Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.
Sammy Boyd orders the shrimp basket.
It’s the simplest of the daily specials offered today at Ruddy Duck Tavern on the Morehead City waterfront. Boyd owns a restaurant here. Not this one, the one across the street. But he’s not open for lunch today, so he might as well support somebody else.
It takes him more than an hour to eat his meal because between every bite, someone comes up to talk. When he finishes, he doesn’t have to pay. A woman in the corner already took care of it.
This amount of attention is common for the hometown boy who secured his first job at age 8 cleaning fish at Davis Fish House. He brought home the “scrap” fish to help feed his family. The old icehouse building, across the street from the former fish house, is now called Sammy’s — Boyd’s restaurant that seats 200 people.
Boyd lives one street over on Bridges Street. He can throw a rock from his restaurant and hit his house. Boyd grew up in that house, along with 11 other Boyd children. He was the youngest. He could live in a bigger house or one more upscale, but he prefers this one.
As he drives through town after lunch in his red Toyota Tundra V8, he rattles off his investments and projects and adventures. There’s not much he hasn’t tried. And there’s not much that hasn’t worked. Or so it seems.
He’s into real estate, construction, fishing, boating, buying, selling.
“I’m not gonna spin wheels,” Boyd says. “You know what I mean?”
Just listening to him is enough to make you tired.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you go on vacation?’ ” Boyd says. “But I kind of live on vacation. I’ve been to the Bahamas, Hawaii, and after three days, I’m done. It doesn’t do me any good to get away. I’ve gotta be somewhere I can make something happen.”
By this point, you start to get what he means.
Morehead City needs people like Sammy Boyd. People not afraid to try something. People willing to capitalize on the past to make a future, even if that future is different than the one mapped out 50 years ago.
If anyone understands that need, it’s Carol Lohr. She didn’t grow up here. She can’t throw a rock quite far enough to hit her childhood home in Rocky Mount. But if you mention Lohr’s name around here, several people in Carteret County will claim her as their own.
She’s the executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority. And she doesn’t spin wheels. Lohr started in this position when the authority formed in 1990. It took its name from the chamber of commerce, which chose “Crystal Coast” because of the clear waters rimming Carteret County. The arc of sound-side and beachside communities facing south enjoy less turbulent water than points farther north, such as Hatteras. And they capitalize on that clarity.
As you drive into Morehead City from the west on U.S. Highway 70 — before you reach the waterfront lined with commercial-fishing and charter boats — the Atlantic Beach Bridge juts to the right, carrying travelers over Bogue Sound to the thin strip of beaches that buffer the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. If you drive straight through Morehead City and cross the D.G. Bell Bridge, you’re in Beaufort. Beaufort is the third-oldest town in North Carolina and is the county seat. It has a charming waterfront, an abundance of bed-and-breakfasts, and the mystique of the Blackbeard legend.
Morehead City doesn’t have the beach, the courthouse, or the pirate, but Lohr calls it the hub of Carteret County. Its central location does create a good jumping-off point to somewhere else, but the town’s position along the North Carolina coast makes it a sensible spot for several important marine organizations: the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ headquarters; N.C. State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology; and the Port of Morehead City, one of the deepest ports on the entire east coast. Morehead City is the largest town in Carteret County, with about 9,000 people and the majority of the county’s businesses.
Big things happen in Morehead City. And Lohr is a big part of them. Every October, the North Carolina Seafood Festival takes place here. It is the second-largest festival in the state, behind the Bele Chere music and arts festival in Asheville.
Lohr and nine friends started the festival in 1987 by each pitching in $100 to buy stationery. They met at a bar and drew the trademark logo of a fish wearing sunglasses on a cocktail napkin.
The first seafood-marketing job in North Carolina brought Lohr here in 1981. She now has a corner office in an eye-catching building as you drive into town. She has a full-time staff and more contacts than she can count. But it’s a spot she worked toward.
“I’ve been in every fish house in the state,” Lohr says of her time in seafood marketing.
Fish houses stink. They’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter. They’re wet and filthy. But they are good places to learn. If you’ve ever been in one and seen how hard the people work, it will make you want to tell others about what they do.
Rodney Kemp tells stories. He’s not a professional storyteller. He sells insurance. But people recall his town anecdotes, many including fish houses, much more quickly than his insurance premium quotes. Several Fridays a year, he gives a presentation at the local museum, The History Place. The segments are called “Fridays with Rodney.”
“I didn’t name it that,” Kemp says.
But he doesn’t seem to mind. His coworkers at the insurance company rib him about it. And they hate it when they can’t find a parking spot on Fridays because of the crowd. The History Place shares a parking lot with Chalk & Gibbs insurance and real estate, Kemp’s employer and the oldest continually operating family-owned business in town.
Kemp can’t separate his paying job from his hobby. People walk in Chalk & Gibbs during business hours to give him newspaper clippings and assorted artifacts. The town of Morehead City trusts Kemp with its history.
He’s a good choice. He grew up on Evans Street. He rode his bicycle downtown. He ate Sunday dinner at the Sanitary Fish Market with the other Methodists after church. (The Baptists and Methodists always dined with their respective congregations, Kemp says, alternating between the Sanitary and Capt. Bill’s.) He spent Sunday afternoons at the waterfront watching the fishing boats unload their catch.
“That wasn’t much amusement, but that’s what we did,” Kemp says.
He remembers the smell that lingered in town from late August through Thanksgiving as the menhaden processing plants turned millions of pounds of fish into cat food and fertilizer.
“When the wind came out of the southwest, it was like someone had put a whale in your yard and let it rot,” he says.
