Somerset County MDGenWeb

Biography of Benjamin Franklin Washington Laird
by Robert E. Laird, Jr.

This article is a biography of Benjamin Franklin Washington Laird, written by Robert Emerson Laird, Jr., of 26886 Fitzgerald Rd, Princess Anne MD, 21853. It was written for a high school report in about 1980; and is based largely on the recollections of his father, Robert Emerson Laird Sr., son of the subject B. Frank Laird. It was transcribed 13 January, 1998 by John H. Herold, with Bob Laird's permission, and submitted to the Somerset USGenWeb Project.

Benjamin Franklin Washington Laird was born June 25, 1851 at the head of Little Annemessex River between Hopewell and Crisfield, Maryland. His grandfather came to Somerset County in the late eighteenth century. It is believed the family came first from Scotland into Lancaster County Va. then moved from there to Crisfield.

Frank, as he was usually called, spent his early childhood days playing around the marsh and ditches of Crisfield getting wet at times as most boys do. His father at this time was a farmer but he also "followed the water". The term "follow the water" is used throughout the Eastern Shore to describe a person's occupation from earning a living working on the water. In 1856 the family moved from Crisfield to a small village named Little Creek. This is located about one mile northwest of the present village of Monie. Little Creek only had five or six houses at this time and was located in a low marshy area. Benjamin, Sr. had come here to take care of a private oyster bed located near by. Frank's surroundings here had been very similar to those in Crisfield. The only thing he missed now were his cousins to play with and his favorite Uncle Thomas who used to carry him down to the boat yard he operated. He had always liked to watch the workman swing the huge broad axes to shape the timbers for the boats.

Frank was the youngest of four children. His brother was eight years older than he and was now working with his father tonging oysters. His oldest sister, Nancy, had died at the age of twelve the same year they had moved from Crisfield. His youngest sister, Harriet, was five years older than he and was not interested in playing the same games he was interested in. He had gone to school a little while the second year he lived in Little Creek. The more than a mile walk down the ditch bank had been rough in cold weather. Besides this he hadn't been too anxious to sit in school all day anyway. He went part of three more years but decided then he had had enough "book learning" and stopped going. His father hadn't encouraged him much because indeed he thought education was for school teachers and lawyers, neither of whom he held in high esteem.

His father's brother, Obadiah, had moved from Crisfield to Little Creek after his mother died. Uncle Obad, as he was called, was living with them since he was never married. He was not very ambitious and made his living if you could call it that, as a prober. (This word was always pronounced as "progger" in Somerset County) This is a person who earns his living by catching or picking up anything he can from the marsh, creeks or woods. After stopping school Frank had gone with Uncle Obad many times on these "progging" journeys and had learned much about the creeks and marshes.

When he was eleven years old an event he was never to forget had taken place. The year before this he had heard his father and some other men discussing a war which our country was engaged in. He hadn't paid much attention because he hardly knew what a war was, but he had heard them mention Bull Run and thought it sounded funny. He had walked with Uncle Obad this day to the post office about two miles from their home. They tried to go at least once every two weeks. They had gotten a letter and Uncle Obad had reached it to him to see who it was for since he couldn't read. He had read the name and address - John Laird, Monie, Maryland. He had tried to read the return address the first word was war. He couldn't pronounce the next word, but it was from Washington, D.C. They had hurried home so his mother could read it. When he reached the envelope to his mother she read it immediately. It was from the War Department. John had been notified to meet the Provost Marshall in Princess Anne on December 13, 1862 or pay $300 for someone to go in his place. In short, John had been drafted for the Union Army. Leah had met Benjamin and John at the door that evening to tell them the news. She had worried all afternoon about this. She had on occasion seen a newspaper and read how many soldiers were being killed. John tried to console his mother by telling her he didn't mind going and perhaps it was even his duty to go. But she knew they would have to raise the $300. Benjamin sat in the corner not saying much. He now spoke up "If he were going at all it would be in the Confederate Army and not the Yankee". He too believed that each state had a right to do as they saw fit. He also couldn't see why slavery was such an evil. He worked from sunrise to sunset himself and did little more than earn enough to feed the family. He knew of many slaves who worked less than this. Also, he could carry him across the bay at night in his canoe that he used for oyster tonging. With the flat bottom canoe he could slip him up one of the shallow creeks in Virginia without being detected, and he could join the Confederate Army there. Leah would hear none of this. Before they went to bed that night she had talked them into trying to raise the $300. No one had any idea how they would accomplish this. They had not slept very well that night. For one thing an owl had stayed outside the window hooting most of that night and they had considered this a bad sign.

