A final memory. I will never forget a day that I stood on a bluff over the Chowan River and talked with an old gentleman that used to be the head of the cannery room at the Perry-Wynns Fish Company in Colerain.
Like Avoca (one of the old seine fisheries that I’ve featured in this special series), Colerain is in Bertie County, North Carolina.
Perry-Wynns was the last herring cannery on the North Carolina coast. As late as the 1960s, the company was still the largest single freshwater herring producer in the U.S.
Catches had declined steadily since the Civil War. Prior to the Second World War, the decline was probably due to overfishing on Albemarle Sound and its tributaries and to the damming of rivers and creeks that prevented the fish from reaching their spawning grounds.
After the Second World War, other factors came into play. One was overfishing by foreign factory trawlers, which caught the fish while they were still in the Atlantic.
A decline in water quality was also important. That decline was due to industrial pollution, urban wastewater drainage and agricultural run-off.
The size of the schools of herring and shad diminished, but their arrival on Albemarle Sound was still a very big event into the 1980s.
A further steep decline in catches occurred in the 1990s, however. And when hurricane Isabel washed away 9 of the Perry-Wynns Fish Company’s 11 buildings in 2003, the last herring cannery went out of business.
One or two gangs of fishermen continued to haul seine for herring every spring on the Chowan River. Then the state banned the catching of any river herring at all. Fishery regulators hoped that the ban would help re-establish fishing stocks, but of course the ban put the final handful of fishermen out of business.
So I remember standing on that bluff above the Chowan River with that older gentleman who had been head of Perry-Wynns’ herring cannery room. He had done that job for more than 50 years. When I visited him, he was in his 80s, but still hale and hearty.
Looking away from the river, he swept his hand across the horizon and pointed toward great fields of corn, soybeans and tobacco. He told me that, when he was young, 30 or 40 tenant families lived on that farmland.
And, he added, every one of those families had worked in the cannery or on the river during the big runs of herring.
Nobody lived on that land now, he said, and it was the same all over the Chowan River and the Albemarle Sound, too.
He didn’t mind admitting, he told me, that sometimes he felt a little lonely, remembering all those families, and now seeing how few people still lived in Colerain, and how nearly all the shops had closed.
The herring and the people vanished, the same way they did along the shores where Avoca’s fishing hands and Greenfield’s fishing hands once caught hundreds of thousands of fish every spring.
Times have changed. But around Albemarle Sound, old timers still wake up in the morning this time of year with a craving for herring.
Many still go down to the Cypress Grill in Jamesville to get their fix, even though these days the last of the old herring shacks serves herring from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Or they go to a host of other small town diners and ‘cue joints that fry up herring and/or its roe on a more occasional basis. I’m thinking of places like Big Bob’s in Hertford, Oscar’s in Roanoke Rapids or the Heritage House in Windsor.
Or, if they’re up in the Triangle, they can’t do any better than going to Ricky Moore’s Salt Box in Durham.
Of course, we all know that nostalgia for the great fisheries of the past won’t get any of us a big plate of fresh fried North Carolina herring! That will require us all to commit to cleaning up our rivers and sounds.
It will probably also require supporting the removal of some more of our outdated dams and other obstacles that impede the fish’s migratory runs, as well of course as some sensible fishery regulations.
But my mother and father raised a dreamer and I can’t help believing: maybe one day we’ll all be sitting down together by the shore.
We will have cleaned up our coastal waters and worked out a way to preserve the fishing stocks so that hardworking fishermen and women can make a decent living.
We’ll be watching crowds of herring fishermen in their boats, and we’ll have big fires going so we can fry the fish over an open pit.
We’ll save the best seats for the fishermen and women, and for the ladies and gentlemen who gut them and fry them up. And of course we’ll let them relax while we clean up and do the dishes!
We’ll eat fried herring to our hearts’ content! And we’ll give praise to God for creating an Earth where the fish run so abundantly! And we’ll pledge ourselves to revel in that Creation and appreciate that gift and never to take it for granted again.
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Special thanks again to Rebecca Warren and Frances Inglis for making their family’s photographs of the Greenfield fishery available to me and to the general public! The notes of their mother, Mrs. Rebecca B. Wood Drane, were absolutely indispensible to my research.
As I mentioned earlier, the Greenfield fishery photographs can be found both at the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the State Archives of North Carolina.
The photographs are especially easy to access at the State Archives’ flickr site!
I also want to thank Lee Bumgarner, formerly with the N.C. Maritime Museum, for his wonderful 1988 interview with perhaps the last member of the Capehart family that had a firsthand memory of the fishery’s heyday.
I would also like to thank the archivists at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill for their assistance when I was using the Greenfield fishery records in the Hayes Collection.
A number of published books and articles were also very helpful. I would especially like to mention Warren Scott Boyce’s Economic and Social History of Chowan County, North Carolina, 1880-1915; John G. Zehmer’s Hayes: The Plantation, Its People, and Their Papers; and Arthur Gilman, ed., The Cambridge of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety Six: A Picture of the City and Its Industries Fifty Years after its Incorporation.
I’d also like to acknowledge my debt to Edward Wood’s “Letter from the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries” (1878); Frank Stephenson’s Herring Fishermen; Samuel Elliot Morrison’s The Rope Makers of Plymouth: A History of the Plymouth Cordage Company; and Mattie Erma Parker’s entry on “Seth Sothel” in Ncpedia.
I’d like to make special mention, too, of the following journal article: Mary Maillard, ““Faithfully Drawn from Real Life:” Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends”, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 137.3 (2013): 261–300.
If you’d like to learn more about the great shad and herring fisheries and their part in African American maritime culture before the Civil War, you might want to check out my book, The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina.
In addition, you can find a whole host of excellent reading material on the local herring fisheries at The Cultivator, a very special non-profit bookshop in Murfreesboro, another Chowan River town where herring was once king.
You can visit the bookshop at 301 E. Main St. in Murfreesboro, check out their Facebook page here or order many great books on the fisheries and other interesting topics in northeastern N.C. at their web site here.
Finally, thanks so much to all of you who sent me stories about herring and shad fishing in eastern N.C. over the last couple of weeks– I learned something from every one of those stories, and they all enthralled me!
Keep them coming! I’m planning on another “Herring Week” next year! This time I’ll focus on the herring and shad fisheries on the Roanoke, Chowan and other rivers in the 1930s!