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RBIFF - White Gold: Delaware's Oyster Industry

The Maggie S. Myers, historic schooner. Photo courtesy of Robert Price. The Maggie S. Myers, historic schooner. Photo courtesy of Robert Price.

WBOC's in-house film critic Marlon Wallace interviewed filmmaker Michael Oates about his new documentary, "White Gold: Delaware's Oyster Industry." It is an eight-year exploration of the First State's maritime economy through the eyes of a waterman trying to restore the nation's oldest continually running schooner. The film is being screened this weekend at the Rehoboth Beach Indepenent Film Festival.

Documentary maker 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 watermen's inability to harvest as many oysters as they used to do.

At one point, Delaware watermen used to harvest 800,000 to 900,000 bushels of oysters annually. Nowadays, the state's watermen can only harvest anywhere between 12,000 to 15,000 bushels annually. The state put restrictions on the watermen 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. This has obviously caused severe financial hardships on the watermen but they continue to persevere. As this is analyzed, Oates' documentary focuses, particularly on one man, one particular waterman named Frank Eicherly, IV, also known as "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 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Myers schooner is the oldest continually operating schooner but it was in desperate need of repair. So Thumper spent almost 12 weeks from September to December 2004 in a boatyard 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 is 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 Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control 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
Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 at 10 a.m.
Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival.

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