A basket worn around the neck of Guineamen as they tread for clams with their feet. Photo: Rachel Kester

Catching Clams with Your Feet? Treading Tradition Lives On

Back from a pandemic hiatus, Virginia’s Middle Peninsula held the 41st Guinea Jubilee last weekend, lighting up the town of Bena with live music, delicious seafood, and most importantly, unique cultural exhibits. Even if you’re from the Chesapeake region you may not be aware of some of these.

Held on the Abingdon Ruritan Club’s grounds, the celebration saw hundreds attending. While many of the regular favorites were back, making its debut this year was a highlight called Wonders of the Water. Situated under the club’s large pavilion, the intriguing Guinea Neck heritage stations were the brainchild of Betty “Lou” Sammons, a lifelong resident who is on a mission to keep the rich history of this Bayside town alive. Ranging from an oyster tank to a fish cleaning station headed by Marion Randall, there was plenty to see and learn. But perhaps one of the most intriguing was an exhibit designed to tell of Guinea’s interesting clam treading tradition. 

The custom has been practiced since the town’s beginnings (something that still remains murky in the history books) by the Guineamen—the local hard-working marsh watermen. They and their families would often take their shoes off, wade into the York River about chest high, and use their toes to feel for the aquatic creatures. As they did so, they would wear a basket with buoys hanging around it. As the Guineas found clams, they would put them into the container while walking along the river bed – a quick, easy, and ingenious way to uncover and transport them while on the job. 

While traditional clam rakes and equipment are also used, this unique alternative is just one aspect that sets Guinea apart, and something Sammons wanted to acknowledge through her Wonders of the Water. 

To inspire kids (and adults) to care more about this tradition, Sammons filled a pink kiddie pool with sand and hid several clam shells within it. Many kids were skeptical to try but after a bit of encouragement and treading demonstrations by Sammons, they slowly got in and marched around in search of one. Laughter soon broke out and a small boy who was one of the most hesitant ended up being the most excited while continuously yelling out “I found one! I found one!”—a phrase that only motivated the other children to search harder. 

The exhibit might seem like a small nod to history, but it’s one that Sammons wants to prevent from going extinct. Keeping traditions like clamming treading alive in a modern era means a lot to residents, especially those whose families have lived here for generations.

When asked why it was so important to the community Sammons said, “It’s for fun and family and to eat good clams! It’s the Guinea way of life.” 

-Rachel Kester