The next morning John and Benjamin arose and went to work as usual. The subject needless to say was the discussion of the money. John had saved $130 in the five years he had been working since he was fourteen. He was going to use this to buy a boat but the boat would probably have to wait. Benjamin had just purchased his canoe the year before and he announced he had only "$16 between him and starvation". Benjamin knew that Leah had four dollars she had saved from selling milk and butter and she would gladly give this. But even this was only one half of what they needed.

When they arrived home that night and ate supper the subject of money came up again. Leah announced she had the four dollars and would be most happy to give it. Uncle Obad was sitting back in the corner not saying anything. Leah turned to him and said "Obad can't you contribute something. I know of $20 you have". "Yes" Uncle Obad said. "I have a $20 gold piece I got for that canoe I sold but I wouldn't give that to see the Apostle Paul walk across Little Creek on the water". He then said it was nothing but nonsense to pay $300 to keep out of the draft. Last month when he was in Annemessex he heard of two boys that had gone in the Pocomoke Forest to escape the draft. The rumor was you could even work while there and earn money making shingles. This was what he had considered the smart thing to do. It was finally decided that Benjamin would have to sell the boat to raise the remainder of the money. John never became a war hero but he lived to be 84.

Benjamin had made a bad move. He had sold his livelihood. The next morning all hands were in the woods cutting logs to build a new canoe.

This was Frank's first experience in the boat building business. He had been interested in building boats ever since he had watched the workmen in Uncle Thomas' boat yard. His father was not really a boat builder but anyone handy with an axe and adz could build a canoe that would at least float.

This was Frank's first experience with the tools of the boat builder. It was really easier than he thought. He had used a small broad axe which belonged to his father to help shape the three logs from which the canoe was built. When she was finally finished and launched he had eyed her carefully as she sat in the water. This was not the most beautiful craft he had ever seen but he believed he would know what to do the next time to build one more perfect.

He decided this was the business he wanted to get in. In 1867 at the age of 16 he learned one of his neighbors was going to build a bugeye to use for dredging. He asked for a job and was hired. Wages had increased some and he was to get $8 per month, but he also had to go dredging in the winter at the same pay. He wasn't particularly fond of dredging. Or course, there were no gasoline engines at this time and his job was on the hand winders. It was back-breaking work to stand at that winder box all day cranking in the dredges as they were filled. He did this for a number of years until he felt he had mastered both occupations.

By this time his character had also been molded. He was quick to disagree with anyone who said something of which he did not approve. He also was not particular in what manner he disagreed. It didn't seem to worry him any at all if he insulted someone. To state it simply he called as he saw it and let the chips fall where they may.

In 1870 at the age of nineteen he married Mary Emily Wilson. Mary Emily, the sixth of eleven children, was the daughter of Isaac and Miranda Phoebus Wilson, a very religious family with deep roots in the Methodist Church. Fran's parents had not been particularly religious although they attended church services on occasion. He had remembered when as a boy he had objected to attending church and that favorite corrective method, a myrtle bush on the seat of the pants, had been applied freely. Grandfather Wilson as he was usually called had been a class leader and exhorter at Phoebus' Chappel in St. Peters for a number of years and was now a local preacher. It looked as though Frank may now become a regular attender which he did. He later became a trustee and a strong supporter of the church.

Frank continued to build boats in the summer and dredge in the winter. This was becoming a way of life for him.

Five years and four children after his marriage he decided he would build his own boat and use her for dredging. He was now 24 years old and even though he had never served as captain of a boat he had been with others for eight years now and was sure he could handle the job.

He had no fear at all that he couldn't build as good a bugeye as ever sailed the bay.

The year was 1875. His father had died that March and he now had to look out for his mother since he was still staying at home in Little Creek.

