Cotton & Steamboats: Photographs from the Tar River, 1890-1900

The stern paddle wheel steamer Tarboro on the Tar River, probably during her maiden voyage in 1898. She is coming into the town of Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, N.C., and a crowd waits at the town’s public dock to celebrate her launching.  After calling at Tarboro, she will proceed on to Old Sparta, Greenville and, finally, Washington, N.C., a seaport 45 miles downriver.  She is heavy with freight, almost certainly cotton or cottonseed.

The Mermaid’s Melody

In 1895 a young mother sang this lullaby to her children while she nursed them at a church in Kinnakeet, a village on the Outer Banks.  The rest of the congregation was singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings,” but she must have stepped into the back of the church to soothe her two little ones. It’s not the kind of moment that usually makes it into history books.

Of Oysters and Chicken Grit

One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.

A World Built of Oyster Shells

Earlier this week, I wrote about the historic use of oyster shells for constructing roads on the North Carolina coast. But coastal people didn’t only use oyster shells for road building. Particularly before the Civil War, they also used oyster shells as an important source of lime. Burnt down in kilns, an incredible tonnage of oyster shells was used in making cement, mortar, bricks, wall plaster and whitewash.

The Swedish Nightingale

Last night I saw a scene on PBS’s drama Victoria in which the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind sang for Queen Victoria. That was an actual event: it happened on April 26, 1846. But of course I thought immediately of the little community called “Jenny Lind” that is located 10 miles west of Kinston, in Lenoir County, N.C. According to legend, Jenny Lind sang there, too.

The Oyster Shell Road

Children, a bicyclist and a toll keeper visiting at a toll station on the Shell Road between Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., circa 1900.  Oyster shells had been used for building and improving roads and cart paths since earliest colonial times, but the oyster boom that began on the North Carolina coast in the 1880s drastically increased the tonnage of shells available for road construction.