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Interview Log 


Interviewee: Victor Simpson, Bernice Simpson Tape#: VA/FT/12.11.204 

Interviewer: Kelly Feltault # of Tapes: lof2 
Date: 12/11/97 # of Sides: lof4 

Location: Victor’s home in Willis Wharf VA 

Topic: Victor’s father, James Victor Simpson, the boat builder; Bernice’s involvement 
in the business, her decoy work and furniture restoration 

Corresponding Photography Log #: 

Comments: File name: ftl2204.doc (See also ftl2205.doc for part 2— 

VA/FT/12.11.205—of this interview). Italics indicate song title or emphasis; 
“quotations” indicate direct transcription; [brackets indicate additional infonnation not on 
tape]. 

Bill Young, a local boat builder in Willis Wharf, recommended that I speak with 
Victor and his mother. He told me that Bernice had been invovled in the water business 
more than most wives (in Virginia. See articles on Watermen’s wives in NC and MD and 
their involvement with organizing associations). Bill spoke to them after our 
conversation and called me back to say they were interested in doing an interview. This 
interview took place at 5 pm after Victor returned from his work with the phone 
company. I had interviewed Jay Cherrix in the morning, stayed up late talking with 
Barbara Luehning the night before, and managed to get a short nap before arriving at the 
Simpsons. I left their house at approximately 8:30 p.m. 

Victor’s wife, Jerleen, was present during the interview which took place in the 
living room. 

BEGIN SIDE A 

Bernice introduces herself, lived in Willis Wharf 50 some years 

Victor L. Simpson introduces himself, lived in WW all his life except one year, 

transfered. 

[I stop the tape and play it back to check the levels] 

types of boats built by J. Simpson; chinco. scow; row boats; dredge monitors self- 
powered; outboard and inboard; shop on the water front for 26 years then near the house; 
built for anybody: FL to New England; airforce people 


Bernice asks for water 



20 foot row boats; made 1 model 4 feet; inboard dredge monitor the Cherry King for the 
Ballards; Victor remembers using the lumber to make toys; plans in dad’s head; used 
square molding on hull bent across nails and marked it; had stretchers for small boats lb- 
20 foot 

boats had stancheons top to bottom without breaks before bottom in white oak; used bilge 
strips; other builders went 3-4” from bottom and knock stancheons into bilge strips; J 
Simpson didn’t think a good idea; not as strong; built upside down and then turned over 
to be completed [SEE: the Workboats of Smith Island for more on this construction 
technique. It is rare in Virginia, at least on the western side of the Bay]; how to turn the 
boat and how stancheons help from cracking; 

construction techniques of upside down building; shop over water especially at high tide; 
didn’t dig [like in MD], but nailed supports to the floor; built up from there; when outside 
complete then moved out and put in water upside down into railway slip, then another 
boat turned right-side and pulled back onto land and into shop to finish it. did it this 
practical way, no cranes. 

Victor helped a little as a teenager; how plugs on monitors counter sunk; did some 
painting but didn’t really help; how Victor worked for Bell Atlantic but wanted to learn 
family business; father discouraged it for health insurance and better money reasons. J 
Simpson bom on Hog island, worked water all his life and knew that working watermen 
were not rich people 

J Simpson was a watermen before building, bom in 1913, age 20 sold first boat; always 
built from white cedar; work boats built out of pine; has a boat he built in 1962 which 
Victor calls a deadrise boat [the photo they show me looks more like a scow shape], flat 
bottom boat; built side consoles; story of building his first center console boat for a guy 
in Ocean City; 

Bernice: biggest pleasure boat built was a monitor for Polk Kellam Sr.; built to carry lots 
of folks; motorized and had a surry; Polk Kellam was an energy mogul on the shore; 

Victor: machinist who worked with J Simpson; Mr. Shockley; putting a motor in a sail 
skipjack—Walkley Johnson ordered it; wanted just the boat without the push boat; Mr. 
Shockley died last year; 

Bernice: born in Belle Haven, married in 1940; 1943 last family moved from Hog Island; 
Victor bom in 1947; Bernice lives in a Hog Island house; Bernice did the books and 
ordered supplies; from the start helped him; before 1952 J Simpson built some boats 
beside the house then working on a Mackerel boat from NC to NJ, spare time built boats; 
Bernice helped him with managing since before 1952; 

Bernice: how husband got into building boats; Mr. Jeter Moore built boats before her 
husband; he died in 195 land Harvey Bowen an oyster producer bought the railway from 



Mr. Moore and hired her husband to go up and run the railway; this is the marine railway; 
then people started asking him to build boats; 

Bernice: what is was like to be a watennan’s wife vs when he worked on the railway; 
early mornings and tides; still worked on the tide when building boats and on the railway; 
middle meals never at the same time; tide ran life; pretty good living; 

Bernice: foodways: seafood; husband as fishennan; husband loved sweets, all from 
growing up on Hog Island; how to tell a Hog islander—they love sweets; last thing her 
husband ate before died was a candy an ambassador chocolate 

Victor: mom is a good cook, especially sweets; fudge, salt water taffy; 

[there is a plate of Christmas cookies sitting on the coffee table] 

[discussion of food does not go far until Bernice talks about raising five children] 

planning food and meals; depression’s affects on foodways; didn’t get prepared food; 
baking bread everyday; food on Sundays; making yeast bread on Saturday for Sunday; 
had more time to prepare the meal; sewing and children and demands on time; no 
appliances either so time management was different; laughs at those who talk about the 
“good old days”; heating systems; 

seasonal foods; generational foods; baked com or corn pudding; sweet potato pies and 
those that are made with pumpkin without the spice; 

miniature boats and ducks; J Simpson built miniature boats in 1939 before married; made 
one for Bernice in 1940; saying about difference between house builders and boat 
builders: house builders just have to make it square, but boat builders were different 
nothing is square on a boat; 

Bernice: making ducks started in 1968; Bernice thought of idea when her daughter 
Barbara decided to attend nursing school and bernice thought they needed extra money; 
at the time a few people were doing miniatures and bernice was sewing for Dr. Mears’ 
children, Dr. Mears’ wife—Florence—gave him pairs of ducks from General De Garve 
top carver on the shore. Bernice borrowed a pair of ducks to show her husband and they 
started carving; Tad Beach, Florence’s nephew, wanted to leam a few things and she 
asked de Garve and Bernice learned too. Learned his secrets about how to put the feet on 
etc.; description of attaching the legs; how to make the toes and the materials used; 
putting in the eyes; materials used; 

[SEE: chapters on miniature in Susan Stewart’s On Longing ] 

How Bernice and her husband worked together; carved two a night; why white cedar 
wasn’t any good to use; how bernice painted them and how she learned; she found 
Wendell Geliy’s [not sure about the name?] book from Maine the best for reference work 



on the coloring of ducks; a carver in Maine; how J Simpson would freeze ducks in the 
freezer with their feathers on so they could get the colors right and the feather pattern; 
book told you how to do it from beginning to end and suggested using bass wood; 

characteristics of bass wood [I know that bass wood is a soft, easily carved wood used by 
most model builders whether it be ducks or planes. But I want to know what their 
thoughts are on the subject]; resin bass wood doesn’t bleed and colors stay true 

Jerleen says that bemice has started carving in the last few years; 

how J Simpson carved them about 6” long but when attending the duck shows they 
realized that you had to be full-sized or miniature; miniature was cheaper; some of the 
full-sized carvers gave them their scraps of bass wood; they didn’t sell at the duck shows; 
carved two a night but bemice painted 3 a week; didn’t have any to take to shows 
because they were all sold immediately; never advertised; Buzzy Terry would always 
come down and buy a pair of ducks which put them in circulation with a crowd that 
afforded them; was successful—daughter went to nursing school; how it didn’t take any 
extra time; money came in handy with children and hospital bills for oldest who had 
Lupus 

materials: oil paints; reason: doesn’t dry fast she needed more time and they blend 
easier; local ducks; how Bemice made clocks that she saw at the duck shows; easier to 
make a half duck than a full one; the one she saw at the show had birds but she used 
ducks instead; 

where Victor’s father was during the 1933 storm on Hog Island; story of that and 
working the water; 

Bemice: more detail on how her husband got the job on the marine railway; 1952 

cherry king first oyster boat to have a motor and not need a tow; other boats Simpson 
made; pile driver boat; 

END SIDE A 

BEGIN SIDE B: VA/FT/12.11.204 

how tongers were individual watennen and companies had the larger monitor boats; 
individuals sold to companies too; 4 oyster companies in Willis Wharf: Terry, Walkers, 
and Ballards, and Bowens in the later years; Harvey Bowen a big producer who sold to 
other companies and then went into the shucking business too; clams and oysters; 

oysters started dying 10 years ago; 

