In 2009 and 2010, an extraordinary community project, called “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” commemorated the central role that the menhaden industry played here in Carteret County, N.C, for generations.
Inspired by the closing of the state’s last menhaden factory, Beaufort Fisheries, in 2005, the project involved a series of community forums, school events and documentary projects. Led by cultural anthropologist and local fisheries activist, and my old friend, Barbara Garrity-Blake, the project’s organizers worked hand-in-hand with former menhaden fishermen and factory workers to create a unique community-wide period of reflection on the passing of a way of life.
They also received vital support from the staff and volunteers at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center. Together, their efforts stirred an outpouring of local interest in the history of the menhaden industry, a lively debate on the causes of its demise and a great deal of soul searching about the future of commercial fishing on the North Carolina coast.
This was originally a talk at the final celebration for the “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing” project. It was held at one of my favorite museums, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island, N.C. in the fall of 2010. A version of the essay was published by The North Carolina Folklore Journal in the spring/summer issue of 2013. You can find more lectures and essays that I originally gave at the Core Sound museum, or in which their staff, volunteers and historical collections played an indispensable part, at “Core Sound Lectures” on this web site’s main page.
I followed “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing” with great interest. As the guest of Barbara and the museum’s director, and my dear friend, Karen Amspacher, I first attended a community forum at Ann Street United Methodist Church in Beaufort, our county seat. At that event, hundreds of local residents gathered to tell stories about the fishery’s glory days.
Later, I joined Barbara at Beaufort Middle School, when former menhaden industry workers Lee Crumbacker, Lionel Gilgo, and Ernest “King” Davis enthralled Josie Boyette’s 7th grade class with stories about their fishing days.
Finally, Barbara shared with an extraordinary group of oral history interviews with me. As part of the project, she had recorded the stories of individuals who had worked in the local menhaden industry.
She talked with menhaden fishermen and factory workers everywhere from the Piggly-Wiggly in Beaufort to Frazier Town Road in Harlowe, the back side of Cedar Island to the oldest fishermen’s homes in Black Cat. In those interviews, she has given us a poignant and unforgettable glimpse at the local menhaden industry’s last days.
At her invitation, I would like to take this chance to share a little of what I heard in those interviews and in the community forums, school visits that I attended.
Nobody could listen to these oral history interviews without being impressed at what the menhaden fishery meant to Carteret County. Listening to them, you hear a lot about the “the smell of money.” Jule Wheatly, the last owner of Beaufort Fisheries, told Barbara how his grandfather purchased the company’s mortgage during the Great Depression. The company and every one of the county’s banks had gone bankrupt after the Crash of ‘29, but his grandfather and other leading citizens recognized that they had to do something to keep the menhaden business alive.
At that time, there were probably seven or eight menhaden factories in Beaufort and Morehead City, menhaden catches formed the state’s largest, most profitable saltwater fishery, and the little town of Beaufort was the center of the Eastern Seaboard’s menhaden fleet.
For generations the oily little fish were the town’s lifeblood. Many local people worked on the fishing boats. Many others worked in the “fish factories,” where they dried and processed the fish primarily into fertilizer, fish oils, animal feed and key ingredients in paints, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer products.
In his usual, understated way of saying things, commercial fisherman, county commissioner and philosopher Jonathan Robinson called Beaufort “the Constantinople of the menhaden industry.”
In those days, if you did not work for one of the menhaden companies, you likely sold them groceries, refit their boats’ engines, or made the burlap bags for their fish meal. At the community forum at Ann Street United Methodist Church, a retired grocer came to the open mike and recalled the autumn days when 75 or 100 pogie (menhaden) boats docked on Front Street on Saturday night. Each had a crew of 18 to 20 men. He remembered how the grocers in town worked all night stocking the boats for the next week.
“That was a lot of groceries,” he said.
Ernest “King” Davis’s story was typical of what the industry’s wages meant to local fishermen and fish factory workers. A resident of North River, an African American community north of Beaufort, he left school when he was 15 years old and went menhaden fishing for Piggy Potter at Beaufort Fisheries.
“It was hard work, but that’s what I had to do,” he testified. He fished for 41 years and became one of the most respected first mates on the East Coast. He not only sent all five of his own children to college, but he helped to raise and educate nine younger brothers and sisters as well.
Delilah Bryant, whom Barbara interviewed at her home in Craven Corner, remembered how townspeople greeted the menhaden fishermen in her family. When she was a child, her father and several other family members worked at Harvey Smith’s menhaden factory. When they went shopping in town, she recalled, some of the friends whom they’d meet would say, “Oh, you all stink.”
The aroma of the fish, the fish oil, and the fishmeal was rather strong. That was indisputable. At the time, though, her father did not blink an eye. He would only say back to them, “That’s money you smell.”
Those men and women talked about the menhaden industry changing in many ways over their lifetimes. There were new technologies: motors on purse boats, power blocks, hardening rigs, spotter planes, fish pumps, nylon nets, steel boats and many more.
The way of doing business changed, too. Things got more corporate, unions made headway and state and federal governments enacted a raft of environmental regulations, just to name a few.
But through it all, I could hear two things in the men’s voices: a love for menhaden fishing—master net mender Lee Crumbacker said it well: “it grows on you like a barnacle on a pole”—and a fierce pride in their craftsmanship.
Crumbacker put it right out there: the guys at Beaufort Fisheries “were the best at everything we did.” And he added: “It wasn’t a job—it was a way of life.”
When the menhaden industry’s former employees described the craftsmanship of William Bryant, Delilah Bryan’s husband, in the fish oil room, or of Levi Beveridge, who was Lee Crumbacker’s mentor in Beaufort Fisheries’ net sho, or, for that matter, Crumbacker himself, they did not sound as if they were describing old guys working in a smelly, antiquated, broken-down fish factory. They sounded as if they were remembering artists with a genius for what they did with boats, nets and oil.
A reverence for the older generation is evident in their voices. From Jule Wheatly to the factory’s handyman, they all spoke with reverential pride of William Bryant’s gifts as head of the factory’s oil room. He “turned out oil that was 99% pure, the best in the business,” I heard again and again.
Referring to net mender Levi Beverage, Lee Crumbacker declared unequivocally: “He was the best there ever was.”
He also said, “He was like a father to me. All the old men down there were like that to me—old-style, good people.”
Crumbacker paused and said, “I helped put them in the ground.”
Likewise, Bobby Chambers, a young ring-setter from Morehead City who fished for Standard Products, said, “I was taught a lot of things by the older fishermen that experienced fishing back when they had the wooden boats, and when they had to pull the nets by hand and salt the nets. I’ll never forget the stories that they told me.”
Recalling his menhaden fishing days, when he worked six months a year in the Gulf of Mexico and was back home the other six months, Chambers went on:
“To sit back and hear those guys…at night, you pretty much forgot about the hard day. Everybody would…play cards or sit around and eat fish or talk fishing stories or tell a few stories that weren’t true, but, you know, it was all fun. And then at the end of the season…you hated to leave, because the guys were going in their direction and you were going in yours, and … [you were] just hoping that [you] would see these guys next year.”
Almost to a one, they came out of menhaden fishing families. Milton Styron told Barbara that he first went menhaden fishing with his dad and his brother when the boys were 6 or 7 years old. “We weren’t big enough to do the job, but we grew into it,” he said. They fished for the old Morris Brothers menhaden factory in Davis, in eastern Carteret County, and worked aboard a sharpie, the Lala G.
Now deceased, Styron swore that “he loved to do it the best of anything in the world”—more than any other kind of fishing.
Similarly, Capt. David Willis, who grew up in Lennoxville, just outside of Beaufort, dropped out of high school and started menhaden fishing with his father. “My daddy would carry me out when I was little,” he said. “It kind of stuck.” Now working in the Gulf of Mexico, Capt. Willis has been menhaden fishing for more than half a century.
The factory was the same way. Delilah Bryant recalled that her father worked at Beaufort Fisheries and at local industry leader Harvey Smith’s menhaden factories in New York and Louisiana. She married a gentleman, William Bryant, who became the legendary master oil man at Beaufort Fisheries. Four of their children also worked in the industry.
Similarly, Johnny Simpson grew up in Black Cat when his father was foreman at Beaufort Fisheries. He started his own working life in the factory’s cookhouse when he was 14 or 15 years old, and he was the company’s foreman when it closed its doors for the last time.
His wife, Sue, practically raised their children at the fish factory. She ran the cookhouse. She and the kids often slept on the cookhouse’s second floor at night so that she could prepare the “midnight supper” for the factory workers and then get up at 5:30 AM to make biscuits for their breakfast. “I liked it because it was a family thing,” she recalled.
The feeling of family went beyond blood, too. “We were like a big family,” Johnny Simpson’s sister, Tish Tickle, reminisced, and she meant the whole operation at Beaufort Fisheries. Lee Crumbacker echoed her words. “It was like a big family,” he said.
No wonder that he took it so hard when the factory closed in 2005. “I’ve lost my home,” he explained to the children at Beaufort Middle School. That day at the school, one of the children asked Crumbacker how he feels when he passes the old factory now. He did not sugarcoat his answer: “I drive by and it tears my heart out,” he said.
