they worked as farmers, oyster men and crabbers. Although they did not have much money, they had plenty to eat because they worked for it. Not only did he follow his father’s footsteps as a waterman, he also began boatbuilding.
“It was just a way of life, and it was a good life,” he said. “We had a lot of fun back then.”
He had so much fun he decided to quit school and work with his father fulltime. He remembers in the early 1900’s when children were not required to attend school.
“I didn’t go to the third grade,” Goddard said. “I thought with all the resources around here I didn’t need education, but I was totally wrong.”
He worked hard to remain successful in an industry with constant change. At five years old he started working the water and selling oysters at ten cents a bushel to get what he needed. He claims his success was due to resources that were bountiful and readily available.
“I bought my first pair of shoes oystering out of this creek at five years old,” he said pointing to the waters behind him that lead to the Potomac River.
Over the years Goddard has witnessed fifty oyster houses operating at once every day. Now he realizes there are only a few left. Goddard believes the advent of regulations significantly changed the industry.
“I know we have to abide by laws,” Goddard said. “But it seems they were not the same back then… now there has to be washrooms clean enough to sleep in.”
He explains that today if you collect two bushels of oysters they have to be refrigerated immediately. However, he used to see bushels of oysters stored on trucks for weeks before selling them to shucking houses. He did not witness anyone concerned about getting sick because when the oysters were washed, if any had diseases they would float and be thrown out.
As the seasons changed his family transitioned to crabbing to sustain their income. During one winter he and his brother borrowed a crab pot from a Virginia crabber and copied the pattern to build 35 of their own.
“We put the crab pots in Piney Point and as soon as we bait and set them we could start crabbing,” he said, “They were so full of crabs you couldn’t even shake them out.”
He recalls that crabs were sold at a quarter of a cent per pound. After crabbing and soft crabbing retrieving up to a hundred dozen an hour, without a market to sell them, he decided there must be a better way to make a living.
He began exploring boatbuilding since he was the handyman around the house and he was comfortable working with his hands. He built Chesapeake Bay style workboats. At 10 years old he crafted his first oystering boat for his brother who bought it for 20 dollars.
In 1989 he built a 65- by 22-foot boat he named –Poppa Francis-. Besides using the normal hammer and nail he used customized tools specially made by MAKITA in Hong Kong. Over the years he has built 168 boats and takes pride in not springing a leak in any of them.
“I could build the Washington Monument,” he said confidently. Then he chuckled and said “Well at least I thought I could.”
After years of experience on the water he believes the use of bleach in waters and runoff from weedkiller on farms has significantly impacted the availability of crabs and oysters in Maryland. He passionately believes that if the resources were available the tradition of working on the water would continue to the next generation of his family.
“I got six children and two of them are boys who really love the water,” Goddard said. “Regulations are overpowering, but I don’t know if it’s for the good or worse. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
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