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Workboat models keep a family’s history alive

As a youngster, boatyard painter Norman Gross fished, crabbed, clammed and oystered with his father and uncles and cousins — all working out of a community of black watermen in Shady Side, Md. But instead of “following the water” like them, he became a yard worker and is now an accomplished professional in a demanding art.

Norman Gross is memorializing his family's workboats in models. This is his father's boat, Miss Myrtle.

A gentle, soft-spoken man who looks a decade younger than his 52 years, Gross never forgot his happy days on the water working with that lost generation of Gross watermen.

A couple of years ago he decided to preserve those memories by building near-scale models of their workboats. “I had nothing to guide me, not even old photographs,” he says. “The thought of taking pictures of their boats never occurred to them; they were just too busy working. So I built my models like the old-timers built their boats — by rack of eye, without any plans or drawings.”

I came to meet Gross at Casa Rio Marina in Mayo, Md., when seeking his expertise while trying my unskilled hand at the roller-and-brush technique of topside painting. He is a fast worker and makes it look so easy. He freely offered his guidance without any cruel criticism, and I have tried to follow it, although my work is certainly not up to his high standards. This year I’ll try again to get it right.
Norman Gross branched off on his personal, emotional project to memorialize his watermen relatives and their long-gone workboats two years ago when his father, Frank, and mother, Mary Myrtle, died within months of one another. “I decided to get this project under way before other watermen in the family died and their boats were gone, too,” he says.
Frank Gross did not live to see the model of his 38-foot workboat, Miss Myrtle, named after his wife, who loved fishing with her husband in the summer when he outfitted his headboat for private, guided charters. The model depicts Frank netting a fish and his wife wetting a line over the side. The miniatures are action figures — stripped of their armaments — dressed in work clothes hand-made by Gross. “I paint and dress them to look as much alike as they did way back then when I helped out as a boy and young man,” he says. “Those were wonderful days, and I guess I developed a photographic memory of those boats. I really didn’t know I could do this until I started.” Incidentally, these models are not for sale, although he might consider an offer to build a model for someone.
Uncle Rodney (Frank’s brother) purchased his 40-foot workboat in the early 1960s and kept the name, Puddin. It was a wooden cabin cruiser, but he converted her to a no-nonsense work platform for all seasons. His son, J.R., took over the boat and the operation after Rodney’s death some 25 years ago, and the model’s figurines are still hard at work.
“I got to finish the model shortly before he died, and we both cried when I showed it to him,” says Gross. “It was then I knew I was on to something in preserving my memories and these vanishing ways of life on the Chesapeake.”
I asked what became of the beloved Puddin. “At the end of her life, they towed her up into a shallow gut of Parrish Creek and abandoned her,” says Gross, who recalls seeing her fairly recently, rotting away in her graveyard off West River in Shady Side. “Not much left of her, all broken up in pieces.”
I suggested that he owed it to himself and his noble project to do an honest treatment of this scene of desolation before the swamp swallows her up. “It was very sad to see her like that,” he adds. “I prefer to remember her in her happy days, but you might have a good idea, and maybe I’ll build such a model based on whatever is left.”
One of his newer models represents the Estelle B., once his Uncle Paul’s workboat. Gross depicts her with an oyster patent-tong rig. “Paul Gross died last year and did not get to see my model,” he says, which will not be finished until he adds copper sheathing on the bow in the waterline area as an ice guard. All the boat bottoms are painted with the old “Baltimore Red” color, a coating that had a high copper content. Another workboat model, rigged for clamming, depicts the Miss Amanda, which was built of wood by Norman’s late cousin Harold Holland.
The larger of the six workboat models measure about 22 inches and are on display in a cabinet in Gross’ enclosed sun porch in Glen Burnie, Md. This winter he plans to build some oyster buyboat models and begin work on a sailing skipjack, a few remaining examples of which are still oystering commercially under power, if not under sail. (I donated eight books from my library to this cause, books with many photos of Bay workboats that Norman can use for guidance.)
“When I finish each model, they look too new, and I have to add dirt and grime for wear and tear,” he says. The finished models are complete — even to cable controls, wood frames and rust marks seeping out from old fasteners in the planks.
The last members of the Gross family still working on the water — K.D. and son, Bevel — own and operate the K.D. Gross Pile Driving Company in Shady Side. Shady Side waterman Jim Gross was K.D.’s father, and Norman will model his buyboat after the family’s old buyboat, the J.P. Moore.
Although Gross’ models aren’t for sale, his personal boat, in the water at Casa Rio, is for sale at $5,000. This refurbished 24-foot Wellcraft, a 1972 fiberglass cabin boat with a 350-hp Chevy, is named Linda Mae, after his wife, who boasts that Norman is just as good at house remodeling and repairs as he is at boat painting and building models.

Gross authenticates his models with 'dirt and grime for wear and tear.'

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.