Collecting Delaware Books
Special note: The annual Gilbert Byron birthday celebration will be held regularly at Pickering Creek Audubon Center, usually in July. Contact information: www.pickeringcreek.org
Someone had purchased the bookcase. The books, unwanted, had been dumped helter-skelter on the floor. A small sign gave notice, " All books — 10¢ each." Buried near the bottom, I found a first edition of Chesapeake Duke by Gilbert Byron. Never has a dime been proffered so gladly. To a Delaware book collector, the moment was absolute delight!
Born July 12, 1903, Gilbert Valliant Byron was the son of Mary Evelyn and George Valliant Byron of Chestertown, Maryland. Also born on July 12, was Henry David Thoreau (1817) whose philosophy and writings were later to inspire and influence Byron.
At the age of 14, Byron was awarded a tuition scholarship to Washington College's preparatory school in Chestertown. He entered in September 1917, five months after the country entered World War I.
His teaching career began in 1923 at Kennedyville (Maryland) High School, where he taught all subjects to all of his 20 students. Byron said, "I was everything but the janitor. I was even the coach." A Pennsylvania coal-mining region school became his next teaching assignment.
In 1926, Gilbert Byron went to Lewes (Delaware) High School where he taught history and English; he also served as principal and athletic coach. Here, in partnership with a student, he became the owner of his first boat. Friendships begun here were to remain through the years until his death. Lewes people, scenes, and incidents later became the themes of many poems and essays.
From 1933 to 1945, he taught at Dover (Delaware) High School, where he was also coach of the basketball team and was active in Sea Scouts.
While in Dover, he published his first book, These Chesapeake Men. Included is a 34-verse poem about Parson Joshua Thomas.
In a move not intended to be permanent, he established a small cabin at Old House Cove on San Domingo Creek near St. Michaels, Maryland. After a brief return to Dover, he went back to his cabin where he continued writing, selling some work to Colliers and the Saturday Review of Literature. While trying his own Thoreau lifestyle, Byron lived off the water and the land; he did odd jobs such as painting barns and repairing buildings. For six years he held a job at Easton (Maryland) High School; at the same time he was principal at St. Michaels elementary schools.
A weekly journal column was begun in the Easton Star-Democrat newspaper titled "Cove Journal" — later "Chesapeake Cove." Byron said the columns helped him survive those years.
A book was published — then another — and another. (It is interesting to note how many were published in the later years of his life.) As his visual world increasingly narrowed due to glaucoma, Byron said in 1978, "It's like twilight." He continued to write — first on his typewriter on which a friend fastened large letters, then by using large pencils with heavy lead, and then with black felt marking pens.
Byron's genres included prose, short stories, and poetry (including the Japanese form haiku). Among the haiku in The Sight of a Marsh Hawk is a sequence titled "Memories of Old Lewes." The concluding line of the poem "Dear Superintendent" would find echo in the heart of every teacher: "I've been taught by some mighty fine youngsters."
To you, Gilbert Byron, we say, "Our lives have been enriched by a mighty fine man."
1932— 300 Years on the Hoornkill. Unpublished 34-page booklet. Written by the junior history class of Lewes High School. Byron was the directing influence.
1942 — These Chesapeake Men. (2nd edition 1943.) This book of poems, illustrated by Jack Lewis, was the first book Byron published.
1943 — Delaware Poems. Many of these poems are included in later books.
1945 — White Collar and Chains. Included is a poem "Baccalaureate" dedicated to the 1943 seniors of Dover High School.
1953 — Chesapeake Cove. Published while Byron was teaching American history and English at Easton (Maryland) High School. 2
1957 — The Lord's Oysters. Byron's first novel. Autobiographical. The first two chapters were written earlier when he lived in Dover. Available in bookstores today.
1960 — Early Explorations of the Chesapeake Bay. 24-page booklet. John Moll drew the frontispiece.
1961 — The Wind's Will. Contains a section called "Delaware Days" which includes 18 poems. Among them are "The Pilots of Lewes" and "Henlopen Light," both written in 1943.
1963 — St. Michael's. The Town That Fooled The British. A Complete Account of the British Attacks on St. Michaels During the War of 1812. Booklet. Illustrated by John Moll.
1964— The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake Bay. Booklet published by the Maryland Historical Society.
1965 — Chesapeake Duke. Byron's first book for young people. The 1965 hardbound edition was illustrated by Emill Weiss, and the 1975 soft-bound edition was illustrated by Jack Lewis. Reprinted and available today in bookstores.
1982 — Sunbathing With the Professors. The first edition was 100 copies bound in hardcover, numbered and signed. There is a softbound edition also.
1983 — Cove Dweller. Published in hardbound, numbered, signed, edition of 150 copies with an original manuscript page bound in. Softbound edition at same time.
1985 — The Sight of a Marsh Hawk. Hardcover edition of 100 with original manuscript page bound in. Also softbound. Illustrated by Marianne Whitcomb. The book begins with 150 haiku, grouped according to the four seasons.
1987 — Gilbert Byron's Chesapeake Seasons: A Cove Journal. Published in collector's edition of 600 and a soft cover edition. Presents approximately 100 of his newspaper columns from over a 1000.
1990 — Done Crabbin': Noah Leaves the River. At the age of 87, Byron's sequel to The Lord's Oysters was published. Working title for this book was "Bird on Wing."
A small green heron stands on the bow of my pram go warn the minnows. — Haiku by Gilbert Byron
There is an active Gilbert Byron Society preserving his memory and attempting to preserve his cabin. Its Web site has added information and numerous pictures. The Unicorn Bookshop has a listing of Byron's books and pamphlets on the Gilbert Byron page of itsWeb site.