The next time you’re at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md., take a few moments to remember that you’re walking in the entrepreneurial footsteps of William H.T. Coulbourne and Frederick Jewett. It’ll be easy—the gift shop is where the Coulbourne family lived for many years, and the Coulbourne & Jewett seafood-packing plant stood at the heart of the museum’s campus, on Navy Point.
Founded on a shoestring in 1902, Coulbourne & Jewett is notable for lots of reasons.
• The firm was part of an important period of growth in the blue-crab market. Though an iconic delicacy today, crab was not as popular in the late 1800s as it is today. There were a good number of crab houses around, and people were eating crabs, but oyster was king. By comparison, crab was second-fiddle.
• Coulbourne & Jewett was one of a good number of companies that helped change that state of affairs. It jumped into the blue crab business at a time when the industry was poised to grow bigger–and made the most of it during a six-decade run.
• Coulbourne & Jewett would grow into the largest employer in St. Michaels. At its peak, the firm had about 100 workers toiling away at various loading, steaming, picking, packing, bookkeeping, sales, and management jobs.
• During its heyday, Coulbourne & Jewett probably ranked as the largest black-owned firm of its kind in the state of Maryland.
• If you love crabs, you will recognize the words “special,” “backfin,” “claw,” and “lump.” That rating system was invented at Coulbourne & Jewett more than a century ago, just as that blue-crab bandwagon was getting revved up.
THE BIRTH OF A BLACK-OWNED BUSINESS, 1902
Frederick Jewett was the son of a Civil War veteran who served with the U.S. Colored Troops. He grew up on a farm in a stretch of Somerset County known as Hopewell. If you are headed into Crisfield nowadays along Route 413, Hopewell is near the turn off for the town’s little airport. Linton’s Crabhouse & Seafood is another landmark in the area.
Crisfield was a wild-and-crazy place during the oyster-boom decades of the late 1800s. Imagine a Delmarva version of a gold-rush town in the Wild West, filled to the brim with rowdy and often transient young men, each and every one determined to find a fortune in the “Chesapeake gold” of oystering. Early crab houses were also operating in Crisfield in those years.
Such were the surroundings Frederick Jewett and William Coulbourne knew in their formative years. Reaching adulthood, Jewett started splitting his time between land and water. During growing seasons, he worked on the family farm, raising strawberries and other crops. As winter arrived, he would board a sailboat and head up the Chesapeake Bay to St. Michaels, where he worked as an oyster shucker at a business owned by a white man, John L. Blades. He kept up this seasonal-traveling-man routine for nearly a decade, until 1898, when he moved full time to St. Michaels with his wife, Henrietta.
It would be guesswork to say that Jewett had developed a plan to open his own business by the time he made this move, it’s probably a good guess. In 1902, he secured a $500 loan from Citizens Bank of Crisfield and launched a seafood-packing operation in partnership with two other Somerset County men. One of those men is just a footnote here, as he soon sold his share of the business. The other was Coulbourne. Many decades later, St. Michaels resident Rosella Camper described the pair as polar opposites when it came to personality types.
“Mr. Coulbourne was business-minded and no foolishness–‘get the work done,’ [he would say]. But Mr. Fred might walk through [the packing house] and speak to you and smile.” Camper described Frederick Jewett as a “mild-mannered gentleman” and praised his support for young people in the community and his advocacy for public education of black students.
BIG PICTURE: ‘GOLDEN AGE’ FO BLACK BUSINESS STARTUPS
It’s easy to look back from our 21st-century perspective onto the early 1900s and see a mountain of obstacles standing in the path of young black men out to make a mark in the world. Those obstacles were real in those days of Jim Crow. Most blacks toiled in menial jobs, their lives touched too often by prejudice, discrimination, and violence. It must have taken uncommon bravery to launch a business in the face of such obstacles.
Here’s a fascinating thing about those years: That bravery was in abundant supply. Historians term the period of 1900 to 1930 as “The Golden Age of Black Entrepreneurship.” Between 1900 and 1914, the number of black-owned businesses in the country doubled, from 20,000 to 40,000. This was the era when urban enclaves like New York City’s Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville reached their peaks as centers of business and culture.
The National Negro Business League had 600 chapters in cities and towns around the country. A support group for back businesspeople, it was found by Booker T. Washington, a passionate advocate for black entrepreneurship. His message reached smaller towns here on the Eastern Shore, too. Business districts like the Pine Street corridor in Cambridge blossomed during these years into mini-downtowns full of restaurants, stores, barbershops, and concert halls.
