Brown’s Island, 7- Bedtime

An interior view of one of the mullet camp’s bunkhouses. Capt. Briant Gillikin, the number two man in the camp, rests in the bunk on the left.

Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

An interior view of one of the mullet camp’s bunkhouses. Capt. Briant Gillikin, the number two man in the camp, rests in the bunk on the left. The man in the other bunk is unidentified. The pine board walls are reinforced with wooden crates, some of them probably containing canned goods.

A carton of lard sits under the one man’s bed. Capt. Gillikin’s denim trousers lay on a cedar chest between the two beds, and a pair of willies behind the chest.

This is the 7th 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.

The fishermen’s coats and other clothes hang from shelves above their beds. A battery-powered radio sits on a high shelf as well, near an ax. In the left foreground, a kerosene lamp and an open book, perhaps a Bible, rest on a small table.

Joel Hancock, Harkers Island, N.C.

Joel Hancock, of Harkers Island, N.C., once told me that his grandfather was very particular about what kind of seaweed he collected for mattress stuffing. Some seaweed varieties, like sargassum, that have gas bladders to help them float, proved too bumpy for comfort. Other seaweeds went rank or harbored a bothersome kind of gnat or flea after they were dried. A red seaweed, apparently a species of Gracilaria, was his grandfather’s preference. For more insights on coastal history, I highly recommend Joel’s wonderful blog, The Education of an Island Boy. He is also the author of one of my favorite books on N.C.’s coastal history, Strengthen by the Storm: The Coming of the Mormons to Harkers Island, N.C., 1897-1909.

Their mattresses are surely stuffed with dried seaweed. Local fishermen often harvested a red-brown seaweed from the island beaches to fill their family’s mattresses, especially after storms.

If they’re lucky, wild goose or sea bird feathers fill their pillows.

The mullet fishermen typically went to bed early so they could rise in the dark, drink their coffee, and be on the water at first light. Farrell noted that Capt. Gillikin went to bed around 7:30 in the evening.

Born in1872, Briant Gillikin was listed as an oysterman in the 1900 federal census of Otway, and as a farmer in the 1920 census. As with the other mullet fishermen, he moved back and forth between the water and his fields: fishing, oystering, clamming, and/or scalloping close to home in between planting, cultivating and harvesting his crops, but always returning to Brown’s Island in the autumn.

He was also, one of his grandsons told me, a lay preacher, known for his ability as an exhorter of the Gospel.

On the back of another photograph of the old captain (not shown here), Charles Farrell wrote, “Captain Briant Gillikin…allows that he will spend the winter on the Banks [meaning Brown’s Island], seeing that he has no responsibilities and likes the peace of the place.”

Tomorrow– the mullet boat, seine & net spreads

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