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Friday, September 14, 2012

"Gentlemen... the Situation Has Changed." How the Skipjack Rosie Parks came to CBMM

"Gentlemen...the Situation Has Changed."

by Dick Cooper

Captain Orville Parks and Museum Director R.J. “Jim” Holt aboard the Rosie Parks, 
en route to her new home at the Museum, 1975.

In the early months of 1975, R.J.  “Jim” Holt, the first full-time director of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, quietly worked out a plan to expand the floating fleet by making a major acquisition. The Museum was entering its second decade, and if it was going to continue to make its mark on the region, it needed a skipjack—the iconic symbol of the Bay. According to letters and documents preserved by the Museum, everything started to come together for Holt that February and moved quickly. On April 26, Holt had his prize as he helped sail the skipjack Rosie Parks into St. Michaels harbor. Today, almost four decades later, the Rosie is being reborn as Master Shipwright Marc Barto and his apprentices work to bring the famous  vessel back to what she looked like when Bronza Parks built her in 1955.
      By 1975, the Museum’s fleet had grown to 36 Chesapeake vessels, ranging from the historically significant log-built bugeye Edna E. Lockwood, down to sailing skiffs and a one-log dugout, most of which had been donated. Not all the boats were floating and many were in bad repair. It was a constant struggle to keep the 50-foot, round-bottomed sloop J.T. Leonard from sinking at the dock. The good skipjacks on the Bay were still a major part of the oyster fishery and were too valuable for their owners to even consider selling them to an upstart museum. Four years earlier, the Museum had established a “Skipjack Fund” for the express purpose of buying a skipjack and Holt had looked at a few boats, including the Rebecca T. Ruark.
     He then learned that the well-respected oysterman Captain Orville Parks was in ill health and had come ashore for good. Parks’ skipjack, the Rosie Parks, was well known on the Bay, having won several honors in the Sandy Point and Deale Island windjammer races. Holt began working behind the scenes with Luke Brown, an Annapolis boat broker who had Rosie listed for sale at $30,000 (about $120,000 in today’s dollars.) Holt thought $25,000 would be a number he could raise if he had a year or two to work on it. He arranged for Brown to visit the Museum on February 5, 1975, and made the initial offer. In a letter dated February 6, Brown thanked Holt for the visit.
     “Just a note to let you know how much I enjoyed the conducted tour yesterday. I was amazed to see the extent of your facilities.” Brown went on to write, “I talked with Captain Parks yesterday, and he is willing to go along with your proposal to purchase the Rosie Parks for $25,000, with approximately 1/3 at the time of delivery, and the balance over a two year period.” Brown, obviously a good salesman with a sense of how to strengthen a connection, concluded the letter with the following post script: “Am enclosing my check and application for supporting membership.”
      The letter appears to be more of a record keeper than breaking news because on the very same day, Holt began laying out his goal to buy Rosie to members of the Museum’s board. 
     “We have $6,500 in restricted funds for the purchase of a skipjack, which we need to round out our exhibits of available sail boats of the Bay,” Holt wrote to Museum board member S. Paul Johnston on February 6, 1975. Johnston was an influential Museum supporter who lived in Bozman. He was a World War I biplane pilot; former Saturday Evening Post editor who had warned the world in 1939 about advancing German air power; a member of the agency that evolved into NASA; and had served as head of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Holt started out his letter by writing, “Along with the Master Plan, we should include plans on the floating exhibits.” 
     He went on, “It was brought to my attention that Captain Orville Parks, owner of the Rosie Parks, suffered a heart attack several weeks ago and the Rosie Parks is no longer dredging. She is now available for purchase. As you know, the Rosie Parks is the best known Skipkjack on the Bay and was built by B.M. Parks in 1955. She is equipped with Dacron sails and has been kept in yacht condition since she was launched. While Captain Parks is asking $30,000 for the Rosie, we could probably get her for $25,000.    The public relations value of acquiring the Rosie Parks would be of great importance to the Museum.”   
Later in the letter, Holt writes “I have talked with Richardson’s Boat Yard and they advised me that the Rosie Parks is in better condition than any of the skipjacks on the Bay…. Captain Orville Parks has also been contacted and he is very interested in the Rosie Parks going to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. He will accept $25,000 paid over a 3 year period of time in thirds. He will not sell the boat until hearing definitely from us.”