Most of these black-owned businesses were quite small. Frederick Jewett and William Coulbourne had bigger dreams. Both men knew the oystering game, which was more racially integrated than most other fields of endeavor. A good number of blacks worked as watermen and oyster shuckers.
Early on, Coulbourne and Jewett got supplies of oysters and fish mostly from those black watermen. With success came credibility, however, and white watermen started bringing catches to Navy Point as well.
CULINARY REVOLUTION: CRAB MARKET ON THE RISE
Things started going south in the oyster industry around the time that Coulbourne & Jewett got off the ground. Overharvesting was the main problem. Pollution was another issue. The company wasn’t completely dependent on oysters—it processed herring and other fish as well—but William Coulbourne and Frederick Jewett were soon looking for alternatives to the oyster game. They were not alone: As oyster supplies dwindled and prices increased, restaurants and grocery-store chains were in the same boat. So, too, were other businesses in the seafood game–many of them would turn to crabs.
The notion that there was lots of room for growth in the crab business turned out to be true. That didn’t happen overnight, of course. The process of transforming the crustacean into the sort of iconic regional delicacy we know today involved lots of risky trial and error. Many more restaurants had to put it on the menu. Many more grocery stores had to stock it on ice. Seafood processors faced the biggest risks—they had to pay for catches, workers, and steamers and other equipment.
Several historians and writers through the years have placed Coulbourne & Jewett among the wave of companies that embraced the blue-crab market, but they were not the first crab processors by any means. An earlier version of this story did not clarify this point well enough. On Facebook, Somerset County history buff Joe Paden pointed out that Crisfield seafood houses were shipping crabs back in the 1870s. Cambridge businesses were doing the same in the 1880s. Things really started to grow in Crisfield during the 1890s. Coulbourne and Jewett came along to join this parade in 1902–and they did so in St. Michaels, which at that point did not have much in the way of crab-processing businesses.
One of the problems in this fast-growing market with lots of new players was a lack of transparent quality control. Every packing house packaged crab meat in its own way—there was no way for the consumer or restaurant at the end of the supply chain to know whether they were getting claw meat or first-rate lump.
Trying to set Coulbourne and Jewett apart from the pack in this new marketplace, Frederick Jewett set out to make sure that consumers could know exactly what they were getting when buying from his company. He developed the grading system—backfin, special, regular, claw, and lump—that is still in use today.
TRIUMPHS AND TRIBULATIONS ALONG THE WAY
Let’s take a momentary detour back to Somerset County, where both Coulbourne and Jewett grew up. In the 1880s, the town of Princess Anne there became home to Princess Anne Academy, a private school for blacks that would one day grow into the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
William Coulbourne had been born too early to attend the academy, but he made sure to send his children. Here is from the UMES website:
“Cornelia Marguerite Daugherty probably turned a few heads when she showed up to study at Princess Anne Academy in the early 1900s. She arrived in a chauffeured car from St. Michaels, Md., where she lived with her mother, Agnes Daugherty Coulbourne, and step-father, William Henry Travis Coulbourne, a prominent Talbot County businessman.”
The seafood processing business was pretty good to Coulbourne & Jewett. By the 1920s, Coulbourne & Jewett crabmeat was reaching markets as far away as Chicago. The Coulbourne family moved into the house where the gift shop at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is located today. This was a prominent and prestigious location back then, too.
The Jewetts lived in a Victorian home at North and Fremont streets. In time, Frederick would buy other properties, including a grocery store and an apartment house. One acquaintance described him as a “very pleasant, mild-mannered gentleman. It was a pleasure to be in his presence.” The Jewett children attended Princess Anne Academy as well. Tragically, Wilmore Jewett died in a drowning incident while still a student there.
There were challenges on the business front as well. In 1921, the Chicago Health Department declared as “unfit for public consumption” 21 railroad “carloads” of Coulbourne & Jewett oysters. The much-publicized legal wrangling that went on over that lasted three years before petering out in a settlement of some sort. In the 1930s, the company’s workforce went on strike for higher wages. Among those strikers was the mother of aforementioned St. Michaels resident Rosella Camper. The way Camper recalled the story, the company was paying its crabpickers two cents a pound, and the crabpickers were demanding three cents a pound.