The sense of family in the menhaden business was not limited to Carteret County, either. As Jonathan Robinson put it, the menhaden industry was “a boundless community of fishing people.”
Menhaden fishing was a thread that connected coastal towns from Maine to Texas. The stories I heard in Barbara’s interviews brought to life all the other historic fishing ports where Beaufort’s boats carried local men. I listened to tales of hurricanes in Empire, Louisiana; water spouts off Sabine, Texas; girlfriends in Pascagoula, Mississippi; and sharing apartment complexes with Cuban, Portuguese and Swedish fishermen in Port Monmouth, New Jersey. The guys married young women in Lewes, Delaware, had babies in Apalachicola, Florida and bailed cousins out of jail in Reedville, Virginia. News spread quickly among the menhaden fishing towns, too. “It was almost like you were in the same town,” Lee Crumbacker recalled.
I heard one thing over and over again: the hardest part of menhaden fishing was spending so much time away from families. “I never got used to leaving my family,” Bobby Chambers said.
He went on to explain: “Because after six months, you’d come home for six months and it seemed like time would go by so fast, then all of a sudden you had to leave again. And to leave your family was pretty much a hard thing…. My daughter has graduated from college [and] my son is getting out of high school, so…they can look back…now and say Daddy did what he did to take care of us, …because I just hated to see them cry when I would leave…. But they understand now.”
For me one of the interviews’ highlights was Randy Jackson meticulously describing the factory’s inner workings. He was the company’s last maintenance man.
Listening to Jackson’s words, you can conjure up the sight of William Bryant in the factory’s oil room, Elwood Willis in the dump house, Zeke Murrell in the press room, “Old Man” Willard running a cooker and Ross Goode and Sherman Nolan in the scrap house.
“He was a tough man, buddy,” Jackson said of Goode.
He described Goode standing in the steam like a ghost, a lit cigarette in his mouth.
He recalled that Goode’s son, Theodius, also worked in the factory. He worked in the tool room and did odd jobs around the plant, while Lee Crumbacker ran the net house, joined, in later years, by Nadine Benevides.
By the end, the plant’s machinery had grown so old and dilapidated that the factory workers often could not find replacement parts. As a result, a fellow named Jim Bertram made all the parts by hand.
Jackson’s words made the old place come to life. He even described the factory’s cats, which also had to find new homes when Beaufort Fisheries closed.
There was of course no shortage of stories about hard work in these interviews. “It was a man’s job, believe me,” Bobby Chambers testified. “Out there it was hard because you had to get right back up from sunup to sundown. As long as the sun was up and the plane spotter could spot fish, you would fish.”
(For the last half century, the menhaden industry had employed small planes to locate schools of fish and steer their boats toward them.)
In the Gulf of Mexico, it was often hot. In North Carolina waters, it was often cold. “At night we were so tired we couldn’t sleep,” King Davis recalled. “We’d stay up and make up chantey songs.”
He remembered days so cold that, in his words, the ropes “would cut your hand so you could see the bone and not feel it.” At night the fishermen rubbed alcohol on their hands to get the feeling back in them.
Before the days of power blocks and hardening rigs, the captains needed big, strong men in the net. “These were real men,” Lee Crumbacker emphasized. Working the nets offshore, where most of the fishermen were African American, often seemed a Herculean task.
The factory was no picnic, either. Randy Jackson, the former maintenance man at Beaufort Fisheries, made that clear. “It was hard and nasty,” he said. “You had to like it to stay there. When you had to do something like fix a raw box chain, [you’d find] maggots, chain grease, fish oil, spider webs.”
When the head of the factory’s dump room, Elwood Willis, “walked across the floor, you could hear the maggots crackling under [his] feet,” Jackson recalled. “But,” Jackson insisted, “I can tell you that he loved it.”
I also heard stories that sent chills down my spine. Every menhaden fisherman recalled a storm where they lost a friend or thought that they had lived their own last day. Many recalled a particular storm. When Barbara visited Elvin Jones, Andrew Reels and King Davis at the North River Volunteer Fire Department, they all remembered a day in 1963 when they were on the Shinnycock. Waves as high as a building would not let the boat cross the Beaufort Bar and reach the safety of the harbor. They all thought that they would never see home again. Water had come across the hold and the boat was underwater.
“Crew was hollering and screaming,” Davis, who was the boat’s first mate at the time, said. “I told them it was alright, but I had already given up.”
Capt. Bill “Collard Green” Lewis recalled a night on the Lynn Ann when he was trying to fight his way back from Ocracoke Inlet. It took him 16 hours to get home in fierce winds and high waves. That night, another menhaden boat out there with him, the Amagansett, turned over in the waves.
