Captain Johnny Ward purchased the buyboat Andrew J. Lewis in 1952 and renamed her Ward Bros. after his three sons, Melvin, Floyd and Milton. The vessel is being worked here by the Wards in 1987 in Virginia’s winter crab dredge fishery. Photo: Larry Chowning

Last of Ward Family Watermen Dynasty Passes Away at 95

With the passing of Floyd T. Ward, 95, on Dec. 17, the last of the Ward Brothers of Deltaville, Va., have passed.

The Ward Brothers, Floyd, Melvin and Milton (Mit), were part of a Chesapeake Bay maritime dynasty started by their father Captain Johnny Ward, originally from Crisfield, Maryland. The elder Ward owned and operated more Chesapeake Bay buyboats and steel hull freight boats, or “Bay boats” than any other single family on the Bay. (There’s no known relation to the Ward brothers of decoy fame.)

Born in 1902, Captain Johnny and his family can be compared to the famed Conway family of Cambridge, Maryland. Legend has it that Captain Harvey Conway Sr. moved to Cambridge as a young man with all his possessions in a sugar sack. He died a millionaire, his money made from hauling freight and lumber on sail-powered schooners. He and his son owned a fleet of sailing schooners and bugeyes.

It was much the same with the Wards. In an 1987 interview, Captain Johnny said he quit school at age 13 to work full-time on his father’s 75-foot sail driven bugeye. He floated into Deltaville in the early 1920s in an old log canoe named Lagonia with a few pennies in his pocket. He met Deltaville native Iva Deagle, married and had three sons. 

The Ward brothers of Deltaville, from left, Melvin, Floyd and Milton standing on a dock in 2006 on Jackson Creek. Photo: Larry Chowning

During a 2006 sit-down interview, the Ward Brothers recalled that there were times when Captain Johnny had to borrow money from his wife’s grocery stash at the end of the week to pay his crab dredge crew. But like Captain Harvey, he eventually made his money off a fleet of boats freighting grain, lumber and coal, buying and planting seed oysters and dredging crabs during Virginia’s winter crab dredge season.

“We were just kids when we went to work on our boats,” said Floyd. “If Daddy needed us we went with him. Our first jobs were shoveling seed oysters on grounds that Daddy leased from the state. He had a lot of boats and had captains and crews working them but when he seeded his own grounds off of Stingray Point and Stove Point, the crew became the three of us.

All three boys eventually went full-time on the boats. They bought, hauled and planted seed oysters on the Chesapeake and Delaware bays and hauled grain from granaries throughout the region to Norfolk and Salisbury in large steel hull Bay boats. Melvin’s son and grandson, John Melvin Jr. and Jay, carry on the tradition today as they own a fleet of tugboats and barges for hauling grain and other commodities.

During the 2006 interview, the three Ward brothers were ask to recall their most memorable experience while working the Bay. Typical of Floyd’s gentle spirit, he spoke not of storms, or drownings, or shipwrecks but of a year in the late 1950s a few days before Christmas when he and his brothers were crab dredging on a cold, icy, snow spitting day. Two other dredge boats broke down.

“We all cared about one another out there,” said Floyd. “We helped one another out no matter what the problem. When Charlie Fred Montgomery (in the dredge boat Dolphin) and Junior Carr (in the bugeye O. A. Bloxom) broke down [dredging for crabs] a few days before Christmas, we caught our limit and then kept working to make sure they got their limits.”

“It was getting close to Christmas and they all had families and children just like us,” he said. “We knew what it meant not to be able to work and we knew what it meant to their families. Even though we weren’t family, there was a feeling of family among most of the crab dredgers and to me that was special.”

Melvin passed in 2010, Milton, 2018 and now Floyd just this month. All were esteemed watermen and Chesapeake Bay legends.