The 1930s were Depression times, of course. This prolonged economic downturn his black businesses especially hard. They tended to be smaller and have less capital to fall back on in hard times. At Coulbourne & Jewett, salespeople were reaching out to new markets at this time—places like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even Quebec, across the border in Canada. I have seen speculation among historians that this aggressive outreach might have been a response to declining business in existing markets.
World War II introduced a new set of challenges for black businesses. As war production ramped up in the late 1930s and then went into overdrive in the 1940s, many black men in smaller towns quit their jobs with black businesses and moved to big cities where higher-paying gigs in shipyards and aircraft factories were abundant.
ELWOOD AT THE HELM INTO THE 1960s
What makes the last chapter of the Coulbourne & Jewett story so impressive is that by 1940, the ‘golden age’ black entrepreneurship was over. By this point, black business closures were far outnumbering new startups.
Coulbourne & Jewett, however, kept on succeeding where so many others failed. Frederick Jewett’s son Elwood plays the starring role in this last chapter. Another graduate of Princess Anne Academy, he started at Coulbourne & Jewett in 1928 as a bookkeeper. In the midst of the depression, he launched his own small seafood-packing business on the side.
Soon, he was taking on a bigger and bigger role at the big company—soon, he would fill the shoes of his late father. Coulbourne & Jewett was at its peak as Elwood took charge. Each and every year between 1935 and 1940, the company packed a million pounds of crabmeat. Elwood also claimed that Coulbourne & Jewett was the only packer in all of Maryland to enjoy such a five-year run.
The company’s cookers were so large that 25,000 crabs could be steaming all at the same time. This is the period when Coulbourne & Jewett ranked as the largest employer in St. Michaels, with a workforce of 100.
Elwood Jewett became a prominent figure in Talbot County, heading up political organizations like the Colored Republican Club and participating in various civic causes. One former employee recalled in a 2007 interview with the Star-Democrat newspaper how Ellwood would come into the plant on Saturdays to help unload crabs from boats. Even tackling that dirty task, he would always be wearing his signature white jacket with a black tie or bowtie. One of Elwood’s favorite sayings was:
“A businessman should look like a businessman.”
In 1953, the national Ebony magazine wrote a profile about the “phenomenally energetic man” who led one of ” Maryland’s most successful minority-owned businesses.”
One last bit of business acumen comes into play as the Coulbourne & Jewett story comes to an end. Too many successful businessmen fail to see when the end is near and they won’t be able to overcome the obstacles ahead.
By the early 1960s, the crab population was dropping. Just like with oysters 50 years before, the one-two punch of overharvesting and pollution was taking a toll. Many business owners—black and white—held on too long, but not clear-eyed Elwood Jewett. In 1965, he sold Coulbourne and Jewett to a man named Tom Gibbs.
A few years after that, Gibbs found himself unable to pay the mortgage. Only then did the founders of the then-fledgling Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum step in and buy the property. Elwood Jewett enjoyed the retired life for the next dozen years. He passed away in 1977 at age 73.
The building that William Coulbourne and Frederick Jewett built in 1917 was too far gone and had to be torn down. Some of the Georgia pine siding was repurposed as interior paneling in the Dodson House which, alas, is generally not accessible to museum visitors. It houses administrative offices for the museum.
–written by Jim Duffy and posted on Feb. 19, 2021 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTES & CREDITS
• This 1986 article in the Weather Gauge, then a publication of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, is the most comprehensive source of information about Coulbourne & Jewett.
• In putting this together, I also reviewed scores of newspaper articles, material on the UMES website, this publication of the Calvert Marine Museum, and lots of stuff about the “Golden Age of Black Entrepreneurship” and Booker T. Washington.
• This snippet didn’t fit in the story above, but I thought some of you might be interested in the logistics of keeping products cold in the decades before reliable refrigeration. Here are instructions Coulbourne & Jewett received from one of their customers located in St. Louis:
“Please be sure to see that the load is well iced not only on top of the cans but in between the cans as well as we expect the vibration of the truck will have a tendency to shake the ice to the bottom and we want to be sure there will be enough on top of the oysters to carry them through in good shape.”
• Thank you very much for reading. Feedback always welcome, criticism and compliment alike! As noted in the article, my gratitude goes to Joe Paden for his generous efforts to clarify things here about the early history of crab processing businesses.