Bowers Beach residents prepare to celebrate their heritage and future at the fourth annual revival of Big Thursday. The festival is on Sunday, Aug. 14, and includes a car show, parade, pet microchipping, oysters by Reel Fresh Seafood and more.
When writer J. Thomas Scharf visited Bowers Beach in 1877, he found more than 3,000 people celebrating the oyster harvest on Big Thursday. People of all ages from across the county enjoyed the violin and danced. The writer saw them “renewing old acquaintances, and forming new ones,” he said in “History of Delaware.”
Harvesting restrictions and disease has caused the town’s oyster industry to lose its luster since then, but not its conviviality and sense of community. Those will be on display at the fourth annual revival of Big Thursday this Sunday in North Bowers Beach.
The revival was spearheaded four years ago by the Bowers Beach Maritime Museum. Since then it’s grown into a festival for residents to hobnob and for visitors to meet the cast of characters that inhabits the sleepy town.
Take “Thumper” for example. Frank “Thumper” Eicherly IV describes himself as “the last surviving oysterman.”
Thumper spends about every other day on the water year round. He catches his 62 bushels of oysters a year – the allotted amount allowed to those with licenses – and then spends time catching conch, clams and crabs.
“In high school, I decided I wanted to live, eat and sleep like a sailing kind of guy, but I didn’t really know I’d be an oysterman,” he said.
When he moved to Bowers in 1977 many watermen had already abandoned the town after oyster diseases Dermo and MSX had hit the area.
“When I got there it was just a ghost town, and tumbleweed and dead oyster shacks,” he said.
Schooners were stacked on one another, useless. The oystermen who once manned them couldn’t pay to get them repaired after the oyster population went belly up.
Thirty-odd years later he’s one of a few working the waters around Bowers Beach.
He also has the distinction of owning the oldest schooner working on the Delaware Bay, the 118-year-old Maggie S. Myers.
Thumper will leave Maggie for the day to participate in the Big Thursday festivities. He’s rigged up a float around an anchor he caught this year, so he’ll be driving his float in the parade — with his SPCA mutt Baby riding shotgun — and singing sea shanties.
Judy Martin described Thumper as one of the colorful residents that make Bowers the unique town it is today. Martin, a board member with the Bowers Beach Maritime Museum, wanted to show off the town’s heritage and present, and was one of the organizers who started the revival and has seen it develop.
As with the past few years, Big Thursday includes nonprofits, crafters, live music and kids’ activities in the park downtown. In a nod to the event’s history, Reel Fresh Seafood will be cooking up some oysters along with the burgers, hot dogs, ice cream and goodies served by other food vendors.
New this year is historical interpreter Tom Welch portraying a cavalry officer, spy and George Washington confidante Col. Allen McLane. Other newcomers are DelMarVa Board Sport Adventures, where visitors can stop by for hands-on demos of paddleboards and other watercraft, and VCA Dover Animal Hospital, who will be microchipping pets for $10.
Across the street is the Bowers Fire Company’s annual car show. Organizer Shirley Pennington said the show has grown to include all types of cars, motorcycles and trucks in the three years since it started.
Like the car show, Pennington has seen the town of Bowers grow as well. A Bowers resident born and raised, Pennington is heavily involved in the fire company, where her husband is the chief. She said that type of tight community involvement is one thing that hasn’t changed over the years.
Visitors to Big Thursdays always notice that sense of community and camaraderie, according to Martin.
“It’s been a really nice, small-community, good feeling to the whole thing,” she said.