Not long ago, I explored a wonderful collection of oral history interviews in Swansboro, N.C. In 2009 a group of a dozen volunteers from the Swansboro Historical Association underwent a special training in oral history research. Once completed, they interviewed some of the coastal town’s oldest residents and recorded their stories about Swansboro’s history in the early to mid-20th century.
I grew up 30 miles from Swansboro and I’ve always enjoyed stopping for a bite to eat there and walking among the historic homes, but I never really knew very much about the town’s history.
I thought that the SHA’s oral history interviews might be a good way to start learning more.
An Old Church & a Cat Named Ashes
When I visited Swansboro to look at the oral history interviews, the SHA didn’t yet have its own space. So Amelia Dees-Killette, one of the group’s guiding lights, arranged for me to read the interviews in Swansboro’s old Baptist church.
The congregation had long ago moved into a new building, and one of the SHA’s other members was turning the space into a small business, a wedding and special events venue.
(Recently the SHA opened the Swansboro Area Heritage Center in a lovely old school building on Church Street. It’s one of my favorite sites for exploring N.C.’s coastal history.)
The old church was a lovely place. Coming in the tall windows, the morning sun filled the building with light.
I also had the company of the old church’s new cat, Ashes. My hostess told me that she was named “Ashes” because she was a refugee from a big wildfire in the Croatan National Forest a month earlier. She was very cute, except when she sat on my laptop’s keys.
Nothing but Fish Houses
As I read the SHA’s oral history interviews, I began to see an older Swansboro in my mind. Instead of the modern waterfront, which is lined with gift shops and antique stores, I saw fish packinghouses. Instead of pleasure boats, shrimp trawlers and fishing boats crowded the docks.
“The whole waterfront…was nothing but fish houses,” Elbert Benton, one of the SHA’s interviewees, recalled of his youth. He was born in 1923.
To my great pleasure, I learned that his father had once been the minister at the Baptist church where I was reading his interview.
Fish houses have always needed a great deal of ice, and I also discovered that the Icehouse Restaurant, which sits on pilings over the White Oak River, really was an icehouse when Mr. Benton and his peers were young.
At that icehouse, young boys once shaved 300 lb blocks of ice with a rake that looked like a shark’s jaw.
At the Codfish Ball
As I continued reading the interviews, all the shops on the waterfront changed: Yana’s Restaurant became Fred Bell’s drugstore and soda fountain. Across the street, a restaurant’s parking lot turned back into the Tarrymore Hotel, which was once famous for hosting big dances on its front porch.
Reading the oral histories, I could also see a dance hall called the Codfish Ball. Named after a popular 1930s song made famous by Shirley Temple, the dance hall must have been very popular—it came up again and again in people’s stories.
In the 1936 movie, “Captain January,” Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen do a pretty unforgettable song and dance to a whimsical tune called “At the Codfish Ball.” The movie is about a lighthouse keeper and a foundling that he rescues from the sea as a baby. Of course, an evil truant officer wants to take the child away from him, but you can count on a happy ending in a Shirley Temple movie!
As I read further, the old building where I was working became a Baptist church once more, and the town’s police department became the Methodist church. Town hall’s parking lot became a local family’s chicken pen.
In my mind, the paving came off the town’s roads. A bridge no longer spanned the White Oak River. And I could see again the town gate, with the sign that for so many years said no black people were allowed inside the town limits after dark.
As I listened further, I discovered something else in the most distant memories of the people who spoke with the SHA’s volunteers: hulking sawmills, tall stacks of drying wood, a long pier with a railroad trestle and steam vessels laden with lumber.
That was the section of town called Smoky Hollow. In the 1700s and early 1800s, Swansboro had been a seaport, a center for shipping naval stores and cotton, and a base for legendary privateers during the War of 1812.
That had changed by the end of the 19th century. And by the earliest part of the 20th century, when the oldest of the SHA’s interviewees were small children, Swansboro was above all a lumber mill town.
At the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th century, the town’s mills used up the forests of the White Oak River Basin. Smoky Hollow was where the largest of the old mills had stood.
In search of lumber mill jobs, country people had left farms and moved into Swansboro. That was happening all over coastal N.C. between approximately 1880 and 1920: a mass movement of people from the countryside into timber camps and lumber boomtowns.
For many it was their first taste of town life. In the mills, they discovered a new world of steam engines and heavy machinery, and also a new kind of work life with factory whistles and time clocks.
By the 1930s, the old forests were mostly gone, and the lumber business had largely left Swansboro and the rest of the N.C. coast. The remains of the local lumber mills and their wharves still stood on the waterfront, though, at least until hurricane Hazel and the modern marinas got built.
