There’s a stretch of tranquility perched on the bank of one of the fingers of the James River in Chester. On a recent Saturday morning there, the sun was bright, the air crisp and the friendships warm as an annual fish fry featured camaraderie, history and catching-up, and conversations ran the gambit from business to family, religion and politics.
It’s questionable whether a pair of eagles nesting near in the inlet was standing guard over 40 years ago when Marshall Bosher hosted the first fish fry and began the tradition. He was a commercial fisherman and wanted to share his bounty with friends.
“We did it once, sometimes twice a year, depending on the weather,” he said. “Sometimes it was Brunswick stew, a pig roast, but mostly fish and mostly men would come. Sometimes families were invited, but mostly men. It was fun, a lot of fun.”
Bosher did all the cooking and the meal included mostly shad and catfish, sometimes he would cook up eel and an occasional gar fish and corn bread. “We never had any left. Everything got eaten.” Bosher said the men didn’t know they were eating eel, but sometimes the eel would be finished first. The location of the fish fry moved around from time to time, but continues today on the same land that Peter Jefferson, father of President Thomas Jefferson, inherited.
Ray Grubbs has hosted the gathering since 1973 on a piece of river’s edge that is nearly 200 acres. As custodian of its history and preserver of its natural inhabitants, Grubbs is generous with grace and beauty, sharing it with those who have the same moral beliefs, truth to God, nature and mankind.
“It’s a group of Christian men being together,” said Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Billy Davenport. Davenport delivered an opening speech on truth and the nation’s forefathers before offering an opening prayer. Davenport was an ironworker, laboring for Grubbs while he was attending law school. They also were ironworkers union members and have been longtime friends. Davenport has always accepted Grubbs’ invitation to the fish fry.
There’s no alcohol. “Used to be,” Grubbs said, until he didn’t like what the alcohol brought.
Along with the annual gathering and sunrise services each Easter, as well as an occasional baptism, Grubbs gives permission to longtime friends to enjoy his beach, picnic shelter and treasured slip of fishing paradise. A fishing club partakes in the river’s bounty there, but membership is limited to 12 and there is a very long waiting list.
Since the fishing club formed over 10 years ago, it’s members have volunteered to be the cooks for the annual brunch. Because the springtime gathering is too early for shad on the James, most of the fish come from North Carolina. On the menu this year were herring, oysters, scallops and a surprise tuna, along with slaw, beans and to-die-for hush puppies.
During the event, longtime buddies who played high school football on two of the hottest rivals in the county in the 1950s reminisced about days when they play against each other. Buddy Davis, an All-American in high school football who went on to play for the University of Richmond Spiders, told the story of the biggest game of the year between Manchester and Thomas Dale.
“It was always on a Thanksgiving morning at 10 a.m. Always at 10 a.m.,” Davis said. His excitement peaked upon watching the Spiders play later that afternoon. Opposing teammate Hunter Beasley shared the largeness of the day with his longtime friend. Davis chuckled saying, “Thomas Dale and Manchester always got along after graduation.”
Many familiar faces were in the crowd of about 200. Poodle Smith of Hopewell and Del. Riley Ingram got a chance to catch up with old friends from Chester. Jim Daniels, whose home perches on the cliff overlooking Grubbs’ place, reaches the river by way of a narrow tire-rutted road that passes the remains of a grist mill said to be that of Peter Jefferson. By 11 a.m., most the crowd had dispersed, leaving small clusters of old friends offering the final tall tales.
The members of the fishing club, known as Ben’s Den, named for the founder of the club who died before it was completely organized, were cleaning up. “We fed over 200 here today,” said Frank Silverthorne. No food remained to be seen.
“There’s a lot of history on this place and I like for the people to enjoy it,” said Grubbs, who operated a demolition company for most of his life. Grubbs’ knowledge of the land and strong desire to recycle all things possible is his testament, according to his friends. Everyone who is given the opportunity to experience his little piece of heaven finds it truly a privilege.