A bayman who depended on, and believed in, diversity on the waterfront.
By Nancy Solomon
Cory Weyant was one of the most energetic and knowledgeable baymen in Freeport. He was a master storyteller, expert eeler and crabber, dragger mate and fish smoker. Cory grew up on Woodcleft Canal in Freeport where he lived all his life. When asked how he first started getting into the bay he replied, “We used to make rafts, ya know, like Styrofoam rafts, and just rowed across to the island just to see what was over there, with an old oar, and then we used to find a dingy with a hole in it and we’d patch it up. We used a friend’s mother’s fiberglass curtains one time and we patched up a boat…we used to row all over the bay because we didn’t have a motor, you know.”
Cory learned early on that in order to make a year-round living as a bayman he would have to master a variety of skills for both the bay and ocean. He learned to clam, crab, trap eels and killies, catch horseshoe crabs for bait and to smoke fish from German residents (Cory is German). Cory believed that as long as there was enough variety of species to catch he would be able to continue working on the water. Like most traditional baymen, Cory built his own traps, which differed in design according to the species. In order to smoke eels, he first trapped them, prepared them in a traditional brine made from brown sugar, salt and vinegar, then smoked them using an aromatic fruitwood such as cherry or apple in a smoker. His smoker was made from a discarded fire-hose dryer that has shelves. “Like I said, I just fooled around with it. Oh, down at my uncle’s marina, Frank’s marina, I just fooled with it, then, like when I ran the fish market, tried it a little more, you know, I could sell ’em, then I got into trapping them, made more and more traps, matter of fact every year I try to make more.” His customers learned about him through word of mouth. “They come to my door, knock on my door, I like, when I get the old German people, ya, you got some eels…come on over, how many pounds you want?”
Cory reflected commercial fishermen in Freeport, in that he learned to work in a variety of different activities in order to work year-round. “The first time I worked on a dragger I worked right here on the St. Peter, across the street, I worked there like when I was 17, 18, 19 till I was about 21. Then I ran that fish market and I got into the smoked fish after that. I just decided I’d had enough of the fish market, said I can go out and make my own living in the bay.”
When I first began documenting local baymen and fishers on Long Island back in 1987, Cory was the second person I met who introduced me to the life of a bayman. He taught me about eeling, harvesting killies and bait crabs and fish smoking, which earned him a national reputation and a fierce following around Long Island. I quickly realized that he was not only a bayman but a natural born master educator. He taught thousands of elementary school students on Long Island about the life of baymen and fishermen, telling them stories and showing how they, too, could catch fish. When Long Island Traditions was asked to send some local tradition bearers to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2004, Cory was the first person we thought of, and we sent him to Washington, DC. When filmmaker Glenn Gebhard was looking for baymen to star in his documentary Baymen, Cory was there for us. And when we needed to find out who owned some of the bay houses nearby, Cory introduced us to some wonderful owners.
Cory died in a tragic boating accident on March 2, 2011, leaving behind his wife, Priscilla, and his son, Collin. He will forever be remembered as “Horsefoot,” the horseshoe crab’s nickname, for his love of the bay. A memorial fund has been established at Long Island Traditions to benefit his son, Collin. Donations are tax deductible. For more information call 516.767.8803.
Nancy Solomon is a folklorist and the executive director of Long Island Traditions in Port Washington.