The Men Who Would Be Kings
How Grand Plans for the Lowly Terrapin
. . . Went Somewhat Awry
MICHAEL W. FINCHAM
Talent, ambition, and terrapins brought fortune and fame to two residents of Crisfield, Albert LaVallette Jr. and "Curley" Byrd (above, from left). Photos: LaVallette, courtesy of Elsie Bluhm; Byrd, University of Maryland Special Collection.
THE MAN WHO FIRST MADE A LOT OF MONEY OFF TERRAPINS in Maryland arrived in Crisfield in 1887. Albert T. LaVallette Jr. moved to town with his new wife and began buying terrapins from local watermen and selling them to high-end restaurants in cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. He set off the first great boom in terrapin fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, emerging as the "Terrapin King" of Crisfield and turning Crisfield into the terrapin capital of the east coast.
The man who made terrapins even more famous in the state grew up in Crisfield during that boom. Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd, the son of an oysterman, was born in 1889 and left town in 1905, riding a steamboat across the Bay to enroll at College Park as a cadet at the tiny Maryland Agricultural College. He became a star athlete there, then the football coach, then the president of the University of Maryland. In the process he helped transform the College Park school into one of the largest and fastest growing universities in the country.
The king and the coach probably never met, but the two men had much in common. Both were ambitious, with big plans, flamboyant personalities, and colorful private lives. And both altered the fame and fate of diamondback terrapins in Maryland.
ALBERT LAVALLETTE JR. was probably born ambitious. His grandfather was a well-known admiral and his father a successful businessman, according to the family history unearthed by Eugene L. Meyer for
Chesapeake Bay Magazine. Grandfather Elie LaVallette VI had commanded the
U.S.S. Constitution, the warship famous in history as "Old Ironsides," and was eminent enough to have two naval destroyers and a town in New Jersey named after him. LaVallette's father, Albert Sr., worked in land development and was shrewd enough to talk some Philadelphia investors into forming the Manokin River Oyster Company near Crisfield.
LaVallette Jr. came to Crisfield with a clever plan. The town was already wildly busy with booming oyster businesses and a traditional blue crab fishery, so LaVallette focused his money-making schemes on the diamondback terrapin, an unexploited species that was prolific in the abundant shallows and marshlands of the lower Eastern Shore. Long seen as poor people's food, turtle meat had been eaten by early colonists, by soldiers in the Revolutionary army, by slaves on tidewater plantations — but seldom by the well-off in the high-end restaurants of the Northeast.
In an early example of niche marketing, LaVallette traveled to cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York and sold the best-known restaurant in each city on a secret recipe for terrapin soup that he had picked up in the Caribbean. According to Glenn Lawson's account in The Last Waterman, each sales pitch included an entertaining performance with LaVallette as chef whipping up his secret soup with considerable flair in the restaurant's kitchen. Under his original deal, one restaurant in each city would have exclusive license to use his recipe, but it would have to charge a high price for the dish. And he, of course, would be the only supplier. As these elite restaurants advertised their exclusive LaVallette's Diamondback Terrapin, they created a strong brand that LaVallette later capitalized on. When it came time to renew the contracts, he expanded the market, making his now well-known recipe available to other restaurants in each town. He also raised his prices. Back in Crisfield, the terrapin fishing boom was on.
Terrapins were so popular at the beginning of the 20th century that they were featured on this menu card for a 1902 banquet. The Hotel Rennert (below), located at the corners of Liberty and Saratoga streets in Baltimore, had a restaurant favored by local businessmen and politicians and journalists like H.L. Mencken. Known for fine Southern food and seafood, especially terrapin soup, the hotel kept hundreds of live terrapins penned in the basement. The Rennert shunned Carolina terrapins and served only Chesapeakes, which may have come from Albert LaVallette Jr. No record survives of the exclusive soup recipe that came with the terrapins, but the one listed below contains the basic ingredients included in more recent recipes.
Classic Terrapin or Mock Terrapin Soup
|1 quart chicken or veal stock
2 cups terrapin meat, chopped
(substitute lean beef or1 cup cream
dark chicken meat)
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon paprika
Dash of mace
1/2 cup sherry
Credits: menu courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society; hotel photos courtesy of Bygone Baltimore: A Historical Portrait by Jacques Kelly.
WHILE CRISFIELD WAS BECOMING — however briefly — the terrapin capital of the country, young Curley Byrd was making money for college by dip netting for crabs, according to a local historian, and could often be seen running barefoot on the tidal flats, training for the track team. After graduating from the local high school, he arrived in College Park with plans. At the Maryland Agricultural College he listed his goal — perhaps in jest — as "becoming a star athlete," and he achieved the feat in three sports. In football he was quarterback and captain, in baseball he was the top pitcher, in track he set long-standing sprint records. Byrd was also popular with his classmates, who thought him clever and — with his curly black hair — handsome. Under his photo in the 1908 yearbook, a phrase warned: "The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape."