Ten Nights in a Bar-Room
In the SHA interviews, several of Swansboro’s oldest citizens reminisced about the James Adams Floating Theatre. In the early 20th century, the famous showboat toured ports along the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas.
Judging from the SHA’s interviews, the arrival of the showboat’s troupe of actors and singers in Swansboro was always a big event.
In her interview, a Swansboro resident named Mary Keitzman exclaimed, “Oh gosh, it was thrilling… [and] so exciting to go down there with a real theater! With actors! And musicians!”
Amelia Dees-Killette’s mother, Rosemary Dees, attended the shows, too. Amelia was one of the SHA volunteers that interviewed Ms. Keitzman.
During their visit, Amelia recalled that her mother never forgot a performance of a play called “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I saw There.”
Based on one of the most popular novels of the Victorian Era, the showboat’s play was a tragic tale of alcohol’s evils, and how it destroys families. Amelia’s mother told her that the show was “heart wrenching” and “very, very sad.”
“She loved it, too,” Amelia added.
The Funeral Singer & the Sunbeams
I found this very comforting: when the SHA’s volunteers asked Swansboro’s oldest residents about the town’s history, most recalled the people who gave them guidance and support during their childhoods.
In her interview, for instance, Betty Ann Rawls fondly recalled a glee club teacher that had been an important mentor to her.
That teacher had got her started in singing, which became an important, lifelong form of artistic expression for her. Perhaps even more importantly, the teacher had helped her to gain a confidence in herself that she then carried into the rest of her life.
Ms. Rawls began singing at local funerals when she was 12 or 13 years old. Only half-kidding, she said that she had sung at every one of the town’s funerals over the last half century.
Of course, she sang at plenty of weddings and football games, too.
Another one of the women interviewed, Amelia’s mother, Rosemary Dees, fondly remembered a local lady named Pearl Carney. She was the leader of the Sunbeams, a youth group at the Missionary Baptist church.
“I think of her often and how dedicated she was, and how good she was with children,” Dees mused.
A Doctor’s Bill
Another Swansboro resident, Patsy Corbett Avery, lingered over her father’s memory. When she was a child, Dr. Corbett was the town’s only physician. As she remembered it, cars and trucks constantly were racing into her family’s driveway. Day and night, frantic people pounded on her family’s front door, and a minute later she watched her father drive off with them— to a wreck, to a mother’s childbed, to a drowned boy.
Many a time, Dr. Corbett rowed across the river, even on the coldest winter nights, so that he could be at a mother’s bedside.
Ms. Avery said that times were hard back then, and a lot of families didn’t have any money to pay her father.
She recalled how one worried father-to-be fetched her dad in the middle of the night and drove him far into the country to his wife in labor.
It was an especially long and arduous delivery, finishing at dawn with the birth of a healthy baby. Ms. Avery said that the grateful family paid her father with a watermelon.
He did not complain, she said, because he knew it was all they had.
* * *
Where the Boats were Coming In
One of the Swansboro Historical Association’s oral histories that I found most unforgettable was Bob Shuller’s interview with Jessie Littleton, a local commercial fisherman.
Mr. Littleton wasn’t as old as some of the SHA’s other interviewees, but his words made the waterfront of his youth come to life in a way that I have rarely seen or heard.
Born in 1941, he came from a long line of fishermen. His family had been in the fishing business for at least four generations. He recalled that his great-grandfather, George Littleton, had fished and farmed on Huggins Island, which is just south of Swansboro, at the mouth of the White Oak.
Working on the water seems to have been in Jessie’s blood. From the age of five, he had felt the waterfront’s pull.
“There was a white picket fence around our house,” he reminisced. “I could go the far end of the fence, [where] hopefully Mother didn’t see me!
“I can hear Mother hollering at me, `Don’t you leave this yard! Your father is going to hear about this!’ And over the fence I would go and down to the dock where the boats were coming in and going out….
“I would head to the river shore every day faithfully, day in and day out,” he confessed.
Jessie was only 6 or 7 years old when he began to make a little money on the waterfront. His first job was bailing water out of fishing skiffs.
“We didn’t have automatic bailers back then for the skiffs,” he said. “I got 15 cent apiece to bail skiffs out.”
Early in the morning, he also walked along the shore with his dad and collected fiddler crabs. Fishermen often wanted them for bait.
“There were thousands of sand fiddlers out on the shore, and I could scoop up a Dixie Cup full and get 15 cents,” Jessie exulted, as he snapped his fingers. “I would make a dollar and five or a dollar and a quarter picking up sand fiddlers by the handful.”
From an early age, he started peeling shrimp at the local fish houses, too. “When the shrimp boats came in, I got two cent a pound to head the shrimp, which was big money.”
