A 92-year-old gentleman in Chesapeake City, Maryland, recently sent me a wonderful message about his childhood memories of living on the North Carolina coast in the 1930s. His name is Mr. Harold Lee and when he was four years old he lived in a coastal village in Onslow County, N.C., that is no more.
One of his children found my article “Marines—The Last Days of a New River Fishing Village” on this blog and brought it to his attention.
In that story I wrote about Marines, a village that was once located on the east side of the New River, at a place where the river and the sea intermingle and make an estuary that had been famous for its oysters for centuries.
Few people remember Marines today, though. In 1941 the U.S. Government took the village’s land, evacuated its residents and demolished its buildings in order to make way for the construction of Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine Corps base that covers 240 square miles.
When he saw my story, Mr. Lee immediately got excited. He remembered the village of Marines from his childhood. His family rented a house there while his father served as an engineer on the Clinton, a dredge boat that was working nearby on the Intracoastal Waterway.
That was in or about 1931 and Mr. Lee was only a four-year-old boy. Despite the passage of the years, he does not seem to have forgotten a thing.
His father, Oivind Lie, was an immigrant from Gjøvik, Norway. (The judge that made him a U.S. citizen changed his surname from “Lie” to “Lee” on his citizenship papers).
Oivind and two of his brothers had left their homeland during hard times and had sought their fortunes at sea. His brothers eventually settled in Canada, while Oivind made his home in the U.S.
Between 1927 and 1933, Oivind, his wife Dorothy and young Harold followed the Clinton up and down the Intracoastal Waterway.
In addition to the village of Marines, the family lived in New Bern, Swansboro, Wilmington and Norfolk.
Oivind had met Dorothy some years earlier in Mayport, Florida, when he was dredging on the St. Johns River. Her father was the lighthouse keeper there and that is where she was raised.
Dorothy was a schoolteacher and was living in a boardinghouse in town when she and Oivind met and fell in love. While working on the river, Oivind had also taken a room in the boardinghouse.
When Mr. Lee saw my story on Marines, he was inspired to write to me and share his memories of the village.
I am so grateful he did. We have now spoken on the telephone twice and I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. He is the type of person that makes you feel good just talking to him: kind, generous-hearted and just interesting to talk to. And his memories of the village of Marines are priceless.
I feel lucky to have gotten to know him a little bit.
Today, with Mr. Lee’s permission, I would like to share two of his letters that recall some of his memories of Marines and his family’s travels during his father’s dredge boat days.
Letter 1: “It reminded him of Norway”
It was so good to read your article about Marines, NC. I asked my daughter Carol to try and reach you by computer. The wife and I never learned how to use them. By way of introducing myself, I will talk about my career which isn’t very polite, but my education is very limited.
Of course, this is my fault, I just didn’t like school! I spent time in the Merchant Marines from the time I was 15 until after WW2 ended. I was about to be put in reform school for playing truant. So, I lied about my age and became a sailor.
After the war I got a job on the Pennsy Railroad and got married. I then began to study so I could pass my engineers exams. My favorite job was running freight trains, so I ended up on Conrail. I had to retire at age 66 because of loss of hearing. I failed my last physical.
Now, to tell you some of my memories of Marines. My dad was a blacksmith and machinist from his apprentice training in Norway. There were no jobs open for him, so he decided to come to the USA.
He got a job on the dredge Clinton that was helping to dredge the inland waterway. When they started dredging in the New River, I think I was about four. Dad rented a small house from Mr. Frank Smith…. The farm where we lived had the larger house where Mr. Frank, Mrs. Pearl and Grandma lived, and we lived in the small house close-by.
Mr. Frank took care of the store and tiny post office. Uncle Jim and Mrs. Pearl’s younger brother did the farming.
I am almost certain that James Bell in your article was Uncle Jim who I loved dearly. He brought a big lunch in a lard can and every day I had lunch with him.
We sat in the wagon shed on the back sill. He always had enough for both of us. I especially loved his biscuits and corn bread. He was the kindest, nicest person you could ever want to know.
Mr. Smith had a skiff and he let my dad use it as he was on the 12-8 watch on the dredge. Dad would take me out oystering. I loved the boat ride and the oysters.
Also, I can remember Uncle Jim’s cart with the high wheels. They were like the ones at Mayport [Florida] where Grandmom and Grandpop lived.
I have a good memory about the Sneads Ferry boat. [He is referring to the ferry that ran across the New River between Marines and Sneads Ferry before the bridge was built.]
It was like a small barge and when dad drove his car on it she always sunk way down and scared me. The boat was cranked across the river by cranking on a cable and it only held one car.
I have memories of Uncle Jim taking corn to Marines to have it ground and the Smith’s taking me to their house to have supper with them. They always put the Family Bible in a chair for me to sit on so I could reach the table.
When the tobacco was brought in the barn my mother and I would go up in the loft with Mrs. Pearl. She would grade it, tie it up in bunches and hang it on the poles to dry.
Some of the dredge boat employees lived over in Sneads Ferry [on the other side of the New River]. My mom knew a lot of them, and they had sort of picnics because they were probably homesick.
I can remember playing with a lot of the kids in an abandoned house. They had skiffs made of cardboard and they had a lot of sand on the floor so we could pull the boats around with strings.
Being so young a lot of things I saw didn’t register. However, as young as I was, I was surprised at how many people liked to talk to dad. He was such a quiet man he let mom do most of the talking.
I guess they liked to hear his accent. But even today, I can remember how friendly and nice everyone was.
I hope we can obtain a copy of your book about Marines. Carol orders things online with her credit card and I give her the cash.
Also, I would like to put an inquiry in a newspaper— perhaps they have one in Jacksonville. I would like to contact some of Uncle Jim Bell’s folks and tell them how much I still love him. If you know of any paper that circulates locally, please let me know.
I would love to talk with you and can be reached by telephone or by letter. My wife and I both have trouble hearing, but I would really enjoy talking with you.
P.S. I just remembered about the dance hall in your story. Dad used to take us as he loved the music, he said it reminded him of Norway.
Letter 2: “My dad was one of the few survivors”
After our first telephone call, Mr. Lee sent me a second note in reply to several follow-up questions that I had asked him. In that note, he told me a pair of stories that I find unforgettable.
To me they give us a powerful glimpse at what a dredge boatman’s life was sometimes like during the Great Depression.
Thank you for your phone call on the 13th. It meant a great deal to me. I’m going to jot down some things you asked about.
My dad was given his American name by the judge that made him a citizen. Oivind Lee from Gjøvik, Norway. Mom’s name was Dorothy Buford, from Mayport, Florida. Dad was the 12-8 engineer on the dredge Clinton. The dredge was helping to construct the inland waