By Ken Rossignol
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY
NEW MARKET — Frances “Pee Wee” Gray, co-owner of Leonard Copsey’s Seafood Market on Rt. 5 in New Market operates a busy seafood carryout that caters to a clientele of long-time native residents as well as those motoring in Southern Maryland that are lucky enough to spot the sign for the business.
“I’ve been working around it since I was little, it seems like its been forever. I started out helping my father, buying crabs as a teen. In 1974 I went to work for him full time, he used to have the Famous Drift Inn Crab House, the oldest in southern Maryland. He had the Crab House in the summer and oysters in the winter, and grew tobacco in the summers too,” said Gray.
Two of her sisters and her brother all operate thriving seafood restaurants in the county. Sissy operates the Sandgates Inn on the Patuxent River, her brother Lonnie and his wife Elaine operate Captain Leonard’s Crabhouse on Rt. 235 in Oraville, and her sister Pumpkin and her husband Jerry Bowles own and operate her parent’s long-time business, Drift Inn.
“Yes. I grew up near the Patuxent River on a farm; it was six girls and one boy, and we were all the help that my father had, that’s why he had us,” Pee Wee said with a laugh. “In the summer months we had crab pickers who would work six days a week picking crab meat, and on the seventh day we would drive all over the county to pick the crabs up and bring them back to the Crab House. We sold a lot of our crabs to the Belvedere Restaurant in Lexington Park, which is gone now, and other local restaurants.”
“In the winter we had the oyster business. We would buy oysters’ every day, 150 to 200 bushels, we had oodles of oysters. With all the oysters I saw, I never thought I would live to see no oysters, but they began dying out in the ‘80s. A lot of stores that we sold oysters to went out of business, and it was a gradual downhill slide, but now it’s basically gone. The oysters got a disease which is killing them, and there are very few left.”
Pee Wee has a point of view on what happened to the oysters.
“When bad water comes in, fish and crabs can move away, but an oyster stays where it is. Oysters filter water, and try to clean it out, but now it’s killing them to do it. Pollution is a big problem, but I don’t know what can be done about it. The oil spill we had in the Patuxent about thirteen years ago didn’t help either. Now they are trying to bring in oysters from Asia that are supposed to be resistant to the disease our oysters have.”
As to whether or not oysters will ever return to the days of being so plentiful, such as in the late 1800’s that they were considered ‘white gold’, she notes there will be a real problem in how to process them as the workforce has changed dramatically.
“Well, if they do come back, I don’t know who is going to do it. Most of the shuckers are gone, most of them are old and can’t do it anymore, and the young people, they won’t do it. Now we get most of our oysters from other places, like Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. And now the crabs are going the way of the oysters, they’re not as big and not as plentiful.”
“They have farm-raised catfish now, if they could farm raise crabs, I would buy stock in that, it would be like Microsoft. But there would be so much to it, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a crab farm, but if we did, we’d have it made. The problem now is that we don’t know what we’re going to get; big crabs, small, live, dead, fat, lightweight. I got into this part of the business because the oyster business was dying. There was less and less supply and less demand, and I just couldn’t survive in the oyster packing house anymore, now we sell fish, filets, crabs, and all kinds of stuff, not just one product.”
True to her word, Ralph and Pee Wee’s store now carries about every type of seafood spice that exists, including utensils such as crab mallets, oyster knives and condiments. If it’s made for preparing fish and seafood, Leonard Copsey’s Seafood Market has it in stock, along with cold beer and liquor.
“This is a dying business, my kids won’t have to worry about doing this,” said Pee Wee. “You can’t really get into this kind of business because it just won’t be here for long. My main thing here is crabs, and now they are going. It’s getting harder and harder because there are less crabs, they cost me more and I make less profit. I have to throw out a lot of dead crabs these days; I lose money on every one of those. Every spring I have to ask myself: will I get enough crabs to get through the next season? We had this hurricane a few years back, Hurricane Isabel in 2003, which stirred the water up real good; I had hopes it might help us out.”
