Gregg Neck Boat Yard
(Growing up on the Sassafras)
by Phil Winkler
The boat yard located on a point in Gregg Neck was originally named Galena Boat Yard. Situated on a major point on the Sassafras River, in Gregg Neck (a neck on the eastern shore typically means one road in and one road out for a large piece of land surrounded by water on 3 sides) roughly midway between Swantown Creek on the east and Mill Creek on the west, it is the eastern most boat yard on the Sassafras, about a mile from Georgetown Yacht Basin and above the drawbridge there.
Bob Abel and his family started the boat yard in the early 1950’s. They came from New Jersey where, it was rumored, Bob had been a truck driver. With his wife, Dottie, and young daughter, Robin, and his mother they created a wonderful place for kids and older kids with their boats. Remember, if you can, that this was the Fifties! The economy was booming, families were prolific (birth control wasn’t on the radar screen yet) and Dwight D. Eisenhower was President.
The area of Gregg Neck was a new ‘summer place’ largely populated by employees of Sun Oil Company from Chester, the greater Philadelphia area and Wilmington. There were three main areas: Gregg Neck Park, Well Bottom Cove and Beechwood Glen (The Glen). I think the area had been purchased and developed by a man named J. Early Wood, who occupied the large house on the left corner going down into Gregg Neck Park. The road into Gregg Neck was simply a gravel one until late into the Sixties. In the fifties only a few families lived there year around. (Bunch, Marker, Heston, Winkler, Wood maybe one or two others)
The boat yard was simple then: One main dock and a second under construction. The main dock is the one where the store is now. At that time the store was very small, consisting of only the small area where Wicks’ office is, about 12 ft x 12 ft; the small corner to the right entering the store. There was a marine railway and ramp where the finger piers for the Travel-Lift are now.
Boats were pulled from the water on the railway by a WWII vintage 2 ½ ton dump truck (deuce and a half). Once out of the water, up on the hard, we used come-alongs to slide the boats on greased timbers and place them everywhere in the yard. It was a lot of work. We had a steam Jenny for heavy cleaning, but boat bottoms were usually scrubbed and then machine sanded. A respirator was always used, but everything still tasted sweet for awhile due to the lead used in bottom paint then. All the boats were wood and the seams had to be caulked by hand before painting.
My family came to GNBY around 1954. We had lived in Carneys Point, New Jersey and my father worked at Du Pont, my mother as a secretary in Wilmington. I was 8 years old. Driving down the sandy (not paved yet) road to the boat yard for the first time, I remember Dave (my older brother) and I gazing down into the (seemingly) huge gully that was The Glen and remarking how the many vines present would make an excellent place to practice Tarzan swings. Somehow we ignored all the cottages on the edges of the gully. My two younger sisters didn’t say a word.
Still, as we rolled down the steep, gravel (wasn’t paved yet, folks) hill to the boat yard, we knew this was a place for adventure. To the right of the store was the sandy point which was a great beach at the time. Further around was simple Sassafras shoreline with frogs and snakes until you reached the private dock of Beechwood Glen. To the left were a few shallow water slips for outboards (grrrrr…) and small sailboats with center boards. The covered slips and large boat shed weren’t even on the drawing boards yet. After the slips were more river shore, snakes and frogs until the cultured beach of Well Bottom Cove was reached. The water was even clear; you could see your feet while waist high in the water (I could, anyhow). Families swam and barbecued on this beach every weekend.
We brought our boat here around 1956 after spending a couple years in Rock Hall and Worton Creek marinas. Built in New Jersey in 1938, 37 feet long and 8 feet wide, it was a cedar hulled, converted fishing boat with a Chrysler Marine Engine. It slept the 6 of us in 4 metal chained bunks forward while Mom and Dad slept in the main cabin, after lowering the table. It wasn’t luxury compared to today’s boats, but a lot of people were doing the same thing. Commercial production boats were relatively new; Trojans, small plywood Chris-Crafts and a few others. Seeing a Constellation or Trumpy out on the Bay was a big deal. As was seeing the two elderly gentlemen, who were always dressed in coat and tie, roar down the Bay in WINGS, a 30 ft. inboard speedboat--maybe a Chris-Craft, but who knows?
The boat yard at that time was quite the family place. Mothers wore dresses and carpooled into church on Sundays, returning with a Sunday paper, sticky buns and carefully walking out the docks in their high heels. Girls wore sun-suits and boys wore swimming trunks all summer long. For a couple of years during the summer our parents left us at the boat yard while they went to work in Wilmington. Bob Abel thought that was tantamount to child cruelty (probably prosecutable today!) and often supplemented the meager rations left for us with burgers at the store. Bob became a good friend of mine.
Later in the fifties and early sixties the yard experienced rapid growth as more and more people took up boating and searched for a good place to keep their boat. Two large yards, Georgetown Yacht Basin and Sassafras Boat Company were just up the river. Both of these offered upscale services and prices to match. That didn’t appeal to some folks then, just as it doesn’t now and our boat yard welcomed many former Georgetown residents during this time. Many of them owned PaceMaker boats, a very popular wooden boat at the time.
