A fish market crowded with fishermen, fish buyers and fishmongers at the bottom of Middle Street, on the Trent River waterfront, New Bern, N.C., circa 1905. A pair of fishermen in a sail skiff are culling their catch, while a boy, obscured by an older man, probably his father or an uncle, poles what is probably a log-built skiff around them.
A schooner is tied up next to the seafood cafe and, across the way, a 2-masted sharpie rests next to another wharf.
For half a century after the Civil War, New Bern was one of the largest fish markets on the Southern coast. An overly effusive correspondent for the Newbern Journal of Commerce went so far as to call it “one of the finest fish markets in the world.”
Even when economic activity in the rest of city was down in the dumps, the Middle Street fish market bustled.
In 1877, a depression year, a correspondent for another of the city’s newspapers, the Newbernian, observed how “its busy hum of trade gave a zest to life and was in striking contrast with the general dullness that elsewhere pervades our city.”
The city’s appetite for fresh fish was seemingly boundless. As early as 1866 a New Bern city directory listed 40 fish dealers, more than any other occupation.
The next year the city directory listed 12 fish stands, 3 oyster houses and 112 “hucksters” of unknown wares, the most prominent among them being the black men and women that sold fish and fish dinners at Middle Street stalls or hawked oysters and fresh fish in the city’s streets.
In 1880, one of the U.S. Fish Commission’s surveyors, R. Edward Earll, reported that the Middle Street market had 8 fish stalls and 4 or 5 fish peddlers. He said the market’s retail trade was “controlled wholly by negroes.”
He was struck especially at the local passion for fish not often highly esteemed elsewhere on the East Coast. Among those fish, he listed catfish, eels, sturgeon, perch, robins, large-mouthed black bass and needle-nose gar.
That last fish—needle-nose gar—was a species long favored by African Americans in New Bern, but was one that Earll had never seen previously in a fish market anywhere in the South or North.
There was a saying in New Bern, especially in hard times, “common as gar broth,” which gives some sense of how widely the fish was eaten in some quarters.
The most important pioneer in the town’s fresh fish trade was George N. Ives. He hailed originally from Fairhaven, Connecticut, which at that time was the center of the oyster industry on Long Island Sound and the second largest producer of oysters in the U.S., behind Baltimore.
Ives moved south to Beaufort, N.C., in 1874, after he was arrested for arson when his oyster keg and barrel factory in Fairhaven burned down. The circumstances of his release from jail are obscure.
In his new home, he is best remembered today for introducing New Haven-style oyster sharpies to Core Sound boat builders. The Core Sounders soon modified the design to their own ends and made it the classic Down East workboat, widely used for fishing, oystering and carrying freight.
The arrival of the sharpie was a landmark event on North Carolina’s coastal waters. However, George Ives’ most revolutionary innovation to the local fishing business was not the sharpie, but ice.
Ives introduced ice-making machinery to Morehead City in 1874, expanded to New Bern soon thereafter (and made his residence there as well) and in a very short time the wholesale business in fresh fish, preserved on ice, was booming.
By 1879 Ives operated a fleet of seven boats, used 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of ice a week and sent fresh fish far and wide.
The “shipping arrivals” section of local newspapers was soon announcing the appearance of fresh fish and shellfish at the Middle Street market from as far away as Hatteras Island and Core Sound. The seafood included dozens of saltwater fish species, as well as scallops, oysters, terrapins and sea turtles.
The seafood business did not yet include shrimp, soft shell crabs or hard crabs. Few local people ate them yet (other than the very poor), and they did not become important parts of the state’s seafood industry for another two or three decades after this photograph was taken.
On the Outer Banks and Core Sound, fishermen had previously been limited to the salt fish trade and oystering (because oysters, in cold weather, could be kept alive and fresh for a considerable time).
The availability of ice and a growing fleet of buy-boats (often powered by steam engines or, by 1910-ish, gasoline) opened the fresh fish trade to those remote shores for the first time.
With its railroads and regular steamer runs north, New Bern grew into the center of the fresh fish and oyster trade for all of the Pamlico Sound, as well as for the waters east and west of Beaufort.
By 1893 the New Berne Weekly Journal noted that, combined with its outlets in Morehead City, the city’s fish trade employed 2,000 men, used 20 tons of ice per day and required a half million feet of board lumber annually to make its fish boxes.
The new supply of saltwater fish at the Middle Street market also helped to keep the local cost for fish low and the local appetite for fresh fish high. On the 28thof April, 1877, for example, the schooner Sea Flower, Capt. B. Lewis, arrived at New Bern all the way from Core Sound with a load of 292 “large drum fish” weighing between 20 and 40 pounds each.
A local fish dealer, Benjamin O’Neal, purchased the lot and put them up for sale at only 25 cents each.
A later report, in 1893, noted that scores of peddlers also hawked oysters through New Bern’s residential streets. Apparently they would deliver them to your home, already shucked, for cheaper than you could buy them in the shell and shuck them yourself. All that was left was stewing, frying or making fritters out of them.
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SPECIAL THANKS. As always, when it comes to traditional boats, I look to Mike Alford for help in identifying the types of boats in historical photographs of maritime North Carolina and to deepen my understanding of their history, design and construction.
Mike assisted me with this photograph, and I am very grateful for that help.
Now retired, Mike was the first curator of maritime research and traditional workboats at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, N.C. Thanks again, Mike, for always answering my many calls and emails and being so generous about sharing what you know.
Mike and I have co-written a couple of articles recently on North Carolina’s traditional workboats. Those have appeared elsewhere on this blog, and you can find them here and here. We’re currently working on a third article, and we hope to have it out soon.