Customers have their preferences for seafood and one asked Pee Wee where the oysters came from. She told him from the Patuxent River and satisfied, he left with a couple of quarts. The salinity of the oysters can vary along with the size. Private oyster beds are treasured leases in various locations and State of Maryland oyster seeding programs have provided some success stories as well as criminal cases of poaching.
But life on the Chesapeake and its tributaries is a lot different from the days of oyster wars when Maryland and Virginia watermen routinely engaged in gun battles at sea with fatalities. In some cases, oyster pirates fired on police boats. A Virginia governor actually formed a fleet to surround Maryland oyster pirates and bring them to justice, with varying degrees of success.
With her parents now in their nineties, and Ralph retired from the phone company, their small business keeps them working long hours six days a week. They take a month off in the dead of winter and crank right back up again.
“I was born into this business, and it’s all I know. Like these watermen here, it’s all they know. All their lives they’ve been doing this, working hard at it and struggling. We don’t want to lose it, it’s a Southern Maryland thing, oysters and crabs, that’s what Southern Maryland stands for.”
Pee Wee says that the younger generation doesn’t eat seafood like those that came before them.
“The oyster business used to be rocking and rolling, we would sell them as fast as we could shuck them, to DC, to Virginia,” said Pee Wee. “We had seven or eight shuckers working five days a week and shucking 150 bushels a day. Now, these young people, they just don’t eat oysters like the old people did. You don’t walk into McDonalds and see oyster nuggets, because people don’t eat it. And a lot of younger people don’t eat the crabs anymore either.”
“When I first opened, it took some time to build this up. We had a seafood place like this across the street, and one down the road, and it’s hard to build up when you’re right on top of competition. It was hard, but it’s a lot better now, and there are so many people in this county now.”
“When you were born and raised here, there was nothing here, but St. Mary’s has boomed, it’s exploded. The growth is incredible, who would have thought we’d have so many Wawa’s in one little county?”
“Now everything is a super chain store, like Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, Target or K-Mart. A lot of the mom and pop stores have gone out since the big chains came in,” she said. “There’s a big difference though, and the personal touch is gone.”
“St. Mary’s has always been supported by a mom and pop places, nice family owned and local. Local owners can interact with customers on a personal level; you don’t see that in a chain store. You go to a chain restaurant, and you feel like a number, you go in, sit down eat and get out. People don’t want to stay, but if they go to a place where they feel welcome, people will stay all night.”
Underlining the change in St. Mary’s County, the old traditional eating establishments in Lexington Park and Leonardtown are history. Gone are the Belvedere, The Roost, Pete’s Galley, the Willows and the Half Way House.
Fighting the trend are just a handful of holdouts, such as Billy Hill’s St. Mary’s Landing, Linda’s Café, Fitzie’s Marina and the restaurants operated by the Copsey siblings.
In California and Lexington Park, the parking lots stay full at the various Mexican restaurants and the row of chain eateries along Rt. 235.
“Business isn’t what it used to be,” said Pee Wee. “It’s a lot harder to find help, good help that is. There’s plenty of help out there, but you don’t know what you’re going to get. My son Ralph Jr. used to help out, but he works for an elevator company now, it’s a stable living. It’s sad, I would be more than happy to pass this business along, but it’s just not feasible, this is going the same way as farms, and most people can’t survive by farming anymore.
With just one employee, who has been with them for more than fifteen years, Pee Wee and Ralph find that they do have an intense personal connection with their customers. Peak business hours keep all three of them working in overdrive to keep the orders flowing out the door while watermen make deliveries at the back door.
They stay busy frying, steaming and cooking sandwiches and orders of seafood to go along with oysters shucked or in the shell. Long cases display fresh fish fillets, scallops, shellfish and shrimp making the seafood market one of the few places for customers to pick out their dinner and wait for it to be cooked to perfection or simply packaged for them and put in ice for a trip home to be cooked.
(The Leonard Copsey’s Seafood Market is located on the southbound lane of Rt. 5 at New Market. The GPS address is 29084 Three Notch Rd, Mechanicsville, MD 20659. Call them at 301 884-9529.)