There were a lot of kids in Gregg Neck then (the Baby-Boomers), and the boat yard was THE place to congregate. Bob recognized this and decided to build a deck so the kids could have a place to dance. The deck he built is what is the main ‘showroom’ part of the store now. Originally it had shelf seats around the perimeter and no roof. Yet, on many a Friday and Saturday night 20-25 kids would bring records and an RCA 45 RPM record player down and we would dance, drink sodas, and flirt until the wee hours of 10 PM. Bobby Rogers drove an Indian motorcycle and wore engineer boots just like Marlon Brando. My parents thought him a hoodlum. It was a wondrous time, believe me. During the day we would water ski, sun bathe and take our small boats across the river to explore. Bud (Beetle) Bailey and I returned one day with over 20 box turtles rescued from holes on the opposite shore. Naturally, we held turtle races at the boat yard for two days until we let them return to the wilds.
By 1959 my family had relocated from New Jersey to Gregg Neck, having bought land and built a home in Swantown Cove (the first right turn coming down Gregg Neck Road). I was working part-time in the boatyard sanding bottoms, hauling boats, driving pilings, helping build the covered slips, another dock and the sheds. Later I helped build the finger piers for our new Comporter (an early Travel-lift much like the one seen to the right at the bottom of the hill). The wood we used were 15 foot long, 12x12 oak beams sitting on creosoted pilings driven 30-40 feet into the muck. To fasten the beams together we used a ½ inch drill with a 3 foot bit to bore holes and then drive re-bar segments with sledge hammers to pin them together.
In the morning during the summer I would paddle a canoe from our home in Swantown Cove down the river to the boat yard to work. I remember those mornings so well: the quietness, the stillness of the water, the blue heron on the point keeping his eye on me as I glided quietly by. It was quite a time and place to grow up.
Not that there weren’t problems.
Mrs. Brunt was on the boat next to ours and we were awakened one morning by her shrieks and screams. My Dad rushed next door (as it were) to see what was the matter since Mr. Brunt was away on business (he was a detective. Wow!). It seems the screen on the water intake for the head had corroded away permitting an eel to make its way up the intake right into the head where it got stuck. The eel was doing its darndest to wiggle its way up through the constriction when Mrs. Brunt sat down to do her morning ablutions. Need I say more?
It rained heavily sometimes during this period and the road out of boat yard and out of Gregg Neck quickly became impassable. This was before everyone owned SUV’s, ya’know. Well, the only 4-wheel drive vehicle available was Bob’s old WWII dump truck and, even though I was only 14 or 15, it was somehow legal for me to drive in times of emergency and I did a great business/service towing people up the hill or through the large mud holes in the road. Good times.
Bob Abel wore khakis every day. That’s what you wear when you are a waterman on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Everybody did. I wore blue jeans and no shirt. I always had a nice tan that I’ll probably pay for a few years from now, but at that time daily life was getting the job done. It was hot working out in the sun and lunchtime was always a nice rest. Mrs. Abel or Dottie would grill hamburgers (made from Harry Heston’s fine Aberdeen Angus raised on Gregg Neck Farm) with a sweet slice of Bermuda onion and lots of sweet iced tea or sugared coffee if it was winter. Winters were tough down there; the river would freeze every year, it seemed.
In the sixties there was an old wooden 50 foot schooner, the Scotia Light, being rebuilt by Parky Parkell and Uncle Davey Parvis. Parky lives in Swantown Cove now, but at that time he was a DuPonter (as were many people at the boatyard then). These guys were engineers, sort of, meaning there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do if they read a book or asked someone about. They built a steam box to bend the planks needed for the hull, hammered cotton into the seams to make her water tight, drilled and plugged hundreds of holes to screw the new planks into the new ribbing, laid in the new keel and all the myriad things necessary to rebuild a good old boat. That adventure took a couple of years, as I recall. Ask him about it.
The Gregg Neck Wars (early sixties). Bob needed to expand the boat yard to accommodate all the boat owners requesting accommodations. Environmental regulations were not what they are now, but lawyers were just as available. Bob wanted/needed to build bulkheads to the left and to the right in order to build new docks and also to provide parking. Both The Glen and Well Bottom Cove associations brought legal action to prevent the (perceived) encroachment on their territories. It was a bitter time since everyone knew each other quite well. Bob won out, perhaps with some concessions, but I forget what they might have been.
We built the boat shed first and then the covered slips. The covered slips would really raise the boat yard’s reputation up a notch, but the shed was necessary to enable us to work through the winter repairing boats to maintain the cash flow to pay the workers. It’s a business. The shoreline and adjoining forest gave way. The paths we used to get from the boatyard to our friends’ homes in the Glen disappeared. The whole place got bigger.
I graduated from Galena High School in 1964. Spent some time in college, got drafted, went to Vietnam, retired after twenty years in the Army and then bought a boat. It’s a Ranger 33 and I found it on the web, sitting at Gregg Neck Boat Yard! One visit and I knew this was the boat for me and this was the right place for it to be.
The boat yard is now owned and operated by Wick’s Westcott and his sons and family. He is an old friend of my fathers; they were both members of the Galena Lions’ Club way back when. The Westcott’s provide the same service and friendliness that has characterized this boat yard for almost 50 years. There are many boatyards like this on the ‘shore. This is a special one for me.
As I sit on my boat watching the activity, I reflect on all the things that make this boat yard such a popular place.
I know the secrets.