Reflections on Ulrich Mack’s Inselmenschen – Island People

I want to thank you all for inviting me to join in your celebration of this beautiful new museum’s opening and its inaugural photography exhibit, Ulrich Mack’s “Island People.” I must confess that my idea of a scholarly conference cannot get much better than the community potluck supper last night. Looking at those heaping plates full of chicken and dumplings, garden fresh butterbeans and homemade blackberry cobbler, I suddenly felt a powerful intellectual calling to do far more scholarly work on Harkers Island. I feel a big book coming, one that might take many, many years of study and writing!

This was originally a presentation at a symposium on the traveling exhibit, Inselmenschen-Island People, at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, Harkers Island, N.C., June 27, 2003. It was published in the North Carolina Folklore Journal in the Fall-Winter issue of 2004.


I want to thank you, too, for making my mother and my children feel so welcome last night. I have had the opportunity to share a delicious dinner, gotten a first glimpse of this wonderful museum, and tomorrow we will join a number of you for a morning at Cape Lookout. Our blessings overflow hereon Harkers Island, and we could not be more grateful.

Today I want to say a few words about Mack’s photographs from an historian’s perspective. I know that they speak for themselves in artistic terms. They are unforgettable, beautiful, often moving images of the residents of two island worlds—Harkers Island, N.C. and Pellworm, Germany—rendered with great care and craftsmanship.

And I know Mack must be an extraordinary person by the way you have welcomed him with this homecoming and exhibit. Because my focus is primarily historical, I see Mack’s work first and foremost as a precious, unforgettable rendering of what Harkers Island was like two decades ago.

All of you who live Down East, and even those of us who live on the other side of the North River Bridge, know all too well how much of our coastal past has already vanished and is irretrievably lost. I have spent much of my life traveling across coastal North Carolina listening to and preserving its oldest residents’ stories, but I only have to think about my own family and neighbors whom I have lost to feel haunted by the stories that have been lost with them.

The Last Visitor at Oyster Creek

As most of you know, I grew up 20 miles from her. On the farm next to us lived a very dear, elderly lady named Beatrice Mason. “Miss Beadie,” we called her. She would often sit on her front porch and tell me stories about her younger days in the 1900s and 1910s. I will never forget how, one afternoon when we were rocking on her porch swing, she told me about the typhoid fever epidemic that his the farming and fishing community of Oyster Creek when she was a girl, probably in 1903 or 1904.

(I’m not talking about the Oyster Creek east of here, on the other side of Davis, mind you, but another place of the same name west of here off the Newport River.)

Miss Beadie said that so many people at Oyster Creek were dead or convalescent that nobody was left to care for the sick. People in the neighboring communities, like ours, were terrified that the disease would spread to their children and, in effect, left Oyster Creek’s people in quarantine. Only her mother, Miss Beadie told me, dared to go into Oyster Creek to help.

That day I meant to ask Miss Beadie more—what did her mother see at Oyster Creek? What could she do to help? How many didn’t make it? But something distracted us and we never did get back to the subject of the typhoid epidemic.

And before I knew it, a year shy of her 100th birthday, Miss Beadie passed on. I made inquiries of our other elderly neighbors, but Miss Beadie was the last person who remembered the Oyster Creek epidemic. Today there are probably not a handful of people who can even tell you where Oyster Creek was. The community has vanished.

In such ways I have learned—as I know most of you have too—that our past slips away surprisingly fast sometimes. And that is why, in coming decades and for future generations, Mack’s photographs will be cherished for what they recall of a distant time and place.

Pellworm, Harkers Island & the Sea

Matching up the photographs from Pellworm and Harkers Island makes one think immediately of the sea and how it has shaped these island people from the far sides of the Atlantic.

You can look at the photograph of Jenny Nommensen, the 89-year-old fisherman’s widow in Pellworm, and the local photograph of Nettie Brooks, a year older and a fisherman’s widow herself, and recognize in both the lines that an island life have left on their faces.

Compared to the hectic, crowded and industrialized world, islands like Pellworm and Harkers Island inevitably stand apart in their isolation, remoteness, and their reliance on fishing and the sea. The wind, tides and weather still matter, and they shape a person in ways that those “from off” can rarely appreciate or understand. You can see all of this in Mack’s portraits.

The essential element of Mack’s genius was simply his idea of pairing the two islands. What a simple and elegant way to make a point that is increasingly central to our understanding of world history—that the maritime communities of the world have for centuries shared a life in common and an inter-connectedness that transcends national boundaries and, too, makes them in many ways more akin to one another than to communities inland.

North Carolina’s coastal communities had a similar closeness to other parts of the Eastern Seaboard. A visitor to Beaufort said as much in the 19th century. “The fact is,” John E. Edwards recalled, “Beaufort in those days was as nearly out of the world as a town could be. Communication with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore was more direct and frequent than with New Bern.”

So it was, too, that, in my book on African American sailors, fishermen, pilots and boatmen here on the North Carolina coast during the 18th and 19th centuries, I found those maritime laborers to be key actors in passing abolitionist politics and cultural ideas to slave communities up and down the state’s waterways, as well as connecting the slave communities on our coast with those in the ports of other Southern states, New England, the West Indies, and even Europe and Africa.

It would be a stretch to draw such direct ties between Pellworm and Harkers Island, but Mack’s Inselmenschen-Island People pushes us to think about our own coast’s historic ties to the larger world.

Down East and the Atlantic World

We do not usually envision Harkers Island or other parts of the North Carolina coast as being particularly worldly or cosmopolitan places. I may be wrong, but I suspect that every one of the many folklorists, historians, sociologists and linguists who have visited Harkers Island in the last 30 years have, with good reason, emphasized the distinctive things about your community—your brogue, your ties to Core Banks and Shackleford, and your boat building heritage, among many other things.

But Mack’s photographs prompt us to remember that the sea has always tied North Carolina’s coastal people to a broader Atlantic world.

We know, for instance, that many of the Down East and Beaufort families most renowned for their boat building, fishing and seafaring originally came from maritime communities in New England and New York. If we go way back, we see that many of the earliest coastal settlers arrived with ships’ crews visiting the whaling and fishing grounds off Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout.

The Chadwicks right here at the Straits, for instance, first landed with Yankee whalers in the 1710s.

A Seagoing People

More recently, Down East culture has been infused with the sea-salt blood of Yankee sailors and watermen, especially those from Maine, Massachusetts and Long Island Sound. After the Civil War, when northern inshore fishing grounds had already been depleted and there was a swelling demand for seafood across the U.S. (as well as new technologies to preserve it, especially ice making and steam canning), a great wave of old New England, New York and New Jersey coastal families moved south so that they could continue to make a living working on the water.

As many of you know, northern fishing companies opened the first menhaden plants here immediately after the Civil war in remote places like Ocracoke, Davis Shore and Diamond City. Even the first oyster canneries were originally branch plants of companies based on the Chesapeake Bay.

Over the generations, the influence of these fishermen, boat builders and saltwater tradesmen could be seen in nearly every facet of waterfront life.

Just to name a few examples—perhaps the most classic Down East workboat of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the beautiful, elegant sharpie, originally evolved on Long Island Sound, near New Haven, Connecticut, and wasn’t adopted on Core Sound until the 1870s.

The first pound nets also came from fishing communities along Long Island Sound, the first long-handled oyster tongs from the Chesapeake Bay, and the first purse seines from Rhode Island.

All came to be symbols of Down East maritime culture.

Of course, Down East people adapted these boats and fishing gear to their own needs, especially to the unique circumstances of fishing and shipping on local shoal waters, and gradually transformed them until they had a distinctively Down East character. But these innovations also remind us that Down Easterners were always a seagoing people and part of something bigger than the stretch of coastal marshes from Otway to Cedar Island.

Cape May, Biloxi and Apalachicola

But the sea did not only connect the outside world to Down East: it also connected Down East to the outside world. So we are reminded, as well, that fishermen from Down East and other parts of Carteret County have been traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard for many generations.

On my own trips to the Everglades, I have long noticed that there are several fishing villages on the Gulf Coast of Florida where will meet people with some suspiciously familiar surnames—Guthrie, Lewis, Willis, Gillikin, among others. Our local boys fished for mullet (and later shrimp) out of those villages as far back as the 1870s and 1880s. Not surprisingly, some of them fell in love with local girls and never returned home except for daddy and momma’ s funerals.

Then, too, from the 1920s to the 1960s, and in some cases well beyond, the island’s trawling fleet followed the shrimp south every winter. All along the seaboard, coastal people came to recognize the sight of the Harkers Island boats with their distinctive dead-rise bows and curved sterns (and they weren’t always glad to see the competition).

The arrival of the Harkers Island boats became an annual ritual, especially in places like Southport, Georgetown, Fernandina Beach and Key West, the fleet’s main ports away from home.

Likewise, in the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, local pogie (menhaden) crews made second homes in the great menhaden ports from Reidsville, Virginia, to Cape May, New Jersey.

And later, when the menhaden industry shifted to the south, those fishing crews ventured all the way to the Gulf Coast for 6 months and more a year, making a living—and often a name for themselves—in places like Houma, Biloxi, Morgan City, Apalachicola and Galveston. These fishermen left their mark on all those ports—for better and for worse, I imagine—soaking in the local maritime ways and bringing many of them home.

The North Carolina Navy

Renowned for their boatmanship, the watermen’s families from Down East and the Outer Banks have for generations been a mainstay in the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, the U.S. Geodetic Survey and the Army Corps of Engineers.

(A Wilmington gentleman who served aboard one of the old lightships in the 1950s recently told me that the state’s watermen used to be so pervasive in the Coast Guard that they jokingly called it “the North Carolina Navy.”)

In short, they did everything that needed to be done by working watermen, and they performed with distinction far beyond their home waters. They were “raised up to it,” of course, and in the days when an island could seem awfully claustrophobic to a young man, and when times making a living fishing were even harder than they are today, going to sea one way or another seemed natural for a local boy. A fellow from the Carolina coast could near about write his own ticket, such was their reputation abroad.