“There’s things that happened that I wake up in the night just scared to death, re-living some of the things I lived through,” he told us at Ann Street United Methodist Church. “In some of those squalls in Louisiana,” he said, “I’d wish I was a potato farmer in Idaho.”
Another incident that stood out for me was something that happened to Lee Crumbacker in the fall of 1974, before he started mending nets. He had been working on the Atlantic Queen in Chesapeake Bay and she was headed back to Beaufort when a cold front came through and stirred up 15 to 20 foot seas with hardly any warning at all.
They had just seined a big set of menhaden off Rodanthe, a resort beach on the Outer Banks, but the storm came on so quick that Crumbacker was caught in his purse boat and could not get back to the steamer.
The purse boats are smaller watercraft deployed in pairs by the menhaden boats to encircle a school of fish with the net, called a “purse seine,” and draw it close.
The wind and waves drove both purse boats into the breakers. “I had already given up,” he told Ms. Boyette’s class at Beaufort Middle School. “I remember thinking there are all these people up there on the island at restaurants and motels and they’re having a good time, and I’m going to die,” he said.
You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom.
Many of the menhaden fishermen had a way with words. One that comes right to mind is Worth Harris, a 96-year-old fisherman from Cedar Island. Born in 1913, Harris remembered the coming of the first gasoline engines on menhaden boats.
Nobody could ever forget the way that he described the sail skiffs of his youth and what it was like to travel in them with only the noise of the wind and the rigging. Mr. Worth spent most of his life gill netting, pound netting and oystering in and around Cedar Island, but he used to help out in the sail loft at Harvey Smith’s menhaden factory in Beaufort every fall and winter as well—and he has a poet’s heart.
Bobby Chambers, the fisherman from Morehead City, does, too. He had an especially lyrical way of describing the small moments in menhaden fishermen’s lives in a way that got close to the heart of things.
“It was really, really hard work,” Chambers remembered. “But looking back over it, I really appreciate every day of it. I’ve seen a lot of stuff and been in places…that I’ll never forget. Some things you cannot always record down or write down, but in your mind you’ll never forget these things. And I really got to see beautiful stuff, [things] on the water that God had created.”
And then of course there was the music. The fishermen mostly stopped singing their legendary chanteys with the introduction of power blocks and hardening rigs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but those songs have remained a powerful memory for all who ever heard them.
As a child, the first thing I ever heard about the menhaden industry was my mother’s stories about those chanteys. She grew up in Harlowe in the 1920s and ‘30s, when Highway 101 was still a dirt road. Many of Beaufort’s African American fishermen lived in Harlowe, particularly in a reclusive community just across the county line called Craven Corner. As they drove oxen and carts down the road on their way to Beaufort, the menhaden fishermen sang the same songs that they sung as they hoisted the nets onto their boats.
Early Monday mornings, long before first light, my mother would wake up in her bed at the sound of those beautiful, haunting songs and listen to them as the fishermen moved through the darkness and toward the sea.
In Barbara’s interviews the menhaden fishermen talked about those chanteys in much the same way as my mother. King Davis told her how they would sing all night long just to keep their minds off the cold and hurt. It “just seemed like music was all over the ocean,” he said.
Capt. David Willis spoke of the chanteys in much the same way. He remembered singing with the bunt pullers when he first started in the business. “There was just something about those chanteys. They made the hair rise up on the back of your neck.”
A long-deceased neighbor in Beaufort, Capt. George Lewis, once told him that when he sang the chanteys he felt as if he could push his foot through the purse boat. “That’s the way I felt, too,” Capt. Willis said.
Those songs have not been heard on a menhaden boat in a long time, but older people from around here still remember them. They tell me how, on cool autumn days, you could sometimes stand on shore and hear the songs coming across the water. They filled the air and stirred the heart and got deep inside your bones.
And if you heard those songs, like my mother did when she was a little girl, you never forgot them or the way that they made you feel. It is hard to put into words, but it was not just the beauty of the melodies or the men’s fine voices, but the appearance that the music was rising right out of the sea.
Beyond the chanteys’ gospel strains or the raunchy, sassy lyrics—because they sang both kinds of songs—you could hear something more: their fierce sense of brotherhood, a feeling of family, their children’s tears when they went away, their wives and girlfriends’ hugs when they came home, the storms that nearly took their lives, the cold ropes that cut their hands to the bone, the pride that they took in their work and, as Bobby Chambers said, the joy that they found in “the beautiful stuff…, [the things] on the water that God had created.”