Avoca fishery, Albemarle Sound, 1877. Welcome back to Herring Week, my special series on the history of the great herring and shad fisheries on Albemarle Sound!
Up to now, we’ve been looking at the Greenfield fishery near Edenton, N.C. But today and tomorrow I’m going to focus on Avoca, in Bertie County, where teams of heavy draft horses helped to haul in the mile-long seine and tens of thousands of herring, shad and other fish.
In this photograph, you can see three horses inside one of two sheds used for housing capstans at Avoca. The horses are attached to wooden levers fixed into the capstan. By moving in circles around the capstan, they turned the device and hauled in one of the two warps (hauling lines) that brought the seine up onto the shore.
A capstan is a vertical-axeled rotating machine that, like so much at the Albemarle fisheries, was originally developed for ships at sea.
On sailing ships, capstans were built to multiply the power of sailors hauling ropes, cables and hawsers. Windlasses, also used at some Albemarle fisheries, basically functioned the same way, except they had horizontal axels, not vertical ones.
At least 10 hands can be seen in the shed, as well as a young girl. If you look close (or, like I did, with the help of a magnifying glass), you can just make out the warp reaching from the capstan all the way to the right and out of the scene. That unseen end of the warp runs to one end of the seine.
Two of the fishing hands are standing in the water between the shelter and one of the fishery’s two steam-powered fishing flats.
One of those men is helping to guide the warp cleanly toward the capstan in the shelter. The other is guiding the warp back out of the shelter (after it has run through the capstan) and toward the fishing flat, where another fisherman stands on the paddlewheel housing at the stern of the boat and coils up the warp to get ready for the next haul.
At the fishing flat’s bow, another group of fishermen are taking up the seine. At Avoca the seine was somewhere between 2,400 and 2,750 yards in length and 30 feet deep.
The date of this group of Avoca photographs is 1877, more than 25 years prior to the date of the Greenfield fishery photographs that I featured in my first 6 posts in this series. As a result, we can see some aspects of the Albemarle Sound fisheries in these photographs from Avoca that had faded away by the turn of the 20th century.
An obvious difference is the horses. By 1905, we saw no reliance at all on horse or mule power at Greenfield. Steam engines did all the heavy lifting at the Albemarle fisheries by that date.
At the time of this photograph, William Rhodes Capehart, Avoca’s owner, had actually just converted the fishery to steam power. However, he continued to use horses and capstans at one crucial juncture in a haul—the moment when the seine was too far out for the shore hands to wade into the water and bring it in, yet so close to shore that the net tended to snag or drift out of kilter if not pulled shoreward with a great deal of force.
At those times, the fishermen wanted a more delicate way to pause and move forward again than steam engines. That kind of pausing, by the way, is what I think is happening in this photograph.
Lee Bumgarner, of the North Carolina Maritime Museum, interviewed W. R. Capehart’s grandson, Col. William C. Capehart, about the herring and shad fishery at Avoca in 1988. At that time, Col. Capehart recalled Avoca fishing flats named the Albemarle, Chowan, Avoca, Merry Waves, Diamond C. and Diamond A. The latter two names were also the brand names used on fish boxes packed at Avoca.
Col. Capehart recalled the Chowan and Albemarle as being 52 feet long, made by local boat builders out of juniper (white cedar) or cypress, and powered by 15-horsepower steam engines.
He also recalled that the Capeharts always bought their seine hauling lines—the warps—from the Plymouth Cordage Company in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had started buying them from the company in 1823, and they continued to do so into the 20th century.
The net webbing was made out of cotton twine and was purchased from the American Net & Twine Company, in East Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Founded in 1842, that company was the first machine manufacturer of American fishing nets. Before that time, the country’s fishermen used nets handmade almost entirely out of hemp twines imported from England.
Col. Capehart estimated that Avoca’s seine menders replaced as much as a third of the seine and rope every year due to general wear and tear.
The Norfolk Iron Works, in Norfolk, Virginia, built Avoca’s steam engines, compact boiler/engine installations direct coupled to the paddlewheel axle. The boats had both a small rudder on the stern and a bow sweep that you can see in the photograph at the top of this page.
According to Col. Capehart, the bow sweep was necessary for the kind of sudden turns made while hauling in the seine. The bow sweeps were manned, he said, by “strong young lads.”
Col. Capehart recalled that a fishing flat called the Merry Waves was always a favorite at Avoca because it was the fastest boat in races held at season’s end among all the fishing flats that worked on Albemarle Sound and its tributaries.
The Avoca fishery flourished for more than a century, and it’s hard to describe how much a part of local life in eastern Bertie County it was during that time. The Capeharts adapted to the great social transformation that accompanied the Civil War, a spate of new technologies and a gradual diminishment of their catches, but eventually times changed too much even for a family as nimble as theirs.
W.R. Capehart’s son converted the fishery from steam to gasoline power after the First World War. That son lost the Avoca plantation and fishery in the stock market crash in 1929, marking the end of generations of Capehart ownership.
The last season for the seine fishery, under its new ownership, was 1937. When Avoca closed, it was the last of the approximately 60 seine fisheries that had once flourished on the Albemarle Sound and its tributaries.
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This is Easter Saturday and I wish you all a happy Easter! Yesterday here I talked about herring’s traditional role in Passover seders, at least for some Jews– today I want to mention a very different kind of starring role for herring that used to be common on Easter Saturday in Ireland– “whipping the herring,” it was called.
Apparently many Irish Catholics grew so weary of abstaining from red meat and eating fish (which mainly meant herring) during Lent, as traditional Catholics were called to do, that after the 40 days of Lent they had a strong urge to beat, drown or otherwise pulverize at least one herring!
And they did so, in community processions in little villages and towns all over Ireland! Often a herring was tied to the top of a pole and carried through a village, then ceremoniously whipped or tossed in a lake and “drowned.”
Apparently butchers often led these processions. With its discouragement of eating red meat, Lent was none too good on their pocketbooks.
“Whipping the herring” on Good Saturday reminds us that many, many different kinds of people would have been eating the herring caught on the Albemarle Sound. Especially during Lent, many Irish, Italian, and other Catholic immigrants in the U.S. would have certainly partaken of North Carolina herring at some point.
Tomorrow– Herring Week, Day 8– Singing on a Moonlit Night