I stood outside the chain-link and barbed-wire fence surrounding Beaufort Fisheries on Taylor Creek and gathered the nerve to venture in among rusting buildings and machinery parts, stray cats, smokestacks, steel vessels, and oak trees. It was a gray January day, the first day of many months of fieldwork as a graduate student of cultural anthropology. Of all the sites in the world, I was drawn to North Carolina’s last remaining menhaden fish-meal and oil factory.

Twenty-five years later, I look back on that day as the start of a formative and compelling journey. I walked into an industry, a history, a culture that I’ve never been able to shake.

“Are you on our side?” asked a blond crewman, giving me a clue about life as an industrial fisherman in an increasingly tourism-driven economy.

“Who would be interested in us?” asked an oil-spattered factory worker after I explained why I was there.

“Why don’t you wear my slicker?” offered a black first mate, bemused as I held my arms out to catch what I thought were fish scales falling from a net held aloft. He gently pointed out that they were maggots.

Jule Wheatly, whose family joined with the Potter clan to start Beaufort Fisheries in 1934, declared that I was a liberal hippie. I would surely be underfoot, he growled, making life more aggravating than it already was.

He then gave me free rein to board his boats, crawl around his factory, and pester his employees for more than a year. He fed me a steady diet of Nabs and Cokes, figuring that I differed little from a factory cat. I owe my Ph.D. to his and his employees’ willingness to give me time and open their hearts.

I have tried to return the favor by defending the fishing industry in difficult times, against hurtful policies driven by politics instead of data and an odd disdain expressed by some for people who work with their hands. It’s been a losing battle. Beaufort Fisheries closed six years ago, as have many of the fish houses through which seafood and money flowed in so many communities along the rivers, sounds, and banks of North Carolina.

But coastal families are a resilient lot, long adept at finding ways to survive gale-force change, holding ground with a love of place, family roots, hard work, and a good story. I’m happy to share a glimpse into their lives here.

•••

Jonathan Robinson of Atlantic

I have seen Jonathan Robinson in oilskins chest-deep in Core Sound easing a sea turtle to safety from his long-haul net, and I’ve seen him in a suit and tie in Raleigh speaking passionately as a member of the North Carolina General Assembly. He says, “It’s a unique experience to come off the stern of a shrimp boat and find myself in the State House, but the hours and the pay are about the same.” He has represented the citizens of Down East on the Carteret County Board of Commissioners since 1998. The following excerpt is partly from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries/Core Sound Waterfowl Museum project and partly from a StoryCorps session I had with Jonathan in 2008.

My father, Marvin Robinson, saw a lot of change. He recalled the first automobile coming on Atlantic. The children came running, saying, “Mama, Mama, there’s a boat coming over the high bank!” All the engines they had ever heard were in boats. They had never seen a car. Someone arrived on a cart road used by horses, driving a big touring car, and the children could hear it popping and snapping. “There’s a boat coming over the high bank!”

My father, his father, and my great-grandfather were all involved in boatbuilding. They were legitimate shipwrights and involved in the fisheries. Some of my people went down and built menhaden boats at Fernandina Beach, Florida, back in the early 1900s.

There wasn’t as much boatbuilding going on when I was a teenager. I missed that trade and having those skills. A boatbuilder is an artisan. There’s nothing built on the square, so it takes some time and effort to learn the shipwright’s skills. I really feel, and fear, that I don’t possess those skills to the extent that they did.

My father learned the boatbuilding trade under the tutelage of the late Elmo Wade, legendary Down East boatbuilder. He built the Myron Ann Smith, a trawler, in the late ’50s for the late Billy Smith. I think its image is still the logo for Luther Smith and Sons Seafood. When I wanted to pursue getting on a boat, my father told me he would help me. We built a 38-foot boat, and I named it, out of my love, the Down East.

The economy and the culture of Down East centered on fisheries. The leaders in the community — firemen, church leaders, community activists, political activists, and organizers of the civic activities — they were all fishermen. It’s a natural progression to grow into fisheries if you were raised in that environment because that was the role models we had in the community.

I like to long haul fish and set pound nets in the fall, but I’ve been involved in all of it. Typically a long-haul rig comprises two boats with three men on each boat. The nets from the boats are tied together and towed, usually covering an area of about a square mile. It’s more to corral the fish. We don’t gill them. We just encircle the fish and keep making the enclosure smaller until we get to a point where we can bail the fish up on the boat. You can’t go out and set it randomly. You have to be in close proximity to shoals because we go overboard and stand up to our chest in the water to foot the net. We’re in there with the jellyfish and stingrays and everything else. It’s a primitive process, dating back to when they first started putting power on boats.