At the time, he felt rich. He bought ice cream cones for a nickel, a Tarzan comic book for a dime and saw shows at Dave Wade’s theater for 15 cents.
As he got a little older, Jessie often worked for a fish house next door to his father’s fish house. Lee Jones owned the fish house, and Jones eventually put Jessie in charge of heading shrimp when the boats came in.
That gave Jessie the authority to decide how many peelers they needed that day. He’d eye the day’s catch, and then pick which, and how many, of the local boys could make a few dollars.
The shrimp heading room became Jessie’s kingdom, where he recruited shrimp headers and peelers and made sure the work got done.
“I made some enemies from day to day because, depending on the pile, if it was a big catch, a 1,000 or 1,500 pound, I’d let everybody head,” he recalled.
“But if it was just a few, we narrowed the headers down so we could, honestly, split with less people.”
On at least one occasion, he charged a boy 50 cents for the privilege of heading shrimp.
Vienna Sausages & Saltine Crackers
A child’s life on Swansboro’s waterfront was not all work and no play: for Jessie and his friends, the White Oak River and the islands between Swansboro and the Atlantic were also a never-ending adventure.
Before they were even 10 years old, they’d take a skiff and row toward the sea on their own, not an adult anywhere nearby. Sometimes they’d stop and make camp on Huggins Island.
Other times they’d row all the way to Bear Island, one of the most beautiful places in the world to me. (Both islands are now part of Hammocks Beach State Park.)
“We would camp out for a week, ten days,” Jessie recollected.
On the islands, they hunted cedar waxwings, swam to their hearts’ delight, fished in the surf and picked big handfuls of wild berries.
When they didn’t find enough to eat, they fell back on provisions that they had carried with them.
“We knew what potted meat, Vienna sausages and Saltine crackers were,” Jessie laughed.
When Jessie was young, Swansboro’s young people frequently worked on tobacco or cotton farms outside town during the summer. One of the other SHA interviewees, Betty Ann Rawls, recalled that the town’s young women nearly all worked in the fields or in the barn during the tobacco harvest, and some of the boys did, too.
Farm work was not for Jessie and his waterfront buddies, though. They did not take well to picking cotton or cropping tobacco. “None of us worked tobacco to speak of,” Jessie remarked, saying it as if he was referring to two different species of human beings, farmers and fishermen.
“I think we tried it one day and we said we wouldn’t go back…. It just wasn’t any fun. It was too hot, and the flies in the fields, when we could be right down on the waterfront.”
Before long, he was commercial fishing instead. By the time Jessie was 12 or 13, he had begun serving as mate on one of his uncles’ fishing boats. At night, after a day of fishing or shrimp trawling, he made a little extra money by gigging flounders along the river shore.
“I’ve been right there on Front Street, right there in the marsh grass and water. I used to take a 2-battery flashlight and go walk along the shore with an ice pick, and I could gig flounders….”
“I think we got 20 cent a pound,” he went on. “And if that isn’t easy money!”
Packing Fish All Night
As a boy, Jessie also worked at this father’s fish house. His father, Fitzhugh Littleton, always needed extra help. By the age of 12 or 13, Jessie was a valuable part of his dad’s crew: he could run the fish house’s ice grinder, unload boats, and wash and pack fish in boxes.
“Some nights we’d work all night packing fish,” he recalled, “…. and Daddy paid good.”
At his father’s fish house, he and his teenage friends loaded boxes of fish on tractor-trailers bound for wholesale markets as far away as the Fulton Fish Market in New York City.
When they worked all night, his father treated them to hot dogs and hamburgers at Fred Bell’s drugstore and soda shop, where Yana’s Restaurant is now.
“We would crawl in,” Jessie said, mirthfully. His dad, he continued, would “order 20 hot dogs and 20 cheeseburgers or hamburgers.”
That was the beginning of Jessie Littleton’s life as a commercial fisherman and crabber. In his interview, he acknowledged it wasn’t an easy life and maybe wasn’t for everybody.
But he also didn’t seem to have any regrets.
“It’ll make a man out of you,” he said.
* * *
Another striking theme in the SHA’s oral history collection is of course the killing of Cy Jones and its tragic aftermath in August of 1922.
I’ll be writing about that incident again later this year, as part of a 10-part series called “The Color of Water.” That series will focus on Swansboro and many other “sundown towns” on the N.C. coast that were off limits to African Americans after dark for most of the 20th century.
That series will also look at the dispossession of black families from large swaths of the N.C. coast beginning in the late 19th century.
In Swansboro, the “no blacks after dark” rule originated with the murder of a white man named Cy Jones. Four young black men went to trial for the murder, and one of them, a 15 year old, Willie Hardison, was sent to the electric chair. The other three got life sentences that were later commuted.