When November came he had the bugeye ready for sailing. Although she was only 36.5 feet in length he thought the width of 13.5 feet may be too wide as he gazed at her setting in the water. As he thought back "maybe he had been a little too confident about his ability as a boat builder", but he would never admit this to anyone. He had named her the Eula and she was the first of many that he would build over the next 31 years. He usually built a bugeye in the summer, dredged her that fall and winter, then sold her in the spring and built another. He continued this practice for many years. In 1884 he built a bugeye that he kept for a number of years. She was 48 feet long, 13.5 feet wide, and 3.6 feet deep. He thought she was the best dredging boat he had ever stood at the tiller. He had named her after his four year old daughter, Estelle. He had dredged her for a number of years and couldn't seem to bring himself to sell her. The first year he thought he was going to be forced to sell her because the depression of 1884 had struck and oysters had been hard to sell at any price. But things had improved after this and he could remember getting $.60 a bushel one time for his oysters.

Frank's oldest son, Charles, he remembered had done very well in school. He had attended for quite a few years and had developed a beautiful penmanshhip. He didn't want Charles to go dredging. He wanted him to become a ship carpenter which was much better than just an axe and adz man which was used to build the canoe and bugeye. He knew Charles had the intelligence to do this. He even believed he had the intelligence to become a school teacher or preacher if he cared to be one. However, he had another son which he felt did not have the makings of a school teacher. Mitchell was a different boy than Charles. He never cared much for school. He preferred the marsh and creek over the finer things in life. In fact, he had to send Uncle Obad to school with him in the morning to see that he got there. He had known of at least a half dozen days when he had played hookey from school. It couldn't be said that Mitchell really liked any subject, but he actually despised grammar. His mother had taken him out of public school because of this and entered him in a private school for a short time untill he misspelled a word and the teacher slapped him for it. He immediately arose from his seat, gathered up his coat and lunch box and left school. This terminated Mitchell's formal education but it did not put an end to his learning. He was taken on as cook and deck hand aboard the Estelle. He too got to feel the blisters and back aches from the hand winders. The cook aboard the dredge boats worked on deck until time to start cooking the meal. This was really two jobs in one. The crew remarked more than once they were glad he was the cook since they didn't believe any of them could cook the food as fast as he could eat it. The winders would no doubt work up a sizable appetite for a young boy.

In the nineteenth century anyone on the Eastern Shore who owned a boat no matter how small was given the title of captain. Frank was no exception to this and was known for most of his adult life as Captain Frank.

Captain Frank like most people of his day had some superstitions and believed to some extent in ghosts. If you asked him if he believed in ghosts he would have said, "no, certainly not!" He would continue to tell you then about certain lights he had seen going across the marsh or sky for which he could offer no explanation. He would go on to tell also about how the rooster had crowed the night his mother died. He was quick to respond to any situation where there seemed to be danger, and one of his most comforting pieces of equipment was his shotgun. Yes, he would admit the truth about it, he had shot that Jack O'lantern the children had put on a pole in the field. He had blown it to bits and was glad of it; they shouldn't have put it there. He would also admit that he had shot in the tree one night and killed Mary Emily's turkey, but that was her fault she shouldn't have awaken him and said she heard a noise. The bull he shot another night had broken through the fence and came into the yard. People should take better care of their livestock. After all a man did have the right to protect himself and his property.

One of man's most useful discoveries and one of his deadliest enemies was that of fire. Houses being destroyed by fire was common place during the nineteenth century. People of this age seemed to have tremendous respect if not fear of fire. Captain Frank was not much different.

When Mitchell was serving as cook aboard the bugeye an incident happened which he would long remember. As the cook, one of his duties was to chop kindling at night to start the fire with the next morning. This particular night Mitchell had sat up late talking with the crew and had neglected his wood chopping duties. When he arose the next morning sleepy and chilly he decided instead of chopping kindling to start the fire he would use some coal oil to give it a quick start. Coal oil was a liquid that had been recently discovered and was very good to burn in lamps and lanterns. Coal oil was actually kerosene that did not have the gasoline removed. There was no need for gasoline at this time since the gasoline engine was not in use.

