- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Nothing says summertime in Southern Maryland quite like a big old pile of hard crabs waiting to be picked.
From one end of the region to the other, the bottom-feeding crustaceans have been feasted upon by residents dating back to pre-Colonial days. Native Americans were known to have summer camps close to the river so they could harvest and consume crabs in huge numbers for thousands of years.
Interest in the Chesapeake Bay blue crab has not dwindled into the 21st century, despite the species’ struggle to survive ebbing waters in a modern world. Yet, regardless of the many changes to the tri-county area in recent years, crab houses can still be found serving their fare on the water. Here are a few of our favorites:
Drift Inn on the Patuxent
There might still be a few old timers around who remember St. Mary’s Hospital before the new, more spacious facility was built in Leonardtown. My twin brother and I were born in the stately brick building. I remember as a 5-year-old waving with my brother to our mother in a second story window of the structure as she held up our new baby sister for us to see. Any former hospital workers still living might remember the old steamer they used to sterilize surgical instruments and wonder, like some Antiques Roadshow fanatic, whatever happened to that old piece of equipment when the old hospital closed down.
Have no fear. It’s been in good hands.
Cap'n Leonard Copsey’s family has been using the pressurized steamer to cook crabs at Drift Inn on the Patuxent for generations now.
Emma Laura and Jerry Bowles, who took over the running of the business a dozen years or so ago, are busy folks on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening. And that old pressure cooker, along with a newer one sitting right beside it, still steam the bulk of hard crabs at Drift Inn.
“I had a fella from the health department showed me how to put them in there,” the family matriarch, Leonard Copsey, said. “He told me those pots were so sterile, people would never get sick eating these crabs. And nobody ever has.”
Copsey, “born four days shy of 1920,” is a treasure to talk to, full of stories of how the successful business has survived three hurricanes and how his family, right down to his grandkids, are serving the children and grandchildren of some of his first customers.
After two years in the Navy during World War II, Copsey came home and opened the crab house in 1946.
“When I first started, I sold crabs, all-you-could eat for fifty cents,” he recalled.
That kind of backfired, he noted.
“I had too many people. So I raised the price to a dollar a dozen and I didn’t have any customers for two weeks. But then here they come back.”
And they’ve been coming back ever since.
“We were just kids when we started,” said Josephine Ann Copsey, Leonard’s wife. “It seemed like every fall we would have a storm that knocked down trees. We’d have to work to get it back together, but the more we did, the better it got.”
Copsey added an oyster shucking house in 1955 and ran it for 35 years until the bivalve’s decline.
“There were some oysters in this river in them days,” he said of the Patuxent. “I used to have 12 oyster shuckers all the time. I had this machine that you would stick the oyster on and it would shuck it out.”
That machine never got quite as good as the human, he admitted.
“I had one girl who could shuck 21 gallons a day,” Copsey said.
“My trucks went everywhere, Baltimore, Virginia, Washington, D.C., hotels, motels… they went every which way delivering oysters. I had one store up in Frederick, in Western Maryland, that bought a thousand gallons of oysters off me a week. I never would go to Cumberland, though. The snow on that side of the mountain, you could get up there and not be able to get out. Hell, I’ve been to Frederick when you could see snow up to the car tops.”
But even that was nothing, he admitted, to some of the storms he has seen in St. Mary's over the years.
“We don’t have weather like we used to,” he said. “We would drive cars right across the [Patuxent] river. The ice was 18 inches thick.”
They stayed busy year round, he noted.
“We were shucking oysters every day and loading the trucks,” he said. “When spring came, we were back to picking crabs. I had a girl, Doris, she could pick 35 pounds of crab meat in a day.”
“She was a happy person,” Josephine said. “And she liked to work. Some people won’t work if you paid them. She was one person who just loved to come to work.”
“Every November, I still send Doris a check on her birthday,” Jo’s husband said. “All the rest of the pickers are dead and gone. Out of my oyster shuckers, James Winter is the only one left.”
Copsey also washes his crabs. There is a big stainless steel tank in the back room filled with ice water, insulated on the outside with a large freezer-like lid on top.
'It ain’t nothing but an old horse trough,” he said. “It’s stainless steel. I wash my crabs because, really, when you think about it, they’re a bottom feeder, they’re dirty a lot of times when they come up out of the mud, so I wash them.”
Storms have ever been an unfortunate circumstance to living or especially running a business on the water. When it’s good, it’s beautiful, when it’s not, it can be devastating.
“Hurricane Hazel in 1955, this place here was all wooden floors and the sea waves were loosening the floor boards,” he said. “We got the ice cream cooler and put it over the floor so it wouldn't come up.”
When the storm was over, Copsey said he removed the flooring and put a conveyor through the window and shot oyster shells under the foundation to help prevent that from happening again by building up the landscape under the building. That’s not all that oyster shells have come in handy for.
