Lots of towns have had famous “liar’s benches” over the years–a corner in a store or post office where old men gather and tell tall tales from days gone by. But in Trappe on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, they had much more than a bench–a whole building there was set aside for the fine art of small-town storytelling. The description below of what days back in the 1960s were like at Eddie Cryer’s blacksmith shop comes from Trappe: The Story of an Old Fashioned Town, by Dickson Preston.
As a lifelong Trappe resident observed, ”Maybe we needed a whole building because we had so many liars.” Trappe’s house of liars was known as the “Buzzards’ Roost” for the ancient male citizens who sat hunched like vultures on benches and chairs around its walls. It was housed in a building behind the old Trappe bank, where Walter Edwin (Eddie) Cryer Sr. conducted his blacksmith shop (shown up top here) for many years. The smithy was a favorite hangout of old-timers, and when Cryer retired about 1962 he decided not to close his shop, but to keep it open as a sort of Trappe-style center for senior citizens.
Each morning Cryer would get up early, as he always had in his active years, and walk uptown to open the old shop’s doors. Soon men in their 70s and 80s would drift in. On winter mornings they’d head for the little office, with its old-fashioned pot-bellied stove and benches around the walls. In summer the big front doors would be opened, and they’d sit out by the forge and bellows on chairs and sofas almost as ancient as themselves.
For men who had grown up in the horse and wagon age, it was a comfortable place to spend their later days. The walls were still decorated with horseshoes and other mementos of Cryer’s 50-year career. Each man had his own fly swatter, and there were no women around to fuss if cigar ashes fell on the cement floor or a stream of tobacco juice failed to hit the spittoon. When one of the regulars failed to show up, a messenger would be dispatched to find out if anything was wrong.
Sometimes a mere youngster of 50 or so would wander in, stifling his guilt at wasting valuable time in his fascination with the talk that went around the room. The topic of the day might be almost anything. Politics. Farming. The right way to handle a mule, so it wouldn’t kick you in the face, as one had done to Eddie Cryer. (The answer to that was to do what Cryer had done—retire from blacksmithing and leave mules strictly alone.) The right way to handle women, which was pretty much the same thing.
It the weather was bad, Ephraim Diefenderger would pile the wood box high with logs and talk would turn to the great storms of the olden days. “No, sirree, it don’t snow like it used to anymore.” Everybody remembered the winter of ’34, the coldest on record, just after the banks dosed. That was when people walked over from Cambridge on the ice, and a teller who was out checking his muskrat traps at dawn didn’t dare turn his head for fear his neck would snap in two.
Some could recall much earlier winters, like the great storm of 1899, When it snowed eight days without stopping. And though they hadn’t been around, everybody had heard stories about the Blizzard of ’88, the granddaddy of all storms and the one all later blizzards were measured by. They’d heard it told that during the Blizzard of ’88, the wind was so cold that the Choptank froze solid, waves and all. There was a schooner over by Windy Hill, and on the first night of the storm she was floating, but the next day the captain could walk to shore on the ice. The snow banked so high that some houses could only be entered by second-story windows. A man out Bambury Neck way had a gully with gum trees in it, and the wind filled it up with snow 40 feet deep, or maybe it was only 20. Anyhow, he could walk right across it to feed his pigs.
All the trains got stuck in drifts, and it was nearly a week before the wreckers could get down from Clayton, Delaware, and plow them out. Old Bill Merrick, who sold insurance and ran a store in Trappe, got on the train up at Melson stop–that’s Trappe Station’s old name–on Monday morning to go to Annapolis, and was still on it three days later. Didn’t even get out of Talbot County until Wednesday. Over in Baltimore, the northwest wind was so strong that it blew all the water out of the harbor, and big ocean-going steamers were lying in the mud on their beam ends. At Bay Hundred the shore was littered with bodies of drowned men. They buried them right there, never even found out who they were.
Some of these stories are stretched a bit, of course, but basically they’re true. William S. Merrick, who was an insurance agent and druggist in Trappe as well as journal clerk of the House of Delegates in Annapolis, really did spend three days on a train during the 1888 blizzard. His adventures were reported in the papers of the time. Baltimore harbor actually was blown practically dry. And if the Bay Hundred shore wasn’t quite ”littered with bodies,” even that wasn’t far wrong. At least nine Talbot watermen were drowned in the storm.
–posted by Jim Duffy on Jan. 29, 2020