After graduating in three years, he left College Park to play yet more football as a ringer at several other colleges and more baseball as a minor league pitcher for a farm team of the Chicago White Sox. By 1912 he was back in College Park as football coach, and under his leadership the Maryland Agricultural College defeated Johns Hopkins University that year for the first time in the school's history, a feat that established his popularity with a new generation of students and administrators.
By 1920 the coach had added two jobs — athletic director and special assistant to the president — and he spent a lot of his time in Annapolis successfully lobbying the state legislature to make his old aggie college the home campus for a
new University of Maryland. Like Albert LaVallette selling his terrapin soup, Byrd was able to sell the idea of a new university, largely through his immense personal flair. "What he was great at was his personality,'' says George Callcott, the historian who recounts the Byrd era in his two histories of the University of Maryland. "He made everybody love him," Callcott says. "He bent everybody to his will."
Curley Byrd now had big plans for his university and big problems to overcome. The university was new, it was small, and it did not yet have the loyalty and financial support of tens of thousands of alumni. To most Marylanders, the new state university was still the little aggie school that ranked well below long-established schools like the Naval Academy, Washington College, St. John's College, Georgetown, and the more recent, but well-funded Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. "There has indeed been a tradition for the socially proper people in Maryland and especially in Baltimore to go to Johns Hopkins or Princeton or the University of Virginia," explains Callcott. "And this was always derogatorily called the aggie college."
One of Byrd's strategies for building a new university was building winning teams, especially in football, the college sport that seized the public mind during the Jazz Age. The popularity of his teams helped him in his job as chief lobbyist before a legislature that had no alumni from the new university and few from the old aggie college. "Byrd believed very sincerely, and maybe he was right, that the way for a university to become a great university was for it to become known, for it to become loved by the people," explains Callcott. "And the best way for it to become known and to be loved by the people was to have winning teams."
Another way to become loved was to change the name of his winning teams. By 1923 coach Byrd, the son of Crisfield, was calling his team the Terrapins. Most of the newspapers followed Byrd's lead and gradually dropped old names like the Aggies, or the Farmers, or The Old Liners. It probably helped that Byrd — among his many jobs — was also a sportswriter with the
Washington Evening Star. And sports stories, then as now, put the university before the public more than any other form of journalism.
As branding, the new name was as brilliant as one of LaVallette's best tricks. The terrapin name jettisoned the old down-scale label as an ag and engineering school and rebranded the new university by linking it with a charismatic animal familiar to anybody who lived near or visited the many rivers and beaches of the Chesapeake Bay. Terrapins were known and loved, often as pets for children who grew up to be fans. Maybe the scrappy teams called Terrapins and the university they represented could also be loved.
Students, at least, clearly loved the terrapin connection. Eight years after Byrd renamed his teams the Terrapins, the student newspaper prodded the University into canonizing the terrapin as the school's official mascot. The Class of 1933 raised money for a large, 300-pound bronze statue and named it "Testudo." The live model for the statue came from Crisfield, of course, and the bronze Testudo stood for years in front of Ritchie Coliseum where it was the target of kidnappings by raiding bands from Hopkins, Loyola, Georgetown, and the University of Virginia.
Curley Byrd, the coach, began calling his football team the Terrapins back in 1923. When the class of 1933 created Testudo, a 300-lb bronze statue (shown at right at its unveiling), the terrapin became the school’s official mascot. The living terrapin that was the model for the statue crawls on the ground. She's probably headed back to Crisfield where she and the coach both came from. Byrd soon became president of the university and later hired football coach Jim Tatum (above) who brought home a national championship in 1953. Credits: 1934-1978, University of Maryland Special Collections; 1994 and 2003, University of Maryland.
THE TERRAPIN FISHING BOOM that Albert LaVallette had unleashed around Crisfield made him briefly rich and socially prominent. He built a new home for his wife and two children, a large bungalow on the fringes of town out on Hammock Point. Behind the house were the pens where he stored all the terrapins he bought from local watermen, feeding the animals scraps of crab waste collected from local crab houses.
The boom soon went bust, a classic case of fishing a resource with little or no knowledge of the basic biology of the target species. Terrapins, it turned out, are easy to overfish. The largest and most profitable terrapins are the females who lay only a dozen eggs at a time and don't start doing that until they are eight years old. When watermen quickly fished out most of the females, they drove down population levels in Maryland for decades. In 1891, the new boom had watermen harvesting more than 35,000 terrapins for sale to high-end restaurants. Ten years later, they were harvesting fewer than 70.
By then terrapin soup was still the rage and overfishing episodes were common in many states along the east coast, perhaps sparked by LaVallette's early success in marketing his recipe. Declines in supply, of course, kept the price high for what was becoming a rare delicacy, and the high price kept driving fishing pressure and lowering the supply even more. What finally broke the cycle, according to scientists, was Prohibition. It outlawed the sherry that went into diamondback soup.
