Willard Norris, a wooden deadrise boatbuilder into his 90s, passed away at 94. Photo: Vincent Funeral Home

Deltaville’s Last Active Wooden Boatbuilder Passes at Age 94

The Bay region lost a boatbuilding icon on Jan. 7 as Capt. Willard Hamilton Norris, 94, of Deltaville passed away.

Norris built boats past age 90, best-known for his deadrise workboats. In a 2017 Chesapeake Bay Magazine story, he said he hoped to continue building until he was 100.

During the heyday of planked wooden deadrise workboats on the Chesapeake Bay, Willard was born in 1927 to a traditional boatbuilding family on Lovers Lane in Deltaville.

In fact, he had boatbuilders on both sides of his family. His grandfather, Ed Deagle, built deadrise boats on the shoreline at his home where Willard was born. His uncle Pete Deagle repaired log canoes next door. Willard learned the trade by helping his uncle Alfred Norris at his yard “across the road.”

With the help of his wife Shirley, he built his first “paid to build” boat in the footprint of his soon to be living room and used the profits from the boat to complete his home.

He later went on to work for his uncle Lee Deagle at Deagle and Son Marine Railway. Deagles was a melting pot of wooden boatbuilding knowledge as the yard employed former log canoe builders and deadrise boatbuilders working there between boat orders. On the side, Willard was building traditional wooden boats in his backyard mostly for commercial watermen.

Two of Willard Norris’s builds. Photo: Larry Chowning

One day, Willard got an offer to work for the Virginia Marine Resource Commission (VMRC) maintaining boats. He asked his uncle, Lee, what should he do and his uncle advised him to take the job. “You will always get a paycheck here,” Captain Lee replied. “But when you get old and can’t
work that state retirement will mean a lot.”

When Willard was not on duty for VMRC. he continued to build boats at his boat shop behind his home. After retiring, he continued to build boats and run fishing parties. Over his career, Willard built over 100 deadrise boats.

He was still building boats at his shop at the age of 91. In a 1982 interview, Willard said, “I can remember when there was a boat being built in just about every backyard on Lovers Lane. Now, I’m about the last one left.” He masterfully continued that legacy for nearly another 40 years.

Willard’s legecy lives on today as the Deltaville Maritime Museum builds “Willard Norris skiffs” at its boat shop as a tribute to the man and the boatbuilding heritage of Deltaville.

-Larry Chowning