Mitchell had put some large pieces of wood in the stove and applied a liberal amount of coal oil. He struck the match and put it up under the grate. When the oil ignited every lid on the little cook stove went to the cabin ceiling. Hearing the explosion Captain Frank rushed from the aft cabin with a quilt around him. When he arrived on the scene Mitchell was picking up the lids and gathering up the pieces of wood. After surveying the damage and seeing it was not severe he immediately lit into Mitchell which he was very capable of doing. "Boy what are you trying to do, burn us all up?" were his first words. "Exactly how did you manage to do that?" Mitchell was a little reluctant to answer with the full truth since he shouldn't have used the coal oil. He did mumble in a low tone that the stove had exploded. Captain Frank hadn't understood him and said, "boy speak up. You sound like your mouth is full of hot mush." Under the heavy questioning he finally had to admit that he had used the coal oil. Captain Frank almost flew into a rage when he heard this. "You know how dangerous that infernal coal oil is", he exclaimed. "You could have set this boat on fire and burned us all to death." He went on to say he wished that had never been discovered. The Bible said the world would be destroyed by fire and he believed that very liquid would be responsible for starting it. He believed the devil had sent that stuff here for just such a purpose. He raved on most of the morning about fire and coal oil. In fact, it could be said that he didn't lose a wink of sleep over it. However, he didn't try using the coal oil anymore for starting fires until the gasoline engine came along.

In the early 1900's Captain Frank stopped dredging and turned to boat building and farming.

One of his proudest achievements was a bugeye he built for R.L. Miles in 1906. This was the largest bugeye ever constructed. She was 85 feet in length, 23.8 feet in width and 6 feet in depth. Her keel 85 feet in length squared up 12 inches at the small end. The log from which this was hewed was imported from North Carolina. She was named the A. Von Nyvenheim, always referred to by Captain Frank as the "Nivingham".

Several years before he began construction on the Nyvenheim his house at Monie where he moved after his mother died had burned. He then moved to Oriole to be closer to his work. The Nyvenheim had to be built close to deep water where she could be floated when launched. She was built at Champ, Maryland across the small creek from where he lived. He could recall exactly what his wages were, $1.25 per 10 hour day. The workmen only received $1.00 per day. He stayed here at the Smith place for several years.

He then decided he was paying too much rent and would build a new house at Monie. His rent had doubled from $25 per year to $50 in just five or six years. He told Katie Wallace to whom he paid the rent to tell Lizzie Smith, the owner of the house, that he would never pay that kind of rent. In fact, he would tell her himself if he ever saw her.

In 1908 he contacted his good friend and life long neighbor, George Noble, about building a home for him. He believed George was the best house carpenter he had ever known. When he contacted George about the price he informed him that prices had rose in recent years as he was sure he was aware of and the six room Victorian house that he talked about building may cost as much as $700. This was a little more than he had wanted to invest so he decided to take down the old Wilson home which had been built in the 1700's and use some of this lumber. He now owned this house since Grandfather and Grandmother Wilson were both dead. He took the old house down and was able to salvage enough lumber to frame up the kitchen part of the new house and also enough flooring for the porch. He was now in a position to build the new house. George had done the work and he had helped him. Even though he had been a boat builder all of his life this did not qualify him as a house carpenter. He continued to build a few small boats and also do some farming since he now had control of most of the Wilson property.

This property contained about 25 acres of cleared land. He had done some farming before at Little Creek where they owned a few acres. The land at Little Creek was along the edge of the marsh and the elevation was barely above sea level. When you went into the corn field to gather the crop it was some question as to whether you should carry a fodder knife or crab net depending on how high the tide was. The red clay about 8 inches below the surface and the fact that the land was drained of all its nutrients years ago by growing tobacco made it unsuitable for farming. Tilling this land was like fighting a tiger bare handed - you seldom won. Captain Frank had to laugh every time he thought about what Uncle Obad had said about this land. When asked to help do something in the field Uncle Obad had said, "Frank it is absolutely useless to try to do anything with this land. It's so poor a frog would have to pack a lunch to hop across it." Knowing Uncle Obad's nature he wasn't anxious to engage in a winning battle much less a losing one.

