Brown’s Island 3– An Eye for Mullet

Bedford Lawrence, Brown's Island, N.C.

Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Bedford Lawrence on the ocean beach at Brown’s Island. He is wearing a faded denim jacket, a gabardine or denim shirt, and an oilcloth or rubberized canvas “sou’wester.” He may have waterproofed the hat with linseed or cottonseed oil.

In one hand he holds a net needle.  In his other hand, he holds his pipe, filled, no doubt, with the R. J. R. tobacco that his grandchildren told me was his habitual brand. From the look of the surf, a good blow is coming on, probably out of the northeast.

This is the 3rd in a series of Charles A. Farrell’s photographs from Brown’s Island, in Onslow County, N.C., in 1938. An earlier version of this story appeared in Southern Cultures, a quarterly journal published by the UNC Center for the Study of the American South.

Then 70 years old, Bedford Lawrence had been mullet fishing at Brown’s Island every autumn since the 1880s. Like all the fishermen, he came from Otway, a remote community on the salt marshes of Ward’s Creek, a two-day trip by boat. At home he worshiped at the North River Primitive Baptist Church, played fiddle at community square dances, and was head of a large family.

Like all the fishermen, he was not a wealthy man. He and his wife Emma, 5 children, and often other relatives all lived in a two-room house that did not look that much sounder than the cabins at Brown’s Island, at least in the memory of his descendants. No wonder he enjoyed the island’s peace and quiet.

Bedford Lawrence was a “saltwater farmer”: he made his living partly on the water and partly on the farm.

That was true of most Otway residents and was also typical of mullet fishermen throughout the North Carolina coast. Otway was located on salt marshes, but mullet fishermen at many other camps traveled from farming communities far from the sea and, except for mullet fishing, kept to their farms.

The old fisherman lived at the Brown’s Island camp beginning with the “mullet blow”—a gale, usually in late August or early September, that announced the shift of prevailing winds to the northeast and the arrival of the jumping mullet. He stayed at Brown’s Island all fall and came home sometime before Christmas.

The rest of the year, he divided his time between fishing, clamming and oystering closer to home and tending five acres of field and garden. He grew two acres of sweet potatoes, an acre of “Irish” potatoes and feed crops for his cows, horses and hogs.

Bedford Lawrence’s grandson, a retired dredge boatman named H.B. Lawrence, told me that his granddaddy didn’t mind getting away from Otway during the sweet potato harvest. Digging and banking sweet potatoes—“banking” involved covering piles of them with salt marsh rushes and pine straw in order to preserve them through the winter— was hard work, but so was mullet fishing, and he could leave the harvest in the hands of his wife and children back home.

“I have been told that Bedford probably made between $1,000 and $1,200 a year between farming and fishing,” his grandson said.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we always had plenty to eat and we never went hungry.”

Every autumn Bedford Lawrence returned to the island for the mullet fishing, along with other members of the Lawrence and Gillikin clans. In his younger days, he seems to have been captain of the Brown’s Island crew—in his notes, Charles Farrell referred to him as “old Captain Lawrence.”

By the 1930s, however, he was the mullet camp’s lookout. No job was more essential to a mullet fishery’s success. The fish moved down the beach from the north in great schools and a keen, practiced eye, as H.B. Lawrence told me, “could see the difference in the color of the water.”

His granddaddy, he recalled, “had an eye for mullet.”

Bedford Lawrence waited for the fish from a post roughly 1/2 mile north of the camp. When he spied a school of mullet, he gave a shout and raised a flag (usually just a wax myrtle or yaupon branch), spurring a frantic rush of his comrades to their boat and into the waves.

On a recent tour of his grandfather’s neighborhood in Otway, H.B. Lawrence wanted me to know that his grandfather was no stranger to sorrow.

By the time of this photograph, he and Emma had already lost two children: one, Bedford Tildon, in a shooting accident in 1920, and the other, their daughter Dorothy, in childbirth in 1926. Emma Lawrence never recovered from their deaths and was bedridden for the last decades of her life.

“They loved the Lord and they loved their neighbor,” H.B. told me. “They were great grandparents who loved each other and their family.”


Tomorrow– Leonard Gillikin, the head of the fishing crew

One thought on “Brown’s Island 3– An Eye for Mullet

  1. I love hearing these stories about our “crowd” from the old days! They were tough hard working people! Want to meet David sometime and see if he knows about my grandfather, Capt. Gib Willis, from the Promise Land!


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