As the harvest declined, LaVallette's economic fortunes began to sink. Competitors cut into his market, and some began importing terrapins from the Carolinas and passing them off as "Chesapeakes" (much as crabs are shipped in today for use in "Maryland-style" crabcakes).
His personal life took an even more dramatic turn when he began an affair with his children's governess, Mary Bussey. It cost him his family and his house and his life in Crisfield. According to Meyer's account in
Chesapeake Bay Magazine, LaVallette moved to Hampton, Virginia where he lived for decades on a houseboat with his new love. The local paper called him a "picturesque character" and a vivid story teller, once famous for breeding terrapins. He died a pauper in 1937 and was buried in the Hampton National Military Cemetery.
Terrapin populations in Maryland and many other states took decades to recover from the fishing frenzy LaVallette had helped unleash. Attempts to breed them in captivity were tried in several states, including North Carolina where scientists at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Lab in Beaufort were describing the reproductive biology and growth rates that made terrapins so easy to overfish. After the commercial demand for terrapins dropped away, the lab released tens of thousands of hatchlings into the marshes and sounds of Atlantic and Gulf Coast states. More than 500 were released into Maryland waters.
CURLEY BRYD'S PROFESSIONAL LIFE also took a dramatic turn when the coach of the Maryland Terrapins was appointed president of the University of Maryland in 1935. It was, for the times, a bold decision to pick a football coach with no advanced degrees, a recent divorce, and a reputation for dating attractive women, but Byrd was able to turn both the Depression era and the Post World War II era into boom times for his school. He managed to raise huge amounts of money in these tough times, mostly through his personal charisma and his canny deal-making both in Annapolis and in Washington DC.
His best-laid plans for the Maryland Terrapins eventually backfired. To bring his university back into the public eye after World War II, Byrd began hiring coaches who would take his team to the top of the college football world. The best of them, Jim Tatum, took the team to a series of big-time bowl games and won a national championship in 1953 for Curley Byrd's Maryland Terrapins. The result, however, was a reputation, some say undeserved, that Maryland — at the time the third largest state university in the country — was more a football school than a highly ranked academic institution. When Byrd resigned to run for governor in 1954, his opponents brought the football-school charge into the partisan political debate, a tactic that played a big role in Byrd's greatest defeat.
Byrd later lost races for the Senate and the House of Representatives, but his life as a public official continued. In 1958, he was appointed chairman of the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission, the state agency charged with managing all of Maryland's fisheries. It was an appropriate crown for the son of an oysterman. After he died in 1970, his body was buried in a churchyard back in Crisfield.
The real terrapins of Maryland, the diamondbacks that swam the state's shallow waters and plodded through its wetlands and woods, may have been the unexpected beneficiaries of Byrd's sports teams. As Maryland became more urbanized and suburbanized, fewer Marylanders actually saw many real terrapins. But nearly everyone knew they were there.
Their high profile helped terrapins survive when a new overfishing boom threatened. In the 1990s, China began importing turtles from across the globe, setting off heavy fishing that decimated turtle populations in a number of Asian countries and drove many species close to extinction. When the China trade reached into the Chesapeake Bay, the commercial harvest in Maryland began climbing dramatically: in just four years the estimated harvest jumped from 151 to 11,010 terrapins taken in 2006.
Conservationists had been warning that a new boom was ready to explode. Maryland watermen, another endangered species, were already struggling through declines in their commercial harvests of blue crabs and oysters. With rising prices from the growing China trade, watermen could start flooding into the terrapin fishery again, setting off a harvest frenzy that could rouse LaVallette's ghost from his grave.
In 2001, when conservation groups were banding together to campaign for a fishing ban, they found that the terrapin had a lot of fans in Maryland, thanks in part to Curley Byrd's university. By a fluke of timing, the University of Maryland in 2003 began republicizing its historic mascot, the diamondback terrapin, by launching a new, well-funded "Fear the Turtle" marketing campaign, complete with T-shirts and posters and television spots.
Through the wizardry of digital graphics, the campaign could move beyond cartoon terrapins to create dramatic, yet realistic versions of a handsome, charismatic, full-colored terrapin that could walk, talk, lift its head — and roar. The campaign boosted fundraising and student recruitment, and it probably helped the conservation campaign as well. According to one biologist, it showed millions of Marylanders what real terrapins look like.
The conservation campaign took several years of lobbying and a lot of planning by environmentalists, scientists and activists — but it finally won. Last year the legislature enacted a complete ban on the commercial harvesting of terrapins and a new governor signed it into law.
For terrapins, some well-laid plans finally worked out. Now the ghost of Albert LaVallette was back in his grave. And somewhere Curley Byrd was smiling.
Over more than 80 years, the terrapin has worn a few hats and odd clothes and smoked some pipes as the enduring mascot for a rising university. Credits: 1934-1978, University of Maryland Special Collections; 1994 and 2003, University of Maryland.