RBIFF - White Gold: Delaware's Oyster Industry

The Maggie S. Myers, Historic schooner.
Photo Courtesy of Robert Price.
Michael Oates was born in New York City but he was raised in New Jersey. He got his English degree but took a turn when he had a graduate course in TV directing. He then went on to get his Master's degree in Communication Theory with an emphasis on Radio and TV production at William Paterson College. The 61-year-old moved to Delaware after selling his television company in 1995. He currently works part-time for the Department of Geography at the University of Delaware. Oates continues to produce documentaries with his new company, 302 Stories, Inc. His new documentaries focus on environmental issues. Since 1999, these environmental documentaries have aired on PBS and been nominated for Emmy Awards, and, through his work, Oates has befriended water-men working on the shores of Delaware and wanted to focus this current project on them because of their current struggles. That struggle involves the water-men's inability to harvest as many oysters as they used to do.

At one point, water-men used to harvest 800,000 to 900,000 bushels of oysters. Nowadays, water-men can only harvest anywhere between 12,000 to 15,000 bushels. The state put restrictions on the water-men in order to preserve the oyster population, which took a major hit not due to over-harvesting but due to disease and global climate change, formerly global warming. This has obviously caused severe financial hardships on the water-men but they continue to persevere. As this is analyzed, Oates' documentary focuses, particularly on one man, one particular water-man named Frank Eicherly, IV, or "Thumper." Thumper is in his 50s and was in the process of restoring an old schooner at the time that he and Oates met. Oates met Thumper while working on another documentary.

The schooner in question is the Maggie S. Myers, built in 1893, which next year will celebrate its 30th year of being on the National Register of Historic Places. The Myers schooner is the oldest continually operating schooner but it was in need of repair, so Thumper spent almost twelve weeks from September to December 2004 in a boat yard fixing up the Myers. Oates documented the whole process. What he captured was some innovative stuff. The schooner required a new mast, so Thumper rigged one out of an old telephone pole. Thumper also sewed the sail himself.

Oates said he edited the 60-minute movie like a mosaic. Thumper raises his sail, as the industry for which he's raising it is collapsing. Oates said the movie ends with the obvious question of what is this guy doing it for. Oates interviews people with the Department of Natural Resources or DNREC about this question and even more questions arise like can this maritime economy be supported.

Oates has been following this story for eight years. He went out often by himself. He didn't get paid for his work. It was only through the funding of the Delaware Humanities Forum, Berkana, Center for Media and Education, and other non-profit groups that he was able to get this movie to the screen.

White Gold: Delaware's Oyster Industry
November 10, 2012 at 10AM.
Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival.


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