Tarring the seine, Greenfield fishery, Chowan County, N.C., ca. 1905. Today I begin my weeklong look at one of the great fisheries in the history of North America—the shad and herring fisheries that flourished on the Albemarle Sound and its tributaries for more than two centuries.
This photograph is especially interesting because it shows an essential part of every shad and herring fishery, but one that we rarely see in surviving photographs. Not surprisingly, most historical photographs of the Albemarle fisheries feature exciting scenes of fishermen spreading great nets and hauling in tens or even hundreds of thousands of fish at a time.
We see a different side of the shad and herring fisheries here, though. It was also one that had changed little since the rise of the Albemarle’s herring fisheries in the 1740s.
In February, before the fishing hands and fish cutters moved into “the Quarters” at the fishing beach, a group of African American laborers came to Greenfield early and tarred the seine in order to preserve it from water rot. They then fitted the seine’s lines with cork floats and lead weights.
In this photograph, a brick fireplace encompasses a hardwood fire and supports an iron kettle. A long sapling, barely visible through the smoke, lies across the tarring vat and helps the four fishery workers guide the seine through the tar at a right angle.
The men are paying the seine out of a mule-driven, 2-wheeled farm cart of a kind that was distinctive to Chowan, Gates and 2 or 3 other counties on the north side of Albemarle Sound.
Typically the carts were 5 feet in length, 3 ft. wide and 2 ½ feet high, with wheels that were 5 ft high. In this era, other kinds of conveyances were a needless extravagance, and generally not as well-adapted to the region’s sandy and often sodden roads and paths. Wagons were uncommon in Chowan County, buggies almost unheard of. But nearly every farm had a cart like this one that was used for farm chores as well as for carrying loads, produce and passengers.
Ideal for carrying a seine, they made for a bumpy ride for passengers. The body of the cart rested on wooden axels or, by 1905, sometimes iron axels, and they never had springs.
In this photograph, the fishery workers are passing the net out of the cart and through the vat between two rollers. Another man sits on a mule, while he waits for the right moment to pull the tarred seine slowly away from the vat.
A worker squeezed excess tar out of the seine with a round-edged board as it was pulled through the vat. When done, the crew will drape the seine over a fence to dry.
A freshly-tarred seine was a sticky mess. When the net, lead and corks were hung, the seine was still sticky and hard to handle. When loading the seine for the season’s first hauls, the fishing hands layered the coiled line with pine straw to keep sections of rope from sticking together.
During the first couple weeks of the season, the fishermen often got their hands stuck in the tar, and they sometimes lost it overboard in globbed together sections. Needless to say, you could recognize a fisherman, no matter where he was, by the tar stains on his hands.
Tomorrow– Herring Week, Day 3– Rigging the Seine