The land at the Wilson place was very little different from that at Little Creek but Captain Frank was not a man to be easily defeated. His farming equipment consisted of two horses, a plow, a cultivator, a home made spike and roller and of course that most important piece of equipment, a slab drag. He also owned a wagon and buggy which may not be considered farm equipment. With this equipment he fought this land for 20 years. It is a matter of opinion who won the battle.

In 1928 he suffered the greatest loss of his life when Mary Emily passed away after being confined for a number of years in a wheelchair. He was now 77 years of age and had been married to Mary Emily for 58 years. Although still active he did not engage in much work after this.

He could sit back in the old rocking chair by the wood stove and recall the happenings of his day with the most vivid details. He could recall his boyhood days at Crisfield. He seldom if ever referred to the town as Crisfield; it was always Annemessex to him. He had remembered his days as a boy at Little Creek. He could recall how the hoards of mosquitoes had moved across the marsh at night to attack with the greatest of fury. No, they didn't have screen wire. Although it was in use at this time it was a rich man's material. They usually had a piece of mosquito netting over at least one window in each room. He remembered the first screen door he ever had. He bought it in Annemessex in 1886. Occasionally the mosquitoes would get through at night and they would have to get up and build a smoke in the chamber pot to drive them out.

Yes, naturally he could remember Uncle Obad very well. One thing he remembered in particular. He only changed his clothes twice a year. In the spring he would go in the woods and pull off his winter clothes and change to his summer ones leaving the winter ones there. In the autum he repeated the process again with new clothes. The only time water ever came in contact with his body was when he got caught out in the rain or he slipped overboard. He evidently didn't believe cleanliness was next to Godliness.

Frank could still remember what Grandmother Wilson had said when Uncle Obad died. When one of the children came in and said, "Uncle Obad had just passed away". Grandmother Wilson without ever looking up from the table where she was eating supper remarked, "I don't know of anyone who could have been better 'sporn' (spared)". She evidently didn't feel the family or community had suffered a serious loss.

Frank's days on the dredge boat were among his favorite subjects. He could remember in every detail the storm they had encountered that day in March 1893 coming down the bay. The wind had been east all day and the rain had fell in sheets. It hnow made his shoulders ache to even think about it. He had been plagued for sometime now with rheumatism. He didn't have any rubber boots or rubber coat at this time and his wool overcoat had not "turned the water" very long. The bugeye had been loaded with oysters since there was no market up the bay. The market often went bad at the end of the season. He thought perhaps he could sell them at Deal Island. Later in the afternoon the rain had slackened and the sky had lightened. He or the crew hadn't been home since Christmas and were anxious to get there. He decided to take a chance on the weather and head down the bay. An east wind hadn't been a bad wind for coming down the bay but going through Hooper's Straits that was something else; the wind would be directly ahead. As they sailed down the bay the wind seemed to pick up force. It had also started raining again. When they arrived at Hooper's Straits it was almost dark, the wind was blowing even harder now. As they were entering the Straits the water was washing across the deck of the bugeye. All hands were on deck to handle the sails although they could "carry very little". He had to take the channel in short tacks since the wind was directly ahead. Even though the channel was 1,000 yards wide this wasn't any great space for maneuvering. His feet were soaking wet and he could feel the chill going down his back. The leather boots weren't doing much to keep his feet dry. The channel was marked but he knew it anyway. He had been through there so many times. The channel at the east end of the Straits is shaped like a boot and goes up toward the north. He knew this was going to be a little more difficult. He was standing at the tiller planning his strategy for this last maneuver when a wave swept across the deck breaking the skiff loose, washing it over board and almost carrying him with it. The bugeye didn't have davits and the skiff they used for going ashore was pulled up across the deck. This was now requiring all the strength and power of concentration he could muster. He was now entering the heel of the boot in the channel when he had completed his strategy. He was going to run down in the heel and "shoot back up" to the edge of the bar off Bishop's head point and come out of the Straits into the sound with only one more tack. He had to get up on the bar as far as possible to accomplish this because of the bar off Bloodsworth's Island. To run aground spelled disaster. The bugeye would break up in minutes on that bar with her hold full of oysters. He had to prevent running aground at any cost. It was now man against nature in all her fury. The responsibility was all his; there was no one to turn to for help. He had the mate at the rail with the lead line to sound for depth as they crossed the center of the channel. When they approached the edge of the bar the mate started sounding. He knew the water was at least 7 feet deep at the edge with the tide running as high as it was. It was almost impossible to get an accurate depth with the boat rising and falling with the seas. The mate called out one fathom. He held the bugeye steady as he kept running up the bar. The mate called out again 5 feet or less. He knew he couldn't float in much less water than this. He glanced around to check for the bar on the other side of the channel. He decided he needed a few more feet. A high sea broke across the deck of the bugeye and she dipped low in the water. He heard a scraping noise; he knew immediately what it was. The centerboard was dragging on the bar. He pushed the tiller hard to the port side and the bugeye answered promptly. When she came around he knew he had made it. It was now a simple matter to get to Deal Island.