I aks about gender roles and Jerleen jumps in with how bemice has worked as a furniture 
refinisher and caner for the last 20 years; how she worked as a hair cutter and story of 
how she got into that: mackerel fishing at night and husband out working at night so hair 



got long; she cut it for him as he fell asleep in the chair; then cut everyone’s hair in W W; 
how she learned a little from the barber; too expensive to go to the beauty parlor so she 
would give women a Toni [back in the 70s and 60s this was an early form of a home 
pennanent: Toni curl]; worked as seamstress; always had a job even raising a family; had 
to be home too; furniture made more money; she is using husband’s old shop and tools; 
how she had a broken china closet door repaired by someone else and it wasn’t right, so 
she decided to fix it herself and that’s how she got started 

loved antiques and had to know how to repair things; passed around word of mouth; she 
didn’t use husband’s tools when he was alive but after he died she had to leam how to use 
the big tools, “can’t do something unless you can cut something”; learned to read a rule 
from husband, “lot of time if he was measuring something, like a boat or something, and 
he would ask me you know what is this—like he’d be at one end and I’d be at the other— 
and I said, ‘well it’s about.’ ‘I don’t want to kn ow about, I want to know what it is.’” 
[laughter from all] 

victor: learning by watching; Victor’s work with the telephone company; one year 
transferred to Culpepper, VA there for 11 mos. in 1967 [note: Victor didn’t get drafted 
for Vietnam. Several people told me that few men from the shore went because they 
were food producers who were exempt by the gov’t. Jay Cherrix served though]; story of 
why Victor didn’t get drafted: cut foot and was listed as 1Y for draft; how got cut— 
oyster shell cut to bone. Medicine: always tasted like licorice; using kerosene, sometimes 
called coal oil, for cuts; putting fat meat to cuts and rusty cuts which drew out the poison; 

Bernice: story of youngest daughter giving birth and trying to breast feed but child 
wouldn’t take the breast; Bernice made suggestion that was rebuffed by the doctor, “I 
said, ‘Well let me tell you something, it worked 50 years ago. I don’t see why it 
wouldn’t work today.” her suggestion: story of her own child with same problem and 
Ms. Hannon the midwife/granny woman took little finger into baby’s mouth and child 
learned to get tongue under the breast and suck. Story of being smarted than the 
professional medical people; 

Midwife stories in W W; jokes about the good old days and progress 
[Bernice has sister in Salisbury] 

Ms. Hannon lived in W W behind E.L. Willis, the local store and restaurant; delivered 
one of Hilda’s children [Hilda is in the Tuesday sewing group]; nurse to Dr. Mears just as 
good as him; 

Entertainment on the shore: visiting in the homes; children bringing women together; 
making up games; make short stilts; making taffy; tv at relatives homes but not theirs; 
boys made wooden boats and pulled along edge of bay or in puddles; whittled them or 
with his father made one with a handsaw; Victor grew up with all girls; wading and 
swimming; 



Bernice: story of Buzzy Terry’s mother letting children swim in front of her property; 
Pete lives in grandmother’s brick home and first to come back to the shore after leaving 
for college; 

Victor: how people had ponies from Hog Island; tradition of young people on Hog island 
having ponies to ride; 

Bernice: boys all had ponies plus one for the family; Harvey Bowen supplied ponies, he 
used to live on Hog island too and had a big farm on route 600 near W W; how daughter 
named it Dexter 

Shucking houses: could hear them singing in JC Walker’s place from the boat building 
shop; one guy roasted peanuts in shell and sold out of bicycle basket, still hot when had 
them; sold to W W lived in Exmore; didn’t grow peanuts here commercially but some in 
personal gardens; some commercial peanut growers here but not many, used to grow at 
edge of town 3-4 years ago; return of cotton, how it is a long season, long to grow it; 

talk of newspaper article beside me [SEE file for this interview]; blown up to poster size; 
Simpson Sr.’s tools; hand tools; fiberglass work that he did; fiberglassing older boats; 
boat builder in Exmore does only fiber glass, Vic Hardison, who bought out Dick Gaskill 
who got molds from Simpson Sr.’s boats; Gaskill made molds from scows of actual boats 

Hancock scow: similar to Simpson’s scow but made in Chincoteague by Miles Hancock; 
used plywood bottom with planked sides; Simpson didn’t like the plywood bottom; 
hollow on front/bow of boat; how to tell a Simpson boat: 5 holes drilled in storage part of 
boat in back; set up stern and transom first and go midway; then set stretchers nailed to 
stancheons take rope and pull it in then set another group of stretchers; at bow bent to 
shape of his eye; keel one piece of wood and bent to 

