A Sunday visitor. The nearest villages to the Brown’s Island mullet camp both lay 12 miles west at the mouth of the New River, a long haul anyway you made it in that day. “Yet most Sundays the girls arrive,” the photographer, Charles A. Farrell, noted.
This young fan of Mickey Mouse was Elizabeth Turner (later Taylor). She lived on her aunt’s farm on the other side of Browns Sound and often visited the fishermen with her aunt and sisters.
“Every fishermen on the island wanted his picture made with this charming lass,” Farrell wrote on the back of the original print.
How often the fishermen visited the mainland of Onslow County, where they might have first met Ms. Elizabeth, is not clear. Chadwick’s Landing, one of two villages at the mouth of the New River, did have a pair of general stores where the fishermen might have gone to procure groceries and tobacco. Marines, a small community on the other side of the river from Chadwick’s Landing, also had two stores and a gristmill.
Stump liquor was not in short supply at either place.
Behind the young lady, salted spots hang on nails in a cabin wall. The fishermen first headed, split, gutted and lightly salted the fish. Then they hung them to dry in the sun and wind: it was an ancient and much favored way to preserve fish without having to salt them so heavily as when they packed them in brine. Buck Gillikin, the camp’s young cook, intended to fry these fish sometime soon.
Salt fish drying in the sun was once a common sight on the North Carolina coast, prior to the ready availability of ice and refrigeration. Fishermen’s families often laid the fish on the roofs or porches of their houses, at other times on makeshift benches in a sunny, unused room or, as here, pinned to the sides of homes or outbuildings. At Salter Path, mullet fisherman Norwood Frost told me that his mother-in-law used to hang salt fish from her clothesline.
The Back Story: The Woman in the Mickey Mouse Shirt
A couple years ago, I included this photograph in an exhibit of the Brown’s Island photographs at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. That exhibit later traveled to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island, N.C. At that time, I had failed to identify the young woman at Brown’s Island by name and I didn’t know anything about her background or her time on the island.
That was a shame, because everybody who saw her photograph wanted to know who she was and how she had come to be at Brown’s Island!
I soon discovered who she was however! Not long after the exhibit in Chapel Hill, I was a guest at an annual reunion of people whose family roots lay in several dispossessed communities in Onslow County, N.C.. The reunion included a big potluck dinner and, completely by accident, I ended up sitting next to the mystery woman in the Mickey Mouse shirt!
She had appeared in Charles A. Farrell’s photograph more than 75 years earlier!
A Lucky Meeting
Her full name was Sarah Elizabeth Turner Taylor (she went by Elizabeth) and, when I first met her, she was 99 years old. She and her daughter Betsy had come to the reunion from their home in the state’s piedmont.
Ms. Elizabeth was a little hard of hearing and no longer had the best eyesight, but neither her mind nor her taste for adventure had diminished from those days on Brown’s Island.
In the following months, she graciously shared her memories of Brown’s Island with me. Her daughter, Betsy Taylor Sergomassov, was also a tremendous help. She’s a talented amateur genealogist and has a first-rate historical mind, so she was able to fill in important parts of the story.
Here’s what I learned: Ms. Elizabeth was born in 1915 in Hubert, on the eastern side of Onslow County. She was the 2nd oldest of 11 children. Her mother and father were sharecroppers, and her father was also a blacksmith at a lumber mill in the Swansboro area.
When Elizabeth was growing up, her mother had not wanted her to work in the fields (except for tobacco harvest, when everybody worked in the fields or the barn!). Though she was not a big woman—she weighed 95 pounds when she married in 1939—Elizabeth often snuck into the fields and helped her brother Jack plow with a horse or mule.
“She liked to work and always had to be doing something,” Betsy said.
In 1938, when this photograph was taken, Elizabeth was 23 years old and living on her Aunt Sarah’s farm. The farm lay immediately across Browns Sound from the mullet fishermen’s island.
She had moved to her aunt’s farm 5 or 6 years earlier. Her aunt was widowed, and Elizabeth helped with her little boy and the farm chores.
The Belle of the Ball
Aunt Sarah often took her to picnics and dances. “She was heavily courted and pretty much the belle of the ball,” Betsy told me, speaking of her mother.
They often visited Brown’s Island. “Jack would take us or the boys would come get us,” Ms. Elizabeth explained. “All we had do was go down to Aunt Sarah’s landing and wave and someone would come get us.”
She recalled, in particular, that a mullet fisherman named Warren Gillikin often fetched them by bringing his boat over the salt marsh in front of her aunt’s landing on a high tide.
Ms. Elizabeth and Aunt Sarah beckoned the fishermen by waving a white handkerchief.
When they visited Brown’s Island, the women often helped the fishermen if they were busy at work. Ms. Elizabeth remembered “gilling” the fish—removing the gills and guts. She said she used a wooden peg and that the guts came out with the gills, so she didn’t find the job too messy or unpleasant.
One of Betsy’s other aunts, Lettie, even waded into the surf and helped the fishermen pull in their nets.
Whether the women cleaned fish or pulled in nets, the fishermen always offered them a share of the catch. Aunt Sarah carried a dishpan or a tow sack with her so that she could carry fish home.
Elizabeth never bothered. “Mama said she just did it for the fun of it anyway,” Betsy explained.
“He Took A Lot of Pictures That Day”
When I first met Ms. Elizabeth, when she was nearly 100 years old, she still remembered the day that Charles A. Farrell took her photograph on Brown’s Island. Several of her younger sisters had come with her that day, she recalled.
“They did not want to be in a picture but someone would grab Mother and bring her into a picture and she did not mind,” she later told Betsy.
Her mother also told Betsy, “He took a lot of pictures that day.”
Ms. Elizabeth married a handsome young fisherman from Courthouse Bay named Wiley Taylor in 1939. “Both of them poor but made a lovely couple,” Betsy wrote me awhile back. Before WWII, Wiley also worked on a snag boat, ran the ferry to Hurst (Onslow) Beach and did a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Wiley joined the Navy during the war. He eventually served overseas, but for a long time he was stationed at naval bases on more northern parts of the Eastern Seaboard.
Betsy wrote me: “When he could he sent for Mama & she stayed in the area. She worked in a little tearoom part time and the clientele called her `Dixie’ and many of them asked to sit at one of her tables. She made a lot of friends & still has pictures of a lot of them.”
Betsy also shared a nice memory from her parents’ courting days. I’m not sure if she heard it from her mother or her father or both, but I think it’s a good place to end our story:
“Daddy lived on Courthouse Bay and … courted Mama by boat. He liked to take her to visit people who did not have a wharf because he could anchor and wade ashore carrying her in his arms.”
What could be better than that?
Elizabeth Turner Taylor died on October 31, 2015, only 24 days shy of her 100th birthday.
Tomorrow– the last of our Brown’s Island photographs– Scavengers