Memories of Life on a Sandbar
The Tarry-A-While Guest House
I often wish I had listened more carefully to the stories told around the kitchen table of Thomas and Sallie's early years of marriage. Both came from farming families in Northern Worcester County. During the first years of the marriage they went and lived in Wilmington, Delaware where he was a brakeman for a railroad company. For some reason, they set off to Missouri for a brief stay with friends who owned a farm there, but soon returned to the Eastern Shore, where he would acclaim he could "put my feet under my own table." They inherited quite a bit of land on Herring Creek, which enabled them to buy the house they really wanted to live in, the Tarry-A-While.
It was a three-story guesthouse. There were thirteen rooms on the second and third floors. It was advertised that we could house 25 paying guest. All of these rooms shared one bathroom, but each room had its own sink. Our sign bragged "Running Water In Every Room". There were several outhouses behind the house, which were later converted to sheds, but still only one bathroom to go around. For ventilation there was a small window above each door. The guests were given a key to their rooms, but each one was a skeleton key that would open every door in the house. I don't remember any complaints.
The first floor was reserved for our family. That is, until all of the upstairs rooms were rented. Then every member of the family had to move out so we could rent those rooms. We sometimes slept in the living room, but on really busy weekends the living room was partitioned into four rooms separated by hanging sheets. (The scene from the movie where Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert shared a room reminded me of those nights.) Then the family was relegated to the back porch or laundry room and we slept on folding army cots. I think we sometimes got as high as $5 for a room.
Arthur T. Davis with his grandfather Thomas J. Cropper on the Boardwalk circa 1930
To be such a nice house we were constantly cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The only heat source was an oil-burning stove in the living room and a small working fireplace. A register cut in the ceiling of the kitchen below heated the one bathroom upstairs. In winter mom would heat my pajamas on the oil stove and I would undress there and run up to my room and dive under a huge comforter. Some mornings I awoke with icicles on my nose.
While all this activity was going on in the Tarry-A-While, grandfather was out trying to make a living. He did whatever it took; farming, fishing, selling coal and harvesting ice from the Sinepuxent Bay, which he stored in his icehouse and sold in the summer. At one point he peddled fish, which he got from his sons who were commercially fishing off the surf at Assateague. I heard that it was a very profitable business, until he bragged about how much he was making. He was soon one of many fish peddlers in the village. He had his fingers in so many pots it is hard to relate his main source of income. He owned floating shanties in West Ocean City near the harbor, which he rented. Today they might be called "affordable housing". He kept them repaired and every week he made the rounds on payday collecting rents. Often he would take my sister Joyce and myself along in his 1938 Chevrolet. He would open the trunk and let us sit there dragging a tin can on a string down the road. No harm to us if we fell out, because he was a very careful driver. It is said that the Chevy never got past second gear. He was a good grandfather and Joyce and I spent many delightful hours with him fishing, crabbing, circus going and the like, but neither he nor grand mom were beach people. Don't believe either ever went on the beach for a swim. My mother however would swim with us in the fall after all of the tourist left the island.
As my grandmother got older, my mother, Violet took over the full operations of the Tarry-A-While. In 1918 she had married my father, Arthur C. Davis of Crisfield, Maryland who she had met when he came to Ocean City for a job with the railroad as a telegraph operator. They moved for a while to Wilmington, Delaware for better employment with Dupont, but while they were there Violet became deathly ill from the flu epidemic that took thousands of lives throughout the country. Upon her recovery they moved back to Ocean City and took over another one of grandfather's businesses, the grocery store, and moved into the home with her mother and father. They called the business the A.C. & V. C. Davis's Economy Store.
My grandmother, Sallie died in 1943. Since it was the first death in the family that I had experienced, I was fascinated that they laid her out in her bed for several days and people took turns sitting with her until the funeral. A professional photographer even came and took pictures of her. My grandfather Tom died in 1948 after a long and prosperous life.
My Dad, bless his heart, became a prisoner of the grocery store and spent many, many monotonous years behind the counter of the store. His competition was W. P. Law's Store, one block away. Dad once asked Mr. Laws if it might not be a good idea if they both closed a little earlier. Mr. Laws agreed, but it wasn't long before Laws reneged on the agreement and stayed open later. So it was back to the long, long hours behind the counter for my Dad. He did during many Septembers take us surf fishing up the beach, just a mile or so above the town, to stay in an old hunting lodge on the bay. The walk to the surf was a nightmare because of the hordes of mosquitoes.
