The former W.T. Ruark crab picking plant is up for auction along the Honga River. Photo: Robert Styles

Hoopers Island Crab Picking House Up for Auction

It may take someone with a vision to realize it, but a storied Chesapeake Bay property with plenty of potential will be up for auction next week.

It’s the site of a once-thriving crab processing plant in Hoopers Island, the chain of coastal islands in Dorchester County where a cluster of crab picking businesses still remain.

The former W.T. Ruark & Co crab picking house is on a 3.3-acre property directly on the Honga River. It was started by William Thomas Ruark in 1948. The Ruarks were still operating as recently as 2020, but the Hoopers Island crab industry was suffering from increasingly regular labor shortages. Crab processors count on seasonal H-2B visa workers from Mexico, many of whom return year after year to pick the crabs that come in from watermen’s boats.

To be eligible for the visa worker program, employers must prove there aren’t enough domestic workers willing or able to fill the positions. This is especially true in somewhat isolated Hoopers Island, 40 minutes away from the nearest city of Cambridge.

In a rally held in Hoopers Island one month before crab season was to start in April 2020, several dozen watermen, crab industry leaders and local lawmakers gathered to call for the maximum number of visas Congress will allow—66,000 granted to businesses nationwide for the first six months of the year. At that time, Maryland seafood processors had only received one-third of the 450 visas they needed for the season.

While a lot of sweat went into running the crab picking plant, its waterfront views are also perfect for relaxing. Photo: Alex Cooper Auctioneers

Darlene Ruark, granddaughter of the company’s founder, was a vocal advocate at the meeting, saying, “I consider these H-2B workers part of my family,” said Darlene Ruark of the W.T. Ruark & Co. picking house. “My son grew up with those workers, and they consider him family, too.”

In 2021, the Ruarks closed their business after 73 years and sold the property.

It’s now for sale once again, this time in a public online auction by Alex Cooper Auctioneers of Baltimore. The auction begins Friday, Jan. 12 at 2 p.m. and runs through Wednesday, Jan. 17 at 2 p.m. The opening bid is $175,000. The winning bidder will have to put down a $10,000 deposit.

Zoned for industrial use, the waterfront property includes a two-story, 3,139-square-foot building on the water with a storefront, offices, restrooms, refrigeration and an industrial freezer, a large boiler for steaming crabs, and “potential for boat slips accommodating 65-foot boats.”

The auction website likens the “scenic drive to Hoopers Island” to visiting another world. Visible are “authentic working watermen villages with the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Honga River to the east” along the two mile causeway.

Could it be home to another seafood operation? A public historical property? A marina? Time—and the outcome of the auction—will tell.