Hardison’s confession came after a group of white vigilantes used what the Sun-Journal, in New Bern, called “third degree methods.”
The Sun-Journal and another New Bern newspaper, the Newbernian, also reported that the vigilantes visited a black leader named Baynor Blackwell and lynched him.
Blackwell was the brother-in-law of two of the young men arrested for Cy Jones’ murder.
Blackwell’s lynching, while very possible, is not certain. Later reports claimed that the vigilantes only drove him out of town.
By all accounts, Blackwell was never seen in Swansboro again.
The murder and the rumors of a lynching—and the perception among many white citizens that their black neighbors would seek revenge– led to widespread white panic at the time.
Dizzy with fear, local white people came to believe that a mob of local black men intended to retaliate against them.
A panic ensued, one that, as I listened to the SHA’s interviews, reminded me of other times in Onslow County’s history, such as the slave conspiracy of 1821 that I wrote about in my last post.
Among the people interviewed by the SHA’s volunteers, Margie Condor seemed to remember that night best. At the very least, she was the one most willing to discuss the subject.
She was born on Walnut Street, the daughter of a homemaker-mother and a father who was a master carpenter and boat builder. In her interview, Mrs. Condor fondly described her childhood. She told stories about oystering with her father, dances at the Codfish Ball and sailing to the islands at the mouth of the White Oak River for May Day picnics.
Mrs. Condor also had a very clear recollection of the night that Cy Jones was murdered and the vigilantes struck. Some of the people interviewed by the SHA’s volunteers were too young to remember the incident. Others acted embarrassed to say much about it.
Not Mrs. Condor. “I remember the night it happened,” she stated, in an unflinching, matter-of-fact tone. She had not been privy to the details of the murder and lynching at the time, but she certainly remembered their aftermath.
“The news came out that [ black men] were coming in town and take Swansboro over,” she said.
The white response was swift. “[White] people were coming from the Coast Guard station with guns and swords, and [white] people around town would get their guns out,” she recounted.
“Uncle Dan gave my father a gun…,” she said. Fear gripped the white townspeople. “Oh yeah, we were scared,” she recalled.
Many of her neighbors left their homes that night. Some took shelter with white families in houses that they thought could be more easily defended. One family, for instance, slept that night at Amelia Dees-Killette’s family’s house.
Another local man loaded his wife and children on his fishing boat and took refuge on one of the islands in the White Oak River.
Ms. Condor’s moral stance on the night and its aftermath was clear: “Oh, it was just awful the way they did,” she said, referring to the white vigilantes.
In some ways, I gathered, she thought that what came later, after passions had died down, was even worse. “And then,” she lamented, “they said… they weren’t going to allow any more [blacks] to come in town at all.”
At first, the white vigilantes may have only intended to keep African Americans out of town at night for a few days. I’m not sure anybody knows. But days became weeks, and weeks became years, and years became decades.
Another of the SHA’s interviewees, Betty Ann Rawls (our delightful funeral singer), was born in 1941, long after Cy Jones’ murder and its aftermath. But Mrs. Rawls insisted that the town’s attitude toward their African American neighbors had not changed when she was young. No blacks lived in the town limits, and none had ventured into town after dark for decades.
According to Mrs. Rawls, few blacks even visited the town during daylight when she was a girl. “You hardly ever saw a black person in town when I was growing up,” she said.
* * *
When I finished reading all the interview transcripts, I said goodbye to my very kind hostess at the old church and rubbed Ashes’ whiskers a last time. Then I walked out again into Swansboro’s streets.
I found it strange how different the town looked. I walked down to the waterfront, thinking about that shameful town gate, but also everything else I had read about: the girls in the tobacco fields, the young boys peeling shrimp at the fish houses, the country people discovering a new age of steam power and factory life in Smoky Hollow’s mills.
I thought about the waters rising during hurricane Hazel. I thought about the lads camping out at Huggins Island, so full of joy at being by themselves on a big adventure.
I thought about the dances at the Codfish Ball, and I thought about the thrill of seeing shows at the James Adams Floating Theatre.
I imagined the Sunbeams gathered around a piano singing. The children must have felt a deep sense of security and happiness from being under the loving tutelage of a Sunday school teacher like Pearl Carney.
I remembered, too, Mrs. Rawls singing at all those funerals: she had a lovely voice, but she must have had a consoling way, too. I don’t think she could have brought so much comfort to the grieving for all those years if she hadn’t.
As I walked up the hill to where my car was parked, next to the old cemetery, I carried all those memories with me.
The Swansboro Historical Association’s oral histories are a wonder, a treasure that will only come to mean more as the years pass.