The years passed and Captain Frank was now 83. His mind was still clear and he was also quite active. His sense of curiousity had gotten even keener and his outspokenness hadn't ceased a great deal. He was still staying at his home in Monie. His youngest son, Rufus, was living with him. He enjoyed visits very much from all of his children. His oldest son, Charles, had moved to Wilmington some time ago and had worked in the ship yard there. Mitchell was also working in the shipyard at Wilmington. He had decided the life as a dredger wasn't for him. Bain and Elizabeth had both moved to Talbot County years ago. He remembered how they had gone up there in the summer on the boat to visit them. His son, Clarence, was a farmer and living nearby. His other daughter, Stell as he called her, was living nearby also. He had enjoyed going there to spend the weekend; but he didn't like to stay away from home very long. He had two grandchhildren at home that he thought very much of. He thought they reminded him of Mitchell when he was a boy. At times he thought those two boys were angels but at other times as he would say, "they would try the patience of Job". When they really got on his nerves he exclaimed, "I don't believe you could find their match in torment".

Yes, he still had his horse and would keep him until one of them died. He had named him Billy Sunday after the famous preacher. He and Mary Emily had ridden to church many times with him hitched to the buggy. Billy Sunday was very proud and always carried his head high. No, he never learned to drive an automobile although he would ride in one on occasion. He always felt the horse was more reliable and didn't get stuck half as often in winter. No, his health wasn't very good now. He had shortness of breath and a pain in his chest when he walked very far. He was also troubled with rheumatism.

What would he do different if he had his life to live over? That was a stupid question and he refused to answer it, but he went on to say he had been a life long member of St. Peter's Church and had served God to the best of his ability. He would try to get a little more education; he believed this was becoming more necessary all the time. He hadn't minded hard work he would probably still be a boat builder again.

Did he remember his mother? Of course he did. She hadn't died until 1883. She was buried beside his father in Little Creek. He had gone to their graves there in the woods the last time he was down there. He even remembered what her burying expenses had been. William H. Smith of Oriole had build the coffin for him and he had paid $20 for it. In fact, he still had that receipt upstairs in the old pocket book.

Yes, two of his daughters had died when they were young. Emily Jane was three years old and died in 1877. Emma Jane was only one and died in 1880. They too were buried in Little Creek. The most distressing sight he had ever seen was the two white horses pulling the little white hearse the undertaker used for burying children. If no one had any objections he believed he would go to bed. He had said enough for one time. He could feel his shortness of breath coming back.

On the night of January 6, 1935, Captain Benjamin F. Laird fought his last battle against nature. He never became famous or his name is not recorded in the pages of history. He was only one of millions of Americans who helped to make out country what is is today. His body was returned to nature but his soul rests with God.

Epilogue by submitter, John Herold

Benjamin F. Laird and his wife Mary Emily were laid to rest in St Peter's Cemetery at the intersection of Oriole and Fitzgerald Rd. His brother John and his wife Annie Elizabeth nee Wilson (sister to Mary Emily), were also laid to rest there. John Laird, who narrowly escaped the draft in 1862, was the great great grandfather of John Herold. The Little Creek home of B. (Benjamin) F. Laird and the Monie P.O. home his brother J. (John) T. Laird are easily seen on the 1876 map of Dames Quarter District of Somerset County generously reproduced on the internet by Mr. Hitch. Verbal permission to post this biography on the internet was obtained by John Herold from Robert Laird 10 January, 1998.

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