Anything I’ve ever learned about fishing, I learned it from a fellow fisherman who willingly shared it with me. I’ve seen people throw down a day’s work to give somebody a hand working on an engine or a net or towing somebody back in. I don’t think they do that on Wall Street. You’re dependent of those in sight of you. You can’t just go off and leave them. Even though it’s an introverted world being on the water, there’s also a spirit of community and camaraderie.

I love being on the water. The environment that you work in is a beautiful workplace — an office with a view, so to speak. It’s physically hard on you, and it gets more challenging the older you get. But the motivation and the spirit of it is still down in you. People say there’s salt in their blood. It’s that sense of being out on the water and being independent and the vastness of being on the sea, the inland sea, Pamlico Sound.

I think the fisheries played an important role in the development of our state and our nation, and I’m just glad to be a part of it. It’s an old industry. Even the father of our country participated in the Potomac River fisheries. I hope people don’t lose sight of the role that the fisheries had in the development of coastal North Carolina. I’d like to see Carolina watermen forever.

•••

Margaret Willis of Frisco

Margaret Willis and her husband, Delmer, live in the Hatteras Island village of Frisco, where they sat in a swing and watched the tops of tall pines “pop off” during Hurricane Emily in 1993, just one of many storms Margaret has lived through. Susan West interviewed Margaret in 2002 as part of an ethnographic and historical study of Outer Banks villages for the National Park Service. When I delivered Margaret a copy of her oral history, Delmer asked if I’d ever seen anyone knitting a net. I’d seen folks hanging and mending nets, but I’d never seen one knit from scratch. He led me to his workshop, opened a barrel, and pulled out a ball of cotton twine, a wooden gauge, and a net needle. He proceeded to knit uniform meshes before my eyes, explaining that he did this once in a while just so he wouldn’t forget how.

The old people of Hatteras Island said you could smell a storm. My granddad would look at the sky and say, “We’re going to get something bad. Something’s coming. You can smell it in the air.”

The ’44 storm struck around the first of September. We were sitting on the porch, and the sun was shining real pretty, and the sea tide was coming up fast. We were kicking our feet in the tide from the porch. All of a sudden, it started blowing the rain in. I guess the wind shifted. My dad sent us in the house upstairs with my mom. That sound tide started coming. It got so bad that the waves were breaking on the back of our house and spattering in the upstairs window. We had them boarded up, and it was coming through the cracks.

The tide came on in. My dad wanted to open the windows and doors, and Mama wouldn’t let him. She was scared. And that caused our house to float off the blocks. It busted out the windows. The water was to my dad’s neck downstairs in the hallway, up to the fifth step. He had a big tool chest made out of wood with two boxes sitting on top of that, and a big ham that they had cooked. As heavy as that chest was, the water turned it over. It washed the furniture out. The doors and window come open, and the tide washed everything out the house.

We was upstairs, me and my brothers. My brother J.S. was toddling along — I can still see them fat little legs — singing, “Pistol-packing mama, lay that pistol down.” Ronald Stowe’s party boat went through our yard. Big old boats had come loose. Looking out the window, you couldn’t see anything but water. I thought we had washed in the sound. If one of them boats would have hit the house, it would have killed us. I guess the Lord was watching over us.

It seemed every September the tide would come in the house. All you did was wash the mud out and scrub the floors. My mom used to cry. She would get linoleum down and put curtains up, and here would come a hurricane, and it all rolled up in a knot, mud and all. Then they started painting the floors with light oak or dark oak floor paint. All you had to do was wipe out the mud.

My brother Larry was born just after the ’44 storm. He had spina bifida. The night he was born, he was kicking just like any other little baby. He had a little place on his back about the size of a marble. But within a month’s time, he didn’t kick no more, and he was paralyzed from the waist down.

We carried him to Duke’s hospital. We had to go across Pamlico Sound to Engelhard on the Hadico. It was a freight boat. From Engelhard, we took some kind of a bus to Raleigh. Then we walked from there to the medical center. They told Mama that they couldn’t do anything for him. They said he wouldn’t live more than two or three years, and that she should put him in a home. He lived 10 years and wouldn’t have lived that long if my mom hadn’t taken such good care of him.

He was just our life then. We spent all our time playing with him. I would sit and rock him until my arms ached, just so he could sit up. He learned everything we learned in school. He was real happy, and he was smart. The Methodist church here in Hatteras used to buy his alcohol and gauze pads to go on his back. They made all of his gowns and things that he wore when he was little.

My father’s family was from just outside Raleigh. My dad was in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp down here when he met my mom. She was 25, and he was only 18. But he told her he was 25. Two years after they got married and I was born, his mother wrote him a letter and asked him how it felt to be a father at age 20. He had scratched over it and tried to put down 27. Mama asked him, “How old are you, Mr. Layne?” He said, “I was afraid you wouldn’t marry me if I told you I was younger.”