Bernice: bend the keel by sawing through it a little every so often but not completely 
through; and then it would bend [I think of this as making the v-cuts in fabric to fonn a 
rounded shape, like at a bust line or sleeve]; steam oak and then bend it; irrigation pipe he 
used to make round combing; steam with hot water in pipe take out and use rope to bend 
and secure for days to dry; 

how ventilation holes were an aesthetic design; also useful; some Chinco. builders used 
an anchor shape; first to use minell steel nails—didn’t rust; even when using galvanized 
nails used the square cut boat nails 

[these are stories of the superior quality of the Simpson boats] 

END SIDE B 

END TAPE VA/FT/12.11.204 

SEE VA/FT/12.11.205 for continuation of this interview 




Interview Log 


Interviewee: Victor and Bernice Simpson Tape#: VA/FT/12.11.205 

Interviewer: Kelly Feltault # of Tapes: 2 of 2 
Date: 12.11.97 # of Sides: 3 of 3 

Location: Victor’s home in Willis Wharf VA 

Topic: boat building done by his father and Bernice’s husband; techniques 

Corresponding Photography Log #: VA/FT/12.11. 

Comments: Filename: ftl2205.doc (See also ftl2204.doc for part 1— 

VA/FT/12.11.204—of this interview). Italics indicate song title or emphasis; 
“quotations” indicate direct transcription; [brackets indicate additional infonnation not on 
tape, and asides by fieldworker]. 

Bill Young, a local boat builder in Willis Wharf, recommended that I speak with 
Victor and his mother. He told me that Bernice had been involved in the water business 
more than most wives (in Virginia. See articles on Watermen’s wives in NC and MD and 
their involvement with organizing associations). Bill spoke to them after our 
conversation and called me back to say they were interested in doing an interview. This 
interview took place at 5 p.m. after Victor returned from his work with the phone 
company. I had interviewed Jay Cherrix in the morning, stayed up late talking with 
Barbara Luehning the night before, and managed to get a short nap and shower before 
arriving at the Simpsons. I left their house at approximately 8:30 p.m. 

Victor’s wife, Jerleen, was present during the interview which took place in the 
living room. 

BEGIN SIDE A 

Built a boat a week for Terry’s oyster company; talking of how another interviewer from 
the paper wrote article on Simpson Sr.; boat was painted by owner; Simpson sold 
Wallsey brand paint and hardware too; Neptune was a grade of Wallsey that was an 
antifouling and had chemicals to repel barnacles etc.; cost extra than copper paint; 

Bernice: Vinlast was a paint you had to have a special solvent to clean your brush with; 
story of how Victor Sr. got the solvent for free but watennen had to pay for it; Lumber 
co. story; in Nassawadox big lumber company and hardware store 

Victor: father used Charlie Byrd lumber co. if building a big monitor; pick out logs; mill 
in Belle Haven; 



Bernice: building the Stillman monitor, bigger than usual monitors, had to go to 
Baltimore to pick out log, nothing big enough on the shore; 


Victor: got white cedar from NC; near Sunburry NC; mill called South Mills or White 
Lumber Co.; Mr. White owned it; Mr. McDaniels yard foreman; story of how they got 
the lumber back to the shore: father didn’t have a large enough truck so borrowed a beer 
truck from Blue Englers [?] beer distributing company; sometimes Buzzy Terry drove the 
truck or Bill Shockley; Bill got a set of ducks for each trip, that was his pay; 

[Sunbury NC is in Gates Co. just over the VA state line, on the western side of the Great 
Dismal Swamp at the intersection of Rt. 32 and Rt. 158], 

Differences in the lumber companies on the shore and off; used mules on shore and 
things were automated in NC; boards on the sides for the monitors were all one length so 
if 16’ boat then 16’ board; 

Bernice: used drift bolts to join some; had no heads; used a washer and bolt; not threaded 
rod but smooth; drill a hole and hammer that into it; hired helpers when building a 
monitor; boards were 3” thick and had four sides: 2 outside and 2 in middle; heavy boat; 
sometimes only had one in the middle; 

description of construction of monitors; used to move houses off Hog island; fastened 
two together and rolled houses on logs onto the monitor; began in 33 until 40s; 

