The Night the Fish Factory Burned

I called the legendary folksinger and social activist Guy Carawan after I listened to his oral history interview at the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was in his 80s when I contacted him. (He has since passed away.) He was very generous with his time and he seemed to enjoy re-visiting his younger days.

He told me more about his trip to Mesic, the little village in Pamlico County, N.C. where his father grew up. He made that trip in the summer of 1953, along with two other folksingers, Frank Hamilton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

(I chronicled that journey in my last post, which was the 1st of a 4 part series—this is the 2nd part).

But Carawan also shared another story about that trip—an incident that happened when the three young men visited Beaufort, N.C.

Operation Dixie

The coastal town of Beaufort is close to where I grew up. As the crow flies, it’s maybe 50 miles south of Mesic.

According to Carawan, labor activists in Beaufort invited him and the two other folksingers to play for a big union picnic that was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon.

The town’s menhaden fishermen were on strike, and the union leaders believed that the picnic was a good way to keep up the fishermen’s morale.

Menhaden fishermen pulling their seine, Beaufort vicinity, ca. 1950.

Menhaden fishermen pulling their seine, Beaufort vicinity, ca. 1950. Photo courtesy, Steve Goodwin, Beaufort, N.C.

The union leaders in Beaufort had probably heard about Guy, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack being in the area from Pete Seeger.

Seeger’s band the Weavers had had a #1 hit with their version of Lead Belly’s “Good Night, Irene” only a few years earlier. But Seeger was also a deeply committed social activist and he had close ties to a Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) labor movement that was called “Operation Dixie.”

Largely due to violence, racial divisions and anti-union laws, North Carolina had always been a hard place for workers to organize labor unions. The CIO’s leaders hoped that Operation Dixie would make headway in unionizing workers in N.C. and in other hard-to-organize parts of the South.

During those years after the Second World War, Seeger often sang and played his guitar and banjo at union rallies.  I imagine he had told union leaders about Carawan and the group of young folksingers being on the North Carolina coast.

Carawan told me that Seeger had already visited the striking menhaden fishermen in Beaufort, before he, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack arrived.

I wrote Seeger about the menhaden fishermen’s strike in Beaufort. I got a lovely note back from him, and while he remembered being in the old fishing town, he didn’t recall many details.

Outside Agitators

Carawan told me that he, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack stayed in Beaufort at the home of one of the menhaden fishermen, a union organizer named John Ball.

When they arrived, Ball was apparently in New York City on union business until the next day, but they spent a comfortable night at his home with his wife and children. They played music with his family and neighbors while they were there.

The folksingers never got the chance to play at the union picnic, however. Early the next morning, union activists woke Guy, Frank and Ramblin’ Jack and told them that one of the local menhaden factories was burning.

That was the Phillips fish factory. It was on a tiny island at the mouth of the Newport River, which separates Beaufort and Morehead City. You can still see the factory’s ruins if you look north when you cross the tall concrete bridge over the river.

In 1953 the island was uninhabited, as it is today, and the factory had not yet opened for the fall fishing season, so the possibility of arson was in the air.

Tensions between the menhaden fishermen and the factory owners must have been high.

That morning in 1953, the union activists told the young folksingers that they had better get out of town quick or local authorities might blame them for the fire.

“Outside agitators,” they would have been called.

At that time, several menhaden factories operated in Beaufort and Morehead City. They were the heart of the state’s largest saltwater fishery, and they processed tons of the little fish (locally called “pogie” or “shad”) into fertilizer, fish oil, livestock feed and other uses. With the possible exception of the big sawmills on the west end of Morehead City, the menhaden fishery was the county’s largest industry.

At the urging of the union leaders, Guy Carawan and his two friends did not wait to find out if they were in trouble. They hit the road right away, driving west across Gallant’s Channel and passing over a causeway that was still crowded with hundreds of people standing by the salt marsh and watching the fish factory burn.

To be continued— next up: part 3—The menhaden fishermen’s strike 

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