Just before my father left, they elected him sheriff of Dare County. I don’t know what happened. I think he just woke up one day and found out he couldn’t handle it, four babies, one an invalid, and he was young. That’s what I try to tell myself anyway. I remember the morning he left. My mama asked him if he was going to bring my brother some potatoes home for lunch. He said he hoped to. We heard that my father just threw his gun, holster and all, overboard on the way to Engelhard on the Hadico. That’s how he left.

My grandfather took us in. It had to be hard — four kids, as old as he was. But I never heard him complain. He used to clam all day long in the sound near Ocracoke Inlet. He would tote them clams on his back up the road.

I was married and my young ’uns were little before I ever seen my father again. He came back with his wife and his family. That was first my time knowing that I had other brothers and sisters. I didn’t see them again until he died about five years ago and his oldest son kept me informed. They’ve been coming down, back and forth. They’re the sweetest brothers and sisters that anybody could have. I love them dearly.

We’ve had a lot of hard times. But true love has outweighed it all.

•••

Ernest Davis of Beaufort

Ernest Davis has a grandson named Trevor who had no idea that his grandfather spent his life raising tons of fish from the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and from the backyard waters of Core Sound. Trevor watched wide-eyed as Ernest and his fellow menhaden chantey-men performed the soul-stirring work songs they used to sing while pulling nets. By the end of our North Carolina Humanities Council-supported project, “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” Trevor and fellow seventh graders were mouthing the words to the songs. Many of the fishermen, factory workers, and net menders of the fish-meal and oil industry feared that their legacies would be forgotten with the closure of Beaufort Fisheries. But Beaufort Middle School students were fascinated with the living history of their town and transformed all they learned into video presentations that preserve names of captains, vessels, and locations of fish-meal and oil factories in Beaufort.

I grew up in the North River community near Beaufort. I’ve been here all my life, and I made a career here of fishing. I really enjoyed working with the people in the community and going to school with them, church with them, and work.

We met good people menhaden fishing. And the fishermen knew each other anyway. We all used to fish out of Beaufort in the fall of the year. Then, in December, we would split up and go different places, but always in the fall of the year we would all run together. One year, there was 103 boats in Beaufort, all the factories combined, in the fall of the year.

Then something went wrong. They say there was too many boats in town. They didn’t like the smell of cooking fish. So the people got kicking up about it. They told the captains that they wouldn’t be able to tie their boats up. I don’t know what went wrong there. Seemed like everybody got along pretty good, I thought.

Fishing is hard work. One time, I went to shake the fish out of the net, and a shark jumped up. He bit me on my whole five fingers! It scared me, but I couldn’t move. He was looking at me, I’m looking at him, and we had to take an iron bar and stick in that shark’s mouth. And he clamped down on that iron bar. It broke his teeth, and I got my hand out. I was bleeding. I said, “My gracious, I still got all my fingers.” I said, “Golly, almighty.”

We would have a big net full of fish, and it seemed like we couldn’t get them raised up. We’d sing those chanteys whether we was fishing in the ocean or the sound. Singing would give you more spirit and more power to pull, to raise your fish better. But if you sat there and didn’t sing, you wouldn’t get the fish. So that’s how singing come about. That night in your bunk, you couldn’t sleep because you’d be hurting or cold, so we’d just make up songs. We made them up right there on the boat. We’d sing all night long.

You had to sing with the crew to raise the fish. If you didn’t sing, the crew didn’t want you on the boat. You didn’t sing, that boat hit that dock, you didn’t go back. Most of the captains, they would get right down there singing with you, too. They would listen to us, how we sang, then the next time they go, they go singing just like us. You could hear it all over the ocean. Seemed just like music was on the water.

We could tell when another crew needed help. We’d go right there to them. It’s a song they would sing, “Help Me To Raise It.”

“Listen,” someone would say. “Do you hear that song?”

“Yes, somebody is in trouble.”

We’d ease right on over there to help them. Sometimes, we’d wrestle with the net all day long. Sometimes, we wouldn’t make a dime, helping somebody. We enjoyed it, though. I wish the old folks was still living. Now, they could tell you something because they started way back. But they stopped singing the songs in 1962 when they got the hydraulic-power block.

When we perform the chantey today, it brings back memories. It seems just like we’re fishing. A lady called — she was from out of Raleigh. She wanted me to come up there. They were going to pay me to train some younger guys to sing the chanteys. But I told her, “No. Not unless they’re right from Beaufort here.” I said, “The problem with that, we aren’t going to let another town take our history.”

Barbara Garrity-Blake is a cultural anthropologist and author of The Fish Factory and Fish House Opera (with Susan West). She led the project “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” which documents the people who worked in the fish-meal and oil industry, and collected oral histories for the National Park Service for a study of Outer Banks villages. She lives in Gloucester with her husband, Bryan Blake, where they organize the annual Gloucester Mardi Gras Festival and perform with the band Unknown Tongues. 

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