Oyster Shells, Hound Dogs & a Rooster– Sonny Williamson’s Tapes

One of my favorite of Sonny Williamson’s recordings is with a gentleman named Pritchard Lewis. Pritchard was born in Sea Level, N.C., in 1906, and Sonny talked with him in 1986. At that time, Sonny was obsessed with the history of the Core Sound sharpie, which was a popular, flat-bottomed workboat that had its heyday Down East roughly from 1875 to 1920.

Sonny was from Sea Level, too, and I think he was so interested in the old sharpies because he had fond memories of seeing them when he was young.  He had family who had sailed them.

In fact, as a young man, Sonny had gone commercial fishing with an old sharpie captain. The captain’s days aboard a sharpie were long past, but his stories captured Sonny’s imagination.

So in 1986 Sonny was visiting his oldest neighbors in the eastern part of Carteret County, N.C.—what we call Down East— and recording their memories of sharpies.

A Core Sound sharpie under sail, ca. 1890. Photo by Wirth Monroe. Originally published in Howard Chappelle's The Migrations of an American Boat Type (1961).

A Core Sound sharpie under sail, ca. 1890. Photo by Wirth Monroe. Originally published in Howard Chappelle’s The Migrations of an American Boat Type (1961)

That kind of historical research wasn’t new for Sonny, by the way. After his retirement from the Air Force, he had come home and written many books and articles about Down East life and history.

Around Down East, Sonny was famous—many would say notorious— as a storyteller, spinner of yarns and a fish house liar!

And he could tell a story, that’s for sure. But in secret, Sonny was also a very fine historian, and his memoir, Salt Spot for Breakfast, is one of my favorite accounts of Down East life.

Sonny passed away a few years ago, but his wife Jenny recently loaned me the cassette tapes on which he recorded his sharpie interviews. She plans to donate the tapes, by the way, to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center on Harkers Island.

Sonny’s interview with Pritchard Lewis was a lot like Sonny. It was funny, smart and all over the place!

Journeys Upriver

Sonny and Pritchard were quite a pair. They started out talking about sharpies, but they ended up trading funny stories and trying to one up one another. And the theme of the day was the futility of getting ahead in the old days.

Sonny and Jenny Williamson's "Mule Train" tours of Cape Lookout were an unforgettable experience. This is one of my Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill classes getting ready to set out on the Mule Train. Sonny is the man in the shorts and white visor, and I'm standing on the right. Photo courtesy of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

Sonny and Jenny Williamson’s “Mule Train” tours of Cape Lookout were an unforgettable experience. This is one of my Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill classes getting ready to set out on the Mule Train. Sonny is the man in the shorts and white visor, and I’m standing on the right. I’m guessing this was in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

Pritchard told Sonny, for instance, about his father and grandfather hauling oyster shells from Harkers Island to the Pamlico River. That was something that fishermen used to do in the fall.  Farmers upriver traded corn and other produce for the shells, which they burned down and used as slacked lime fertilizer in their fields and gardens.

But then one year, the farmers had a terrible crop. They probably didn’t have enough to pay their bills, much less trade for oyster shells. Pritchard’s father and grandfather sailed from wharf to wharf, and down along the river landings, and they couldn’t find anybody with whom they could strike a deal.

Needless to say, they grew increasingly frustrated. Loading all those oyster shells had not been easy, and they had traveled a long way from home.

Finally, the Lewises found a farmer willing to trade with them. But as Pritchard told it, all they got for the whole load of oyster shells was a hound dog and two gallons of homemade grape wine.

Pritchard’s dad told him that that’s just how hard it was in those days.

And, he added, the dog died of the mange and his grandfather drank all the wine on the way back home!

Another Hound Dog

Well, now we were off to the races. At Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill, they teach their history students not to get too personally involved in an oral history interview and stay focused on the person being interviewed.

That was not Sonny’s way. So after Pritchard told his story, Sonny told his own story about trading oyster shells.

As it happened, his story involved a hound dog, too. But no grape wine– in his story, the fishermen took their oyster shells upriver and all they got was a hound dog and a rooster!

Yaupon & Two White Geese

Then, when Sonny finished his story, Pritchard told another story about taking things upriver and trading them. But this time the story was about yaupon, not oyster shells.

Yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, is a species of holly that grows on the Outer Banks and other parts of the N.C. coast. The coastal Algonquians had used its dried leaves to make tea and as a purgative, and many coastal people still made yaupon tea well into the 20thcentury.

Sonny and Jenny Williamston sitting on the front porch step at the house where they first met in Sea Level, N.C. Photo by Chris Seward, Raleigh News & Observer

Sonny and Jenny Williamston sitting on the front porch step at the house where they first met in Sea Level, N.C. Photo by Chris Seward, Raleigh News & Observer

So Pritchard recalled his two uncles sailing to Hog Island and cutting a whole boatload of yaupon. Then they sailed all the way to Elizabeth City and looked for a farmer or a merchant with whom they could trade the yaupon for something worthwhile.

Once again, futility: Pritchard said they got two white geese out of the whole boatload!

Sonny and Pritchard didn’t stop there! Next was a story about hauling white potatoes up the Pamlico River, and so it went: one story after another and lots of laughing!  It was just a delight to listen to!

And out of it all, as always with Sonny, I could hear a whole world—and real historical truths—emerging through the tall tales, the half-truths and the funny stories.

“Professor,” Sonny used say—he always called me “Professor” —“don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story!”

And when he said that, he’d give me a little wink, if we were in front of other people, because we both knew that what Sonny really believed was that life was a good story and that, sometimes, all you can do is laugh.

* * *

            If you’re interesting in reading Sonny Williamson’s memoir Salt Spot for Breakfast or any of his other books, you can find them at the Core Sound Waterflowl Museum and Heritage Museum on Harkers Island and at the History Museum of Carteret County in Morehead City. You can get them at the museums’ gift shops or order them on line.

 

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