For decades, local fishermen knew that stench as the smell of money. But eventually, overfishing led to tighter regulations, which made menhaden fishing less lucrative. The last menhaden factory operating in North Carolina closed in 2005.
The main industry in Morehead City now is tourism. Tourism seems like a contemporary industry. But it started in Morehead City with the Atlantic Hotel in 1881, Kemp says. The block-long hotel was located between third and fourth streets, where the railroad ended.
Before Morehead City had the port, it had the railroad. John Motley Morehead, a former North Carolina governor and the town’s namesake, ran the railroad down here in 1857 to connect North Carolina from one end to the other.
“You’ve got communities, particularly in eastern North Carolina, that are college towns, that are medical towns, that are tobacco towns; we’re a railroad town,” Kemp says.
Outsiders know Morehead City for the water, not the railroad, until they drive through town. If you look up directions to most places in Morehead City, one of the last instructions before you arrive at your destination is to make a U-turn. The railroad tracks run between the eastbound and westbound lanes of U.S. Highway 70 right through the middle of town. If you come into town and want to visit Kemp — for a story at The History Place or an insurance quote for your vacation home at Chalk & Gibbs — you’ll have to head east on 70, then make a U-turn on 10th street, and head back west to pull into the parking lot.
It seems like a hassle. But if you’re lucky enough to hear him tell a story — about getting ice from Ottis Purifoy’s fish house for the football concession stand on Friday nights, or swimming in the sound after a baseball game at “the lot,” or piecing together the history of the only home he’s ever known — it’ll be worth it.
Raised on the water
To Terrell Gould, Morehead City is a water town.
It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and he’s exhausted. His eyes are red. He yawns. Gould was awake all night. One of Johns Hopkins University’s data buoys got loose and needed tracking down. The university contacted Gould’s friend, so he asked Gould to go out with him. He said sure.
“Anything to get on the ocean for a few hours,” Gould says.
Gould’s grandfather started the family business in 1937. He ran a charter boat for 50 years, making a living off of people who wanted to get out on the water. Gould’s father, Leroy, was a charter-boat captain, too. Gould’s earliest memories are of hawking business along this same waterfront with his father.
Gould had his own boat built by the time he graduated high school. It was 50 feet long. He named it the Harriet L, after his grandfather’s boat, and started running charter trips with his father.
“For two and a half decades, if you saw one of our boats, you saw the second one,” Gould says. It’s the only job he’s ever known. But today he runs what locals call a party boat named the Carolina Princess. He bought the boat in 2006 after the owner, a friend of Gould’s, died of cancer and asked him to take it over. The boat is nothing like his old one; it’s 95 feet long and can carry up to 125 passengers at a time.
These large party boats are common along the Morehead City waterfront now.
The same year Gould got the opportunity to run the Carolina Princess, he had already made up his mind to discontinue running his smaller charter boat. His business fell from 170 trips a year to 110, which he says isn’t enough to live off of.
On the larger boat, he sells individual tickets for $100. That price tag is more appealing to customers these days than paying close to $1,000 for a six-person charter. He has a chef on board to keep people fed and advertises cruises for family reunions, birthdays, and weddings, in addition to fishing charters.
He laments the changes in the charter boat industry: the higher demands from customers, the higher fishing regulations from national and state organizations, the higher costs of fuel. He says it’s getting harder and harder to make a living the way the Gould men have for three generations, but he’s going to hang on as long as he can.
He’ll do anything to stay out on the water.
Sammy Boyd sees how Morehead City has changed as much as anyone. The 42-year-old has seen overfishing drive up regulations. He’s heard fishermen complain. He’s seen fish houses, including the one that gave him his first job, close. He’s heard the employees at the Department of Marine Fisheries tell their side. He understands both. And he has his theories, too.
The nature of a fisherman, he says, demands regulations. Every fisherman wants to be the top captain. If you didn’t limit how many fish they could catch, then there wouldn’t be any fish. He doesn’t believe fishing will ever be as big as it was when he was 8 years old. But he thinks it will be around for a while.
In addition to all those businesses Boyd is buying and selling, he leases five acres from the state in Newport River. He calls it his oyster garden. He dumps all of the oyster shells from his restaurant there, which gives the young oysters something to grow on.
“I’m gonna have some oysters in about two years,” he says.
When Boyd bought the old icehouse that is now his restaurant three years ago, someone mentioned to him that he never finishes what he starts. Boyd couldn’t help but agree with him. He has trouble staying focused on one thing for too long.
But his restaurant is different. He put everything into it.
“I wouldn’t have lost no bank’s money,” he says. “I would’ve lost everything I had. That’s the reason I stayed right there on top of it.”
His goal with the restaurant is to serve local seafood, and only local seafood, the way he remembers it growing up. Today the demand for seafood is so high that even along the water in Morehead City, much of the seafood is imported.
But Boyd has an advantage. He grew up in the fish house across the street. So he buys his fish and shrimp and oysters directly off the boat, which cuts costs. He guts his own fish and heads his own shrimp and shucks his own oysters.
“I’m one of only a few who do a mass of local product in my restaurant,” he says. “I could clean 1,000 pounds of grouper in two hours. Me and two of my helpers once filleted 10,000 pounds of flounder in one day.”
Just listening to what he goes through to serve local seafood makes you tired.
But then you realize that nothing he talks about — all that building and boating and buying and selling — makes him happier than working on the only waterfront he’s ever known.
Sammy’s Seafood House
109 South Sixth Street
Morehead City, N.C. 28557
Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority
3409 Arendell Street
Morehead City, N.C. 28557
The History Place
1008 Arendell Street
Morehead City, N.C. 28557
Sixth Street (on the waterfront)
Morehead City, N.C. 28557