Discover Delmarva: Downes Curtis -Mastor Sailmaker
Its the story of an unlikely pairing in the 1920s an African American teen and a white Englishman.
Their story started when Oxford native Downes Curtis went asking for something for his boat.
According to local historian, Niambi Davis, this small act would completely change and define his life in a big way.
“What I know about him is that he had a boat cause he grew up in Oxford. And he asked an English sailmaker to make a sail for him,” says local historian Niambi Davis.
That sailmaker was Dave Pritchett.
Pritchett agreed to make a sail for young Curtis on the condition that he agreed to become his apprentice.
It was something the teen wasn’t all that thrilled about.
But over time that changed.
“He hand-sowed these sails. He and his brother. He developed an affinity for it. I guess that was his calling,” says Davis.
Downes ended up falling in love with sailmaking.
When Pritchett died, he took over the business even using his teacher’s tools.
He set up shop and continued the specialized work right here in Talbot County.
“His loft was in the building where he went to school. It was the colored school. You could only go to 8th grade. That building became his loft in later years,” recounts Davis.
Curtis made a name for himself as a sailmaker.
“He could cut these sails by hand. You know some people can cook from scratch, they don’t need the recipe book with the measurements. Well he could make these sails just by looking,” says Davis.
Curtis flourished in his craft, catching the eye of some very big names.
“He created sails for James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Johnny Carson and the Kennedy,” according to Davis.
Curtis and his brother Albert worked in their loft for decades together making some of the world’s finest sails.
Suzanne Price and her fiance currently live in the schoolhouse where Curtis had his loft.
She says signs of the master sailmaker are all around her home, which gives her great pride.
“There are nail holes here and there all over. He used to have to stretch the sails across the floor. So this was the perfect space for him because its completely open. He was a hard worker. He was a good man. Everything I’ve heard about him has been positive.”
In 1996, the 85 year old master sailmaker died leaving behind a legacy of craftsmanship, elegance and luxury.