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Demand for Unique Tools Is Off, Famous Maryland Brothers Say : Oyster Shortage Hits Tong Makers, Too

February 14, 1988|LARRY ROSENTHAL | Associated Press

BIVALVE, Md. — Watermen in need of new wooden tongs to scoop up oysters from the Chesapeake Bay know that if they want the best, they'll have to see this town's undertaker or postmaster.

Cornelius Messick, 60, who runs the funeral home, and his brother, Wilbur, 57, who takes care of the mail, have a second life as the undisputed kings of tong making.

Each fall, watermen from up and down the bay make pilgrimages here, and that is the way it has been for more than a hundred years. The Messicks' father, grandfather and great-grandfather all made tongs.

Like Maryland's watermen, the Messick brothers are feeling the effects of the unprecedented spread of an oyster-killing parasite, MSX. Business is off more than 50%, and, for the first time in a long while, they have received some bad checks.

The Messicks use only longleaf Georgia pine to make the long, narrow wooden shafts, connected by a single hinge, that hand tongers lower into the water from their boats and squeeze together like scissors to scoop up oysters in metal baskets with rake-like claws.

This is normally the time of year when the Messicks travel to Georgia to buy their lumber from a mill that may be the last source available for the wood. But because of this year's oyster woes, the Messicks didn't make the trip this season.

They believe they have enough lumber for maybe one more year, although it will be close. Still, they are optimistic.

"We've seen cycles like this come and go, and I have no reason to believe the oysters won't come back again," Cornelius said.

The brothers make most of their tongs in April, May and June, before it gets too hot in the old two-story barn, a quarter of a mile from the Messick funeral home that serves as their workshop.

Wilbur uses his annual vacation to work on the tongs, leaving his duties as postmaster whenever there is a lull in his brother's funeral business.

Working in the barn amid the smell of sawdust, "you leave your worries behind," Wilbur said.

It is on the barn's second floor where the Messicks spend long hours hunched over sanding the shafts, which range in length from 12 feet to 28 feet and in price from $78 to $215. Next, they attach the metal tong heads, which cost extra, and stack the shafts according to length. In the middle of the floor, several dozen shafts are spread out like so many oversized pickup sticks.

All the sawing is done on the first floor, laden with heaps of sawdust.

In order to move the longest shafts around in the assembly room, they must be stuck out the windows. A workbench also extends outside the building.

The Messicks estimate that 16 operations are involved in making a set of tongs, not including getting the wood, and that the most they could make in a day are five or six.

Their current source of lumber took them a long time to find. Once it runs out, they are afraid they will be forced out of business because only inferior types of wood will be left. Other craftsmen who work on a smaller production basis use fir wood.

Longleaf Georgia pine is a slow-growing tree with an extremely dense grain that makes it very strong. The trees the Messicks use are 100 to 300 years old. Nothing is applied to the shafts because the wood is highly water resistant.

Although the Messicks take great care in picking the lumber they bring back to Maryland, they say they still end up discarding about a third of the wood because it is too light, too soft, too heavy, too knotty, warped or cracked.

Just as baseball players check each bat for just the right feel, watermen carefully examine various sets of tongs before they select a pair they like.

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