A Fair Little Tow of Shrimp– Part 9 of “The Shrimp Capital of the World”

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

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

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

This is a scene from the shrimp trawler Empress in the fall of 1938. The boat’s captain, the Promise Land’s Leslie Day, must be at the wheel, while his father and the mate are “seining up the net.” After drop-netting back home in Carteret County during the summer, they sailed out of Southport all fall. In this photograph they’re shrimping off Bald Head Island or along the Brunswick County coast.

When working out of Southport, most shrimpers went out the mouth of the Cape Fear River past Bald Island Island, and then turned west and ran along the shores of Brunswick County.

Cod Sacks and Otter Trawls

In the photograph above, the two men are pulling up the net until they come to the “cod sack” or ”tail bag” that holds their catch.

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

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

The mate is holding the wing of the net, while the elder Mr. Day is tying off the towline on a bit that holds one of the doors (technically, otter boards) after they’ve wrestled them to the corner posts. Once secured, they can lift the tail bag on board, as Capt. Day and his dad are doing in the next photograph.

In the first photograph, you can see the net floats next to the mate’s right knee and, on the deck, a dip net.

Those were the days before hydraulics and power lifts, so they’re doing everything by hand: if the tail bag came up too heavy, the Empress’s crew used that dip net to take some of the shrimp out of the bag and lighten the load until they could lift it onto the deck.

Judging from these photographs, they’re probably using a 40-foot shrimp net (“otter trawl”) and running perhaps 400 feet of rope.

In 1938, when this photo was taken, the net may still have been hand-knit. Many of the local shrimpers bought cotton twine nets from net shops in Florida and Louisiana, but many shrimp nets had also been stitched locally– often under an old live oak in somebody’s backyard, though sometimes in the corner of a shrimp house.

Introduced from Europe in the early 1900s, otter trawls are a bottom fishing net rig pulled behind a boat. Then as now, they ploughed the sea bottom, sending up sand and mud and drawing shrimp off the bottom and into the net’s mouth.

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

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

The net was held open vertically either by floats or by “kites” attached to the head line (the rope that runs along the upper mouth of the net) and held apart horizontally by the two rectangular doors  (a.k.a., “otter boards”) above the boat’s deck.

In the late 1800s, some large fishing schooners had the sail power necessary to haul an otter trawl—also called “dragging”— but North Carolina’s shrimpers really only embraced otter trawls with the introduction of the first gasoline motors in the 1910s.

An article in the Wilmington Dispatch in 1916 gave the credit for the otter trawl’s local introduction to a New Jersey fisherman named Samuel Thompson. The article said that he “brought the first deep-sea shrimp net to Southport. . ., and taught the Southport fishermen to catch shrimp.”

First introduced to the East Coast of the U.S. by the Bay State Fishing Company for use in New England’s cod fishery in 1905, otter trawls were controversial and much legislated in both Europe and New England by the time that they reached Southport.

Critics of the trawls, including a host of hook-and-line dory and schooner-men in the New England cod fishery, feared that they damaged the sea bottom and harmed other fisheries. Such concerns are still widespread.

Sharks and Sea Turtles
Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

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

Here we have a view from the wheelhouse of the Empress looking back at Capt. Leslie Day and the mate spreading the net out again after dumping a load of shrimp onto the deck.

When they’re done with the net, they’ll go back and cull the shrimp into wire baskets.

I don’t recognize the gentleman in the right foreground. I wonder if the photographer, Charles Farrell, was not the only guest on the Empress that day.

The Empress’s crew had just made “a fair little tow” of shrimp, to quote Jimmy Moore, a long-time Southport shrimper and shrimp dealer. Jimmy and his wife May White Moore looked at these photographs with me at their home on Oak Island awhile back.

Mr. Moore wasn’t sure he could identify the long black object on the Empress’s deck, but he suspected it was a club that the Empress’s crew kept ready in case a shark or a sea turtle came up in the net.

Ben Gray’s Shrimp House
Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

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

Here we can see a man mending his trawl net amidst a crowd of Carteret County boats tied up in front of Frank Church’s shrimp house on the Southport waterfront.

Church was the captain of one of the local menhaden fishing boats, the Governor Morehead. He owned the building, but he leased it to a fellow named Ben Gray who really ran the shrimp business there at the time that Charles Farrell visited Southport.

Most of the roughly 50 or 60 crews of Carteret County fishermen that came down to Southport for the shrimp season brought their catches to Gray’s shrimp house.

A fish dealer in Davis Shore, in Carteret County, Gray apparently financed at least a significant part of the Carteret County shrimpers’ boats and nets.

That was a common arrangement in the shrimp business. A dealer often provided the two large capital expenses that every shrimper needed and could rarely afford– the boat and nets. In exchange for the boat and nets, the crew was obliged to sell their catch at his shrimp house.

Generally speaking, the shrimp house owner then received a 50 percent share of every crew’s catch. The captain and crew then divided up the other shares of the catch, with the captain getting the lion’s share.

When a large number of Carteret County boats started coming south to Southport, Gray evidently saw a business opportunity and established the shrimp house on the town’s waterfront to cater to their business.

Following the Shrimp to Florida

In those days many a shrimper led an itinerant life, and that life didn’t just involve Southport and Carteret County.

In Southport the shrimping season lasted roughly from the last of April into October.  When the season ended in Southport, many of the big boats would then head south to Florida.

They’d shrimp out of Fernandina Beach, St. Augustine, Key West, Everglades City, Punta Gorda and probably half a dozen other Florida fishing communities during the winter.

Sometimes the men’s wives would drive or take a train down and meet them in one of those fishing ports. If it was a young couple, they might rent an apartment for the winter or get a room in a boardinghouse.

Most wives did not join their husbands, though, and the men lived on their boats while they were in Florida.

They’d shrimp down there all winter and then return to Southport for the shrimp season the next April, which meant the men often spent half of the year away from their families.

Most showed up in Southport on Christmas Eve though, often making a long, raucous overnight drive in a car crowded with shrimpers and bearing gifts for their wives and sweethearts and children.

Next time– part 10– Like Pulling Taffy

One thought on “A Fair Little Tow of Shrimp– Part 9 of “The Shrimp Capital of the World”

  1. These should be put in a little booklet along with other Southport stories and sold in all those souvenir shops there. Great job, David.

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