“This parking lot out back... oyster shells,” he said, recalling “back in the day” when the state of Maryland sent trucks to haul the shells away. At some point, he said, the workers got tired of hauling all those shells away and bulldozed it out into what became Copsey’s parking lot.
“That was okay until they started taxing me on something I didn’t even ask for,” he said.
There were three storms total Copsey remembers from his many years on the river, but none did more damage than Isabel in 2003. In addition to having four feet of water in the building, the storm wrecked significant carnage.
“We had a boat that broke loose and came in here and took out the whole bar,” he recalled. “We got the numbers off it and filed an insurance claim, but they said it was the Lord’s work.”
Isabel took out at least a half dozen waterfront restaurants before her fury abated. Some, such as Chappellers in Benedict, never reopened. Despite the overwhelming challenge facing him, Copsey started over.
“I can’t get insurance on the restaurant because every now and then it floods on the river,” he said. “When that storm came through, I had no insurance. So I sold four tracts of land that I had in Florida and fixed it back.”
After 66 years, the Patuxent River wouldn’t be the same without the Drift Inn. Copsey also owns Leonard Copsey’s Seafood on Route 5 in Mechanicsville, a business his son manages, and Leonard Copsey’s Carry Out, managed by his daughter.
Drift Inn on the Patuxent is located at 41310 River View Drive in Mechanicsville and is open from 4-9 p.m. Friday and from 1-9 p.m. Sunday. Call 301-884-3470.
Captain Billy’s Crab House
Captain Billy’s in Newburg sprang from a love of the Potomac River. William Robertson, born in Baltimore in 1930, came to live at Pope’s Creek as a child and growing up helped his uncles, John and Paul Drinks, to work the river.
Construction was just beginning on the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge linking Charles County to Westmoreland County, Va. when Robertson sold his first crabs at age 9. He used the $21 he earned that summer to buy a rowboat, the beginning of a career on the river that would endure throughout his lifetime.
He opened Robertson’s Crab House at age 19. His daughter Celene Graves owns and manages Captain Billy’s since her father’s death in 2000.
“He left the restaurant business in 1970 and went back on the river,” Graves said. “He came back in 1987 to run the restaurant again,” this time as Captain Billy’s.
In those since her dad died, she said the business has been running full steam ahead and Graves said it’s hard to get time off.
“The work doesn’t bother me,” she said, “but you never know what’s going to happen. Last week I lost a dishwasher and I was back in the kitchen washing dishes. You might find me bussing tables or cooking crabs. It’s fun. But we work and work hard. It’s pretty much a small family.”
Graves said the restaurant’s season runs sort of opposite of a school teacher’s. Instead of being off in the summer, they close in November, then reopen in February.
Crabs, she said, “have been up and down. They’re cyclical. The state told us there would be plenty of crabs this year. I’m not exactly sure how they determine that. They said there would be an abundant crab supply but there have been times I’ve had to go elsewhere. Fortunately, we’ve been here a long time and we’ve got a good reputation. We’re centrally located. We still get a lot of longtime customers who come from Richmond and Baltimore.”
With seating for 550, Captain Billy’s can accommodate large parties, which makes them an ideal location for company events or wedding parties.
“We’re one of the few independently owned crab houses left,” she said. “I know Thompson’s and Leonard Copsey’s are still going strong and that’s good.”
Captain Billy’s is located at at 11495 Popes Creek Road in Newburg and is open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday Sunday. Call 301-932-4323.
Abner’s Crab House
Bobby Abner started his crab house in Chesapeake Beach in a little concrete shack in 1966.
Jamie Abner, his daughter-in-law, said it is the “only established crab house between here and St. Mary’s County.
“Ninety percent of our crabs are caught by our family,” Abner said. “We catch ‘em, steam ‘em and serve ‘em.”
While Bobby Jr. noted that crabs are “picking back up,” Jamie noted that “they aren’t what they said they’d be.”
“They said it was going to be a good year for crabs,” she said, but added they have been slower than expected. “In the fall, they will be better. Bobby’s sons and the grandkids all work here.”
Jamie said they have between 28 and 30 full and part-time employees at the restaurant, which usually closes in the winter but won’t this year.
“We’re going to try to stay open,” she said. “Before we would only open on the weekend. This winter we will be open. The hours might change, but we’ll be here.”
The restaurant suffered an electrical fire earlier in the year, but Jamie said the restaurant has been totally renovated and has seating for between 210 and 220 and “always have ducks. They come up when people are eating on the deck. We’ve always had them out here.”
She pointed out that folks who come by boat are welcome to tie up at the restaurant’s back deck and come in for the bounty of the bay.
As for Bobby Abner, he’s usually out on the Chesapeake catching crabs along with his sons.
Abner’s Crab House is located at 3748 Harbor Road in Chesapeake Beach. They are open noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday.