Dickerson Boatbuilding

BY MONROE AND MAYANNE KARMIN

Todays Dickerson Property

From an airplane, the two rooftops and construction rubble below, appear as an unsightly tear in the neat tan, brown, and green quilt of the surrounding farmland - a commercial intrusion into the pastoral serenity that is the charm of waterfront Talbot County.

But, on the ground, the construction comes into focus as quite in keeping with the character of the Chesapeake Bay's historic Eastern Shore. The new marina that em6races a cove of LaTrappe Creek is the home of Dickerson Boatbuilders, Inc., the largest producer of modern, fiberglass recreational sailboats in the area.

As such, Dickerson is making an important contribution to beautiful Talbot County, with its 620 miles of shoreline flecked with manor houses and quaint port towns (Oxford and St. Michaels are the best known). The boat-builder illustrates how the future can be grafted onto the past so the scars don't show.

Talbot savors its reputation, earned over the generations, as a splendid retreat for the wealthy who come here to enjoy the boating, fishing, hunting, picturesque scenery and generally easy style of country living.

Yet, as the landed gentry enjoy their pleasures, the county's economic base - its land and water - has suffered a gradual erosion as mechanization has clawed into agricultural employment and uncertain catches have washed away profits from the Bay.

Rob Begor

Rob Begor - General Manager - Circa 1984

This contradiction evokes an ambivalent attitude among Talbot Countians toward economic development. The retired wealthy prefer this land of pleasant living just as it is. Other residents want a more diversified employment base. The emerging solution is a cautious change, one that seeks to blend the new with the old, progress with tradition.

Most of the commercial development has settled over the past decade in or near Easton, the county seat. Black & Decker moved its commercial products division there in the mid-1970s. A second light-industrial park opened near the Talbot County airport in the area about the same time.

Now a new ripple of development appears to be in the making. In 1982, a Rob Begor, Dickerson plant superintendent, came to the company right after college. The Dickerson yard employs nearly 75 persons.

Dickerson, located between Trappe and Oxford, fits the blueprint perfectly "Our first concern is the expansion of businesses already here," says Slyvia Gannon, a county council member. "Dickerson is a good example of that."

The company was established in 1946, when Bill Dickerson began building boats in his backyard in nearby Cambridge. Over the years the Dickerson name came to mean ships that were sturdy and seaworthy - but dull. Wooden, full-keel, heavy and slow, they lost favor with recreational sailors as boating moved into the fiberglass age.

No more. Ted Reed, a former Philadelphia stockbroker, and his wife, Carla, bought the company, which had been moved to LaTrappe Creek, in 1978. "It was in worse shape than I thought," recalls the 37-Year-old Reed, who admits to loving sailing more than stocks. With capital and enthusiasm the new owners revived the moribund enterprise.

Reed moved quickly to modernize the Dickerson cruising boat by calling on George Hazen of Annapolis to use up-to-date computer techniques to redesign the craft for speed and comfort without sacrificing its traditional look. The result is a Dickerson with molded fiberglass hull and deck cored with balsa, a cut-out keel, and a stylish wooden cabin. Next came a larger cruising boat and a new racing boat designed specifically for the lighter airs of the Chesapeake Bay by Bruce Farr, a New Zealander who now resides in Annapolis.

Gary Metje

Gary Metje - Production Manager - Circa 1984

For the effort, Dickerson now is recognized as one of the foremost builders of customized sailboats along the East Coast. Business is brisk. The company plans to build 26 boats this year, compared with just three as recently as 1981. The charter service is being expanded for sailors who want to try before they buy, while enjoying the Bav's pleasures. Sales revenues are expected to top $3.1 million, up from about $540,000 in 1979, the first full year of the Reed era.

The work force, fewer than 10 people two years ago, now is approaching 75."We certainly put a lot of people to work in the last two years," says J. Donald Griffin, Dickerson's chairman.

One of those workers is Rob Begor, a 32-year-old Virginian who migrated here in 1977 after college to work for the old Dickerson company. Begor, now the plant superintendent, describes Dickerson's comeback as remarkable. He says the company, on the brink of extinction a short time ago, now is "a boon to the local economy" both in terms of jobs and supplies purchased from Maryland firms.

About half the Dickerson work-force consists of local residents, with the remainder lured here by the renewed activity. Gary, Metje, a 39-year-old local resident, started as a carpenter and now is shop foreman. He says that just as important as the increased employment opportunities is the restored respect for craftsmanship. "There's more pride going into our boats," Metje explains. "We, in effect, overbuild them."

Pride and tradition are important values to Talbot County's 26,000 residents. They know their history and venerate its ties to the Chesapeake and the ships that plied it.

In recent times, construction of the Chesapeake Bay bridge introduced new people to the unhurried and comfortable Talbot County lifestyle. An increasing number of affluent young families who like what they see decide to stay. However, the intoxication of endless creeks and coves, miles of corn and soybean farms, stands of loblolly pines, and the pervasive serenity is not without the risk of boredom as a hangover.

Some younger residents from urban backgrounds concede the need for relief. Betsy Dietz, wife of a local attorney, treats her spells of "island fever" with trips to Washington, Philadelphia or New York.

Boating and boatbuilding have been a tradition here since the first settlers arrived. That's why the new activity at Dickerson's holds a significance for Talbot County that extends beyond economic development and employment opportunities, as important as they are. In the past, most of the boats were built for those who earned their livelihoods from the Bay. Now Dickerson is erecting a gangplank to the future by its leadership in producing recreational boats.

We are carrying on a tradition of boatbuilding that began in colonial times, explains Don Griffin, "a tradition that might have been lost."

In a deep sense, then, the construction at LaTrappe Creek not only conforms to the Eastern Shore character but is an important enhancement of it. What is being promised, to oldtimers and newcomers alike, is that a vital link with the past will be preserved in a modern context.

"Boats are more than sources of employment or enjoyment for us," declares Anthony Redmon, director of planning for Talbot County. "Boats are sources of identity."

Reprinted From Country Magazine June 1984