A Shrimp Town’s Boat Builder– part 5 of “The Shrimp Capital of the World”

Part of the Wells' brothers shrimp fleet, Southport, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina.

Part of the Wells’ brothers shrimp fleet, Southport, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina.

Today– part 5 of my series “`The Shrimp Capital of the World’– Charles Farrell’s Photographs of Southport, 1938”

In addition to photographing shrimpers and shrimp house workers when he was in Southport in the fall of 1938, Charles Farrell also visited Crattie Arnold at his boatyard on Brunswick Street.

Arnold was a legend on the town’s waterfront. Crippled by spinal meningitis as a small child, he had both of his legs amputated when he was seven years old. That was in or about 1890.

Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina.

Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina.

As a small boy, Arnold got around town in a cart built by his father and pulled by a billy goat. When he got a little older, he made his own pair of crutches.

According to one of his daughters, Arnold first earned his own money by making nets for the town’s shrimp fishermen.

That was not unusual. Many coastal men and women with disabilities turned to net making to make a living.

Arnold did not stay a net maker, however. He eventually bought his own boat, the Ruby W., and he worked his fish and shrimp nets while sitting on the deck and using his crutches when necessary.

As we can see here, Arnold was also a boat builder. He and his brother built a variety of types of boats including shrimp trawlers such as those that we see in the photograph at the top of this page.

Even after World War II, the classic Carolina shrimp boat was still a 25-foot wooden skiff, local-built, and powered by a 3-8 horsepower automobile engine.

In that photograph, we see a small part of the Wells’ brothers’ shrimp fleet and, in the distance, Arnold’s home and the home of his brother.

At the time that Farrell was in Southport, Bill, Riley and Charles Wells owned dozens of shrimp trawlers and a pair of shrimp houses there.

We can identify these boats as being part of the Wells brothers’ fleet, by the way, from the two bans that run around their hulls– two orange bans around the hull of their boats was the brothers’ trademark.

Strikes and Unions on the Waterfront

Shrimping wasn’t that much different than sharecropping for many captains and crews in Southport.  

Throughout the 1930s, Southport’s shrimpers fought for higher prices for their catches. The need was great: the Great Depression had driven seafood prices down to next to nothing in the early ’30s. A phenomenal number of  fishermen on all parts of the North Carolina coast were on government relief.        

To get higher prices, the town’s shrimpers went on strike at least once in 1938– the year that Farrell visited Southport. Earlier in the 1930s, local shrimpers had also worked to build a self-help marketing cooperative in the local shrimp industry so that they did not have to rely entirely on the shrimp companies.

A few years after the Second World War, Southport’s shrimpers organized a labor union and went on strike again for higher prices and a larger share of the profit from their catches.

You can learn more about labor organizing among Southport’s shrimpers from Dr. William Still’s article “A Nickel a Bucket: A History of the North Carolina Shrimping Industry,” which appeared in the American Neptune in 1987, and also in a pair of my stories on this blog, “The Menhaden Fishermen’s Strike” and “The Fishermen’s Revolt—Southport to Swan Quarter.”

Next time– part 6– “From the Promise Land”

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