Bernice: story of how it didn’t cost anything to move the houses from Hog island; coast 
guard helped too; Ballards helped on this end; why the houses were moved: cheaper; 
August storm of 33; height of water; covered whole island except high spot; had another 
in Sept, of same year; owned the home and just had to buy the land; Oyster has 17 homes 
too like W W; 

style of Hog island homes; not large some are 2 stories others 1.5 stories; Hog island lane 
across channel is all hog island homes; the one house not from Hog island was built by a 
hog islander for his daughter; Mae Bowen lives in a hog island house across from Mary 
Ellen; height of water in Willis Wharf during 33; story of how Buzzy Terry says that 
Walter and Mary sleep in my bedroom—they live in the house that Buzzy was born in; 

friend helping friend; not as much today; not as many close friends, lots of recent arrivals 
and the culture of the day; story of how victor paid the guy who fixed his boat by taking 
him out in his boat to Cobb island; not as many close families any more; used to go to 
grandma’s every Sunday; story of history of E.L. Willis which used to Johnson’s store, 
able to hear granddaddy sneeze from store; [shows pictures of family]; 

chat about me; chat about the project; pfisteria talk; 

story of how this summer people were asking if fish was bay side or sea side; didn’t want 
bay side; Chess Atlantic south of Painter is a fish market that it might have affected; not 



sure how that affected net fisherman; more people fishing on the seaside than the bayside 
too; parking lots full of people; 

gun collection of Victor’s; muzzle loader; made kit guns; hunts some, deer; but not much; 
son duck hunts; own 100 acres in Piggin in Accomack; rent out cleared 30 acres 
[Jerleen begins to laugh] Bernice replies, “Don’t laugh Piggin is a community.” 

[Is this an African American community?] 

Trapping: father trapped raccoons; brother trapped muskrats; muskrats are left but no 
outlet for selling the fur; Jerleen worked in a grocery store that sold muskrat meat as 
teenager 

Jerleen: small grocery in Exmore; bought from locals and sold to locals; how offensive 
eating a raw oyster is 

Bernice: “That had to be a brave man or woman, I tell you.” 

Victor: “Can you imagine that [the first time someone ate an oyster]?” 

[this is the third time I’ve heard this conversation among locals and recent arrivals: see 
FN12.8.97, Malcolm and Carol for more] 

story of how father would shuck oysters and find little pink crabs inside and he’d eat 
them raw and alive; Victor did same; body size of finger nail; crab fed on oyster’s food; 
doesn’t like raw oysters; 

Jerleen: how Victor Sr. would eat fish and just push the bones to one side of his mouth; 
fork full of fish into his mouth with right hand and with left hand be pulling bones out of 
his mouth; no stopping in between; 

Boiled fish for breakfast: traditional shore breakfast: salted overnight and boil it next 
morning; fry bacon grease to pour over it or butter; sometimes fat back too; salting the 
fish firms up the meat and when boiled doesn’t fall apart 

[Jerleen had never eaten this before and she talks about cooking it for the first time, how 
surprised she is about it not falling apart. It seems that foodways differ greatly with one’s 
proximity to water. See also foodways of Johnson’s United Quilters, Lucille Snyder, 
etc.] 

3x the salt on fish as if you would boil it; then rinse before cooking; father liked mackerel 
fish for breakfast; since he mackerel fished; Ballards used to process fish and so did 
Wachapreague; Edgerton in Cape Charles too; Edgerton would freeze his fish and sell 
when market was right made a lot of money; 


joke about the good old days again 



muskrat: called marsh rabbit and prepared it similar to rabbit; souse cake same as head 
cheese; used to love it and pickled pigs feet too; African American food; hog killings and 
neighbor helping neighbor; raised own hogs and someone would come to the house to 
butcher; making lard; 

local lard sold in stores; one place from Salisbury makes ham etc.; sugar or pepper cured 
the meat in their home; pepper deterred more insects; had smoke houses but they didn’t 
use smoke, called it a curing house; used sheep to cut grass then shear the sheep and sell 
the wool; shipped by railroad; Bernice and Victor Sr. did shearing 

Bernice: “So I’ve done a little bit of everything.” 

had a goat later; used it to trim the hedge and honeysuckle vines; story of goat and 
loaning it out once yard cleaned up; raised rabbits too; anything a goat bites will die and 
they eat everything; raised ducks too; 

fudge making; poor man’s cake: applesauce cake, nuts raisins spices; didn’t need to buy 
anything for it but the raisins; I ask about a minnie ha ha cake; [Lucille mentioned this 
cake while quilting]; how Bernice used to make several and them set them up the stairs 
because it was cold there during the winter; 

talk about coming back to take a photo of the boat and Bernice in her shop; 


END SIDE A 

END TAPE VA/FT/12.11.205