     On February 17, Holt met with the Executive Committee of the Board and received its unanimous support. He also put forward his idea that the money should not be raised from the general membership. He was looking for 19 individuals of means willing to kick in $1,000 or more for this one-time purchase. The next day, he crafted a letter to Captain Parks extending his formal offer of $25,000 for the skipjack spelling out the terms, and included a $2,000 check as a show of good faith. The old captain signed the letter of agreement with a somewhat shaky hand.

     On February 28, J. Geer Wilcox of Oxford, chairman of the Museum’s Development Fund Committee sent a letter to the full Board of Governors with the salutation:

     “Gentlemen: An opportunity to correct a deficiency in the Museum’s Floating Exhibit, i.e., the acquisition of a skipjack, has come unexpectedly to the Museum. Until now, no boat has been available and until now the proper facilities to berth and maintain a skipjack, although in the final phases of construction, had not been completed and, therefore, were unavailable. The situation has changed. Probably the best known and most desirable skipjack on the Bay is available.”

     Wilcox went on to assure his fellow board members that “this is not a ‘double dip’ attempt. It is, however, an appeal to you to help us with this project by soliciting a contribution or contributions from others possibly in your sphere of influence and contact. Your participation will allow us to take advantage of an opportunity which undoubtedly will never be duplicated as an addition to the Museum’s collection of Bay oriented exhibits.”

     In a P.S., Wilcox wrote, “Such donations are, of course, tax deductible.” Wilcox’s appeal worked, the full amount was raised and the purchase of Rosie Parks was concluded. On April 24, Holt sent a letter to the Avon-Dixon Agency in Easton adding Rosie to the Museum’s insurance policy. Veteran Eastern Shore journalist Anne Stinson joined the crew and dignitaries who boarded Rosie in Cambridge the morning of April 26, 1975, to chronicle its voyage to St. Michaels for The Star-Democrat.

     Stinson says she has great memories of that day, and her old friend Captain Orville. “He was such a gentleman, a little on the formal side, but always warm and welcoming to me.” She says she had sailed on Rosie Parks before that day, reporting her first story about oystering. “I hadn’t done an oyster story yet and he said, ‘You can come with me Miss Stinson.’ ”

      In her 1975 newspaper account, Stinson wrote, “The Rosie Parks’ trip out of the Cambridge harbor Saturday morning with Captain Orville Parks at the wheel was an occasion of mixed emotions. It combined a pang of regret that one more skipjack was retiring from the oyster dredging fleet. More personally, it was a poignant time for the 79-year-old skipper, ordered by his doctor to leave a lifetime on the water.”

     Stinson says she remembers Captain Parks talking about his late brother Bronza, who had been murdered by a mentally unstable customer 17 years earlier. “He talked about how much he missed his brother.” After a cold, spray-soaked ride out of the Choptank and up Eastern Bay, Rosie rounded Tilghman Point and headed into the Miles River under full sail toward her new home at the Museum. “Captain Orville stood aside and Museum director Holt took the wheel for a turn as captain,” Stinson wrote. “Peter Black had a turn, followed by Ralph Wiley, Ted Graves and Hank Luykx. Their grins threatened to split their faces.”

     Thinking back to that day, Stinson, now 85, says, “One of the things that I recall was when we got to St. Michaels, Captain Orville clearly wanted to stay on the boat until the last possible minute. He was so reluctant to leave, he kept fussing over it. He wanted to make sure everything was clean and that everything was in its place. Then he got very quiet. He sort of collected himself and got off the boat. He walked away and did not look back.” 

Rosie docked along side the lighthouse, circa 1975.

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