Carrying Cornmeal Home—Photographs from the New River in the 1930s #1

Marines, N.C., circa 1937. Photograph by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Marines, N.C., circa 1937. Photograph by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

In honor of Ginny Midgett Richardson, Sneads Ferry, N.C.

Poet, songwriter, fisherman’s daughter, friend

on the occasion of her 95th birthday

“One of my earliest memories is of the river. Yes, the river which has always run through my life until it will always remain a part of me.”

 — Ginny Richardson, Memory as a River

In this photograph, we see a trio of fishermen carrying bags of cornmeal to the landing at Marines, a village in Onslow County, N.C., circa 1937. Behind them we can see the New River and gill nets drying on spreads. To the left, we can see a dory and the old oak that marked the landing. At least two of the men are part of the Midgett family. They came across the river from Sneads Ferry, a village on the west side of the river, and they are headed home.

This is before the Second World War, when the War Department would confiscate this landing and thousands of other acres on the east side of the New River. The whole region became part of Camp Lejeune. In 1941, the village of Marines disappeared almost overnight.

This was a common scene before the war. Marines had the only gristmill on the lower part of the New River and people from Sneads Ferry often brought their corn across the river to have it ground into meal.

A jack-of-all-trades named Ollie Marine owned the gristmill. In addition to being a part-time miller, Marine was the proprietor of a general store, a blacksmith, a farmer and a fisherman.

The mill was located under a lean-to next to his store, which was one of two in the village. The store stood a hundred yards or so inland of this landing. An old automobile engine powered the mill.

* * *

Marines and Sneads Ferry were both remote villages where most families made a living out of the river. A short ways to the south, the river flowed into the Atlantic Ocean, but local fishermen tended to work on the river, not the sea.

In a brief note on the back of this photograph’s original print, the photographer, Charles A. Farrell, noted, “The two villages are not always on the best of terms, but the [people in Sneads Ferry] must cross the water to have their corn ground.”

The villagers also crossed the river for other reasons, including going to dance halls.  At Mill Creek (part of Sneads Ferry), a man named Arthur Everett ran a rough-and-tumble, fight-every-Saturday-night dance hall that, by all accounts, the young people on both sides of the river found irresistible.

In addition, a fellow named Joe Wilson operated a popular dance hall in Gillett, a neighborhood just up the river from Sneads Ferry.

“People would come from across the river to dance (and fight) at that one, too,” Betsy Taylor Sergomassov, whose parents grew up on the river, told me not long ago.

* * *

Two years ago, I visited 93-year-old Ginny Richardson at her home in Sneads Ferry. (She just had her 95th birthday, but she was 93 then.) When I showed her the old photograph above, she immediately recognized the man on the left as her grandfather, Louis L. Midgett.

Virginia "Ginny" Midgett Richardson at a lecture that I gave in Sneads Ferry a couple years ago. Photo by David Cecelski

Virginia “Ginny” Midgett Richardson at a lecture that I gave in Sneads Ferry a couple years ago. Photo by David Cecelski

Her grandfather Midgett—she called him Pappy— always had a cornfield at his home in Sneads Ferry.  Ginny recalled that “what we didn’t eat fresh during the summer, he would store in a crib until it was completely dry, then shell it and have meal for cornbread made from it.“

In a lovely memoir called Memory as a River (written roughly 10 years ago), Ginny described how her grandfather “would row his boat over [to Marines] with the corn and come home with bags of cornmeal.”

She was not as confident of the other two men’s identity, but she believed that the man on the right was likely her father’s brother, Joe Midgett. She thought the young man in the middle resembled one of her Aunt Bessie Batt’s sons, perhaps Clifton or Rufus.

* * *

In Memory as a River, I found a number of passages in which Ginny recalled details about her grandfather and life on the New River in the era that this photograph was taken.

In relating her life story and her memories of growing up on the New River, she explained that her grandfather made his living as a fisherman and usually sold his catch at Andrew Canady’s fish house in Sneads Ferry.

He had his cornfield, too, and he always raised hogs. When Ginny was a child in the 1920s and ‘30s, times were hard. They had plenty of fish to eat, but not much meat. She remembered that her grandfather’s hogs often provided the only meat they had all winter.

“We were about as poor in worldly goods as any family could be, but we had so much love, we children didn’t really realize back then how hard it was for our parents,” she wrote.

At times, her grandfather and her father would fish and oyster close to home, but at other times they were gone most of the week.

“My dad and grandfather, along with many others, would row all the way up the river on Monday mornings and spend all week up the river, taking their fish into Jacksonville to sell every day or two.”

Jacksonville, the seat of Onslow County, was a small town that was also on the New River, but 20 miles upriver of Sneads Ferry.

When the weather was real cold,” Ginny continued, “they would build a fire in the woods along the shore line and wrap up in quilts or old coats to try to keep warm while waiting to take up their nets.

They returned home on Saturdays, taking most of the day to get back with their last catch.

They had a hard life but the river was part of them and they really didn’t want to do anything else for a living,” Ginny wrote of her family and neighbors.

* * *

Ginny’s grandfather lived to be 95 years old, and he no doubt made many a trip across the New River, as in this photograph. In Memory as a River, Ginny remembered him in this way:

“He was a good and special man and I have never heard one bad word spoken about him. He treated everyone with the deepest respect, gave unselfishly of whatever he had to give and was always proud of what the Lord had made him… a fisherman.

She went on:

He had the deepest faith of any person I have ever known… He became a member of the Yopp’s Primitive Baptist Church at any early age and was faithful to attend as long as it was possible for him to walk. He was always such a humble man and depended so deeply on his Savior and His guidance in his life.”

Ginny has never forgotten how, when her grandfather grew too frail to attend church, he rose early on Sunday mornings, took out his hymnbook and sang to himself.

* * *

This is the 1st in an occasional series of stories on the New River based on Charles A. Farrell’s photographs from the 1930s.

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