My memories of the store include the war years with its shortages and rationing. Sugar, chocolate, sodas and everything that tasted good were rationed because of the war effort. These items were sold to regular customers only and stored out of sight from the tourist. We had a bank account for money and one for ration tickets. I remember counting little cardboard coins, which we deposited. When the wholesalers came to collect their money, Dad wrote two checks, one from cash and one from the ration tickets on deposit. Live chickens were kept out back and sold either live or dressed. The year I turned fifteen, Dad couldn't find a deliveryman since all the older men were in the service. So he let me drive the delivery truck. The police agreed not to bother me. All of his nieces had a very fond memory of my Dad. When they turned sixteen years old, he gave each of them a pair of nylons. An absolute treasure-those nylons?good as a million dollars and best uncle in the world status. My father died on a rare occasion, a Florida vacation for himself and Violet when he was just 58 years old.
Living on Dorchester Street was great. We had Rayne's Soda Shop, a second-generation business, right across the street. Two of my best pals, Fish Powell and Wallace Bunting, lived just a block or so away. Next door to the Tarry-A-While were the Belmont Cottage and the Belmont Hotel. Minnie Jones was the owner and we didn't get along too well with her. My gang used to play football in the street and she often called the police to come and take our ball. The police just moved the game down the street in front of the police station. You've heard the old saying fences don't make good neighbors. There was an alley about two feet wide between the Tarry-A-While and the Belmont Cottage that our guest used when coming off the beach. The property line ran right down the middle. Mrs. Jones decided to block it off, so she called the local concrete man, Bobby Quillen to come and build a block wall.
Well, he was either too busy or just didn't want to do it, so she sent her handyman out with a bucket of tar and spread it down the alley. Spiteful! No, we were not the best of friends. The other neighbors were very enjoyable to live near. Mrs. Ella Dennis and her family were right across the street in the Dennis Hotel. The Cropper family and the Dennis family were close. There had been an incident many years ago, long before I was born, that bound the families together. Calvin Cropper, the second son of Thomas and Sallie shot and killed himself over a love affair turned sour when Savannah Dennis, his childhood friend and next-door neighbor, rebuffed him. It was a scandal at the time, and caused much heartache throughout the families. The Bank of Ocean City was located next to us facing Baltimore Avenue. Over the bank live the old man Harry Scott, who claimed to be the best "cusser" in Ocean City and taught me all he knew.
It was a fun childhood and teenage years growing up in that household and living in Ocean City. The beach was half a block away and long summer days were spent swimming until we shivered, and warming in the sun for another session of body surfing.In summer we enjoyed the boardwalk rides and penny arcades along with the tourists.
On Labor Day we would buy a huge bag of the candies from the claw machines. A nickel bag would last till Xmas. Then we watched all the boardwalk businesses board up their shops, not to be reopened until Memorial Day, which we called Decoration Day. In winter the boardwalk was our playground. One game was to jump off the boardwalk that was high above the sand, and try to climb back up before the next wave came in. There was very little beach until the sand trapped by the inlet bulkhead began to build it to the size it is today. The inlet parking lot is built on sand that was not there in 1933.
My school was in what is now city hall and we attended the United Methodist Church on Third Street, next to the school, just a short walk north. Within two blocks of our home there was all that you needed; two grocery stores, a pharmacy, the town's only doctor, post office, firehouse, bank, a hardware store, numerous soda fountains, a restaurant, all of the utility companies and the Coast Guard station. The only thing I had to go out of town for was to buy clothes and to further my education. The lovely girl who has shared my life for over fifty years, I met on the Ocean City Boardwalk. Janice Kaufman of Catonsville, Maryland had come down to work at the beach for the summer at Albright's Gift Shop, and when I met her I knew she was the one for me.
For one hundred and ten years, four generations of the Cropper-Davis women; Sallie, Violet, Joyce and Cathy continued to run the Tarry-A-While. The building was sold and moved to a different location one block away, still on Dorchester Street, to be saved for historical preservation in 2005.
Enough said of the Tarry-A-While for now. Shortly after my graduation from college and my marriage to Janice, I said good-bye to the old home and made a nest of my own.
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