From Apartheid to Civil Rights

Horace Twiford, a retired merchant marine and fisherman who lives at Sailor’s Snug Harbor up at Sea Level now but was originally from Manteo, told me that when he first left home as a teenager during World War II, all he had to do was say where he was from and he instantly got a job on a pilot’s boat in Norfolk Harbor.

The truth was, he didn’t know a thing about piloting, Horace told me, but that was the reputation of the Outer Bankers in that day and time, and in places a lot farther away than Norfolk.

Next thing Horace knew, he was aboard a merchant ship zigzagging across the Atlantic with German U-boats in his wake, the beginning of a long career that, as for many local boys, eventually exposed him to things he would never have seen back home. In Horace’s case, witnessing the caste system of India and apartheid in South Africa inspired in him a lifelong comment to the civil rights movement and standing up for the little guy.

(You can see an article I wrote on Horace Twiford here.)

A World of Island People

Other local watermen’s families with ties to Chesapeake Bay or Long Island Sound have never relinquished them. For generations, the young Gillikin boys of Smyrna served as pilots in New York Harbor. They grew up Down East, left home to work in New York for their entire professional careers (coming back home for Christmas and a little duck hunting), then settled back on Jarrett’s Bay upon their retirement.

These are just a handful of the far-flung ways that coastal people here are connected to coastal people all along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. We owe a great debt to Ulrich Mack for helping us to recognize ourselves as part of a world beyond our Atlantic coast, a world of “island people.” His photographs invite us to explore this broader Atlantic world that shaped us as we shaped it.

The Passage of Time

I would like to close my comments by saying a few words that have nothing to do with my historical point of view on Mack’s images, but that are merely personal in nature.

If you were not here last night during the community potluck supper, you missed seeing the assembly of many of the people Mack photographed 20 years ago. They returned to see him and to see themselves or their family members in his photographs.

There was much rejoicing, much laughter and more than a few tears. I don’t believe any of us could look at all those people and this exhibit side by side and not think about the passage of time and the fragility of the people and places we love.

One of my favorite Mack photographs depicts Joel and Susan Hancock’s four daughters—young girls at the time—smiling and framed by the rear window of their family’s Chevy station wagon. Emily, Joella, Alyson and Leah are grown women now, and they’ve moved on in the world. One, Emily, was here last night with her newborn baby.

And, of course, there are all the people in Mack’s photographs who are now gone. They are almost too many to name: Dallas Rose, Nettie Brooks, Vance Fulford…. I could go on and on.

Burgess Lewis is not here to build boats any longer, and many a day has passed since Miss Mattie Brooks was seen raking clams the way she is depicted in Mack’s photograph. And famed raconteur Charlie Jones isn’t telling stories on this earth any more, though I imagine many of you suspect the angels in heaven are getting an earful.

I hardly need to say that Harkers Island itself has changed a great deal, even in the few years since Mack first carried that antique-looking camera and tripod of his across the bridge. Under the caption to Mack’s photograph of Horace Jones sitting in the swing by his trailer, he wrote, “Horace sold his seaside plot and moved with his trailer into one of the island’s trailer parks.”

That seemed an odd enough thing when Mack was here in 1984 to be worthy of comment. These days, of course, an awful lot of the island’s old family homes have been sold and become summer rentals or second homes for the “off island” crowd, bless their hearts.

The beach itself where Madge Guthrie, Wanda Willis and her daughter, Karen, and the island children used to roam at all hours is gone, too, lost to the breakwaters built by the new owners to protect their property.

Most of the net shops, boat yards and general stores that are the backgrounds for so many of Mack’s portraits are also gone. If any of those buildings are still standing, they probably sell miniature souvenir lighthouses and model boats.

I suspect that, deep down, Harkers Island has changed more on the outside than one the inside, if you know what I mean. Nevertheless, I am still a little overwhelmed by the impermanence of the old ways and the entire way of life that is receding from us like the ebb tide on a full moon. How can our lives be so fragile, I sometimes wonder, our days so short, our time so abbreviated, that a photographer can come here only 20 years ago and his record of that time is now another world? It can disappear. There is just no denying it. It can all be lost.

A Museum and Its Mission

That realization, that understanding, is a powerful reminder about what is so important not only about Mack’s work, but also about the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum’s calling to hold onto the old stories and to preserve the everyday relics of Down East life. These stories and artifacts of days gone by connect us to those who have come before, and they will give future generations a chance to discover who they are and from where they have come.

We ought not to need reminders of our mortality or the dearness of life, but Mack’s photographs make me want to do more than hold onto the old stories. They make me want to reach for the ones I love and hold onto them, too.

They make me want to reach out to all my neighbors, friends and strangers alike, while I still can.

They make me wonder, finally, if we will make our own lives ones that a pilgrim like Ulrich Mack might one day see and exclaim, and say, “Ah, these people, in this place, in this time, … they are leaving us something worth remembering. They are showing us something that is worth holding onto forever.”

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