The Eastern Shore Loses a Local Legend and Storyteller

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By Linda Cicoira
Otho Washington Mears was born in a house outside of Parksley and lived there his entire 93 years. The auctioneer, historian, and storyteller, and his wife of 70 years, Violet Mears, were a team for decades at their barnyard sales where people gathered to find treasurers, socialize, and eat pound and layer cakes that she made and sold by the slice.
As news of his Dec. 12 death spread across the Eastern Shore late last week, folks from here and across Virginia noted their fondness for Mears and the great loss to the community. Violet Mears declined to speak about her long-time husband as the hurt was too new to bear. But others who loved him had plenty to say about the man whose face would light up with excitement when he told a tale or spoke of an antique hog scale.
Just months ago, Mears was describing Violet Mears’ hunting feats with pride and admiration that painted a picture of her in a clearing, raising up a big gun and getting a shot at a deer.
“To me, Otho was one of a kind — great auctioneer, great joke and storyteller, and just a neat, neat person,” Samuel Updike Jr., of Fredericksburg, wrote on the funeral home’s site. “It was my pleasure to call him friend and to enjoy his stories.”
“I met him when I first moved to Parksley, living across the street from his mother, Myrtle,” wrote Joan Selby, of Chincoteague. “Glad that I got to know him and some of his family. I enjoyed O.W.’s auctions, his stories, and acts of kindness.” He was “a true gentleman and a unique Eastern Shore treasure.”
“If it wasn’t nailed down and he could get money for it, he would sell it,” Lennie Mears said Tuesday of his father. “He was quite the historian. He knew pretty much everything about the Eastern Shore and places where old cemeteries were and places that held the oldest buildings.”
Some of that information was delivered naturally to Otho Mears as his ancestors came here from England around 1650. Bartholomew Mears was a share-cropper who arrived as an indentured servant and rose up to own “a fair amount of land,” Lennie Mears said.
George and Elizabeth Mears, Otho Mears’ grandparents, built the homeplace in 1913. Lennie Mears has George Mears’ shotgun from 1910. “And still in excellent shape. Dad was a keeper of everything old, well, pretty much everything.”
The family is now looking for bronze stars that Otho S. Mears, Lennie Mears’ “Pop-Pop,” was awarded after being gassed twice while taking cover in foxholes in France during World War I. The information was on discharge papers the auctioneer saved. His father “never told a soul,” Lennie Mears said. “I have no idea about it. All my grandfather told me about the war was how much he liked the French women and how much he liked to box.”
That love for sports didn’t flow over to the son. “My dad wasn’t into that at all,” Lennie Mears said. “Probably didn’t watch a football game in his life. He wasn’t interested in that whatsoever. He’d watch old movies and the news at night like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and old westerns.”
“My grandfather started to do this, auctioneering, probably (in the) late ’40s, maybe ’50s. My father didn’t show any enthusiasm about it” at first. “But when you work on a farm, you did whatever you had to do.”
The older man had two sales going in one day and thought the first would be over before the second had begun but it didn’t work out that way and younger Otho Mears was left to finish the first auction.
“He had never done it before,” Lennie Mears said. But when the father returned, someone told him he need not come back as Otho W. Mears was “better than you. After that, my father started practicing and he became quite enamored with it and did auctions everywhere in Delmarva … then he started collecting. He was really into the oldest and most obscure things.”
Lennie Mears’ grandfather got to see two auctions at the Mears’ barnyard location. “Back when I was younger, he had some historic auctions. With all the major (decoy) carvers. Mid-1970s decoys were bringing $1,200 or $1,600 apiece, which was unheard of at the time.”
Lennie Mears didn’t come back to the Shore to live after going away to college. “He (his father) was sort of set in stone here and I was in the modern world learning to do things faster … Only in the last few years, I came to appreciate the older things … He actually retired in 2000. Probably in the mid to late 1990s, he started doing some things outside of the barn — helped other auctioneers. When he closed the barn down that was the most amazing sale of all.” Chester Jackson, of Countryside Auctions, and Zeb Barfield, of ZBB Inc. in Hallwood, worked for Mears. Otho Mears asked his son to take his pick before the big sale. He had his eye on a hundred-year-old window from an old post office. Otho Mears had estimated it to be worth $400 or $500. “Put it through, I’ll bid on it,” he told his dad.
“We had the sale at the Owl Restaurant.” Lennie Mears said. “Visiting auctioneers were there. When that window came up for auction, the first bid was $1,000.” He said his father looked at him asking what he wanted. “I shrugged, ‘do what you got to do.’” The window sold for $4,000. Lennie Mears had picked out the Mears Railroad sign he admired.
Lennie Mears said a year or two ago, his dad refused to show any antiques to the American Pickers. “He liked the show until they went to a store in Maryland with three stories, flew through it, and didn’t do him (the owner) justice.”
Carl Thornton, also of Parksley, met Otho Mears when Thornton was about 12 and attended auctions with his mother. “He would take me hunting, which was the love of his life. Of course, I loved auctions … We just continued to be friends and close. Not many holidays or birthday occasions that we weren’t together.” One such occasion was just a couple of days before Mears’ death. For the last 15 to 20 years, until the Royal Farms closed for refurbishing, the two would go there for coffee. “I would pick him up every afternoon at 4 o’clock … My afternoon entertainment. He was an entertainer. Believe me.”
“I learned many, many things from him historically and otherwise,” Thornton said. When they couldn’t go to that spot, they would go to the convenience store in Nelsonia instead. “He died on Tuesday. And I took him to coffee the Friday before. On Saturday we celebrated my daughter’s birthday dinner, which he and his wife and son attended.
“He got me interested in of all things, local history, and I started collecting items and photos and so forth,” Thornton said. “Our friendship never died. It continued on … He was like a father figure, he really was. … There was nothing that was uncommon for us to talk about. He had many interests as you know. … He took me to my first hog killing about a year ago, back of Eastville, a friend of his. That was the last one for them,” Thornton said of the friend’s family. “They weren’t going to raise hogs anymore.
Mears had a butcher knife that hadn’t been used in a hog killing for a century. “He used the knife to shave the hog.” The knife was acquired at Wachapreague. “He was very proud of that. That he was able to touch a hog with it after a hundred years.”
Thornton talked about Mears’ hog scale collection. “He had all different sizes, from 1,500 pounds on down, and memorabilia.” Mears bought a bear trap once. “He marveled at how it was made. After that, it was my quest to buy a bear trap for myself. Anything he did like that, I had to try to top it. We had so many common interests, it was easy to become a friend and talk on a daily basis. I saw him every day of my life.” Thornton said Mears also came to the Club Car Cafe in the morning “for coffee and to talk — to solve the world problems.”
“He had all kinds of decoys go through there, Hudsons and Hancocks, and of course, the auction of Verna Cobb,” said carver Grayson Chesser. “Cobb had all kinds of things from the family that came from Cobb Island … unfinished heads — by Nathan Cobb who was one of the most famous carvers that was — made from holly limbs. Root heads, that was one of the things that he was so famous for. Natural curves that would be really impossible” to duplicate.
“That was a major auction,” said Chesser. “I paid $700 for a stool that had Elkannah Cobb’s initial in the bottom, underneath of it. They did that with a lot of things they owned before there was a brand. I bought it for somebody else … Lord knows we had good times there.”
Chesser also went hunting with Mears. “He hired me to take him goose hunting one time years and years ago. He was a heck of an auctioneer. He had a great crew too. Violet could make cakes. Otho killed the first deer, a buck in 1947, during the first open season for deer hunting on the Eastern Shore. There were hardly any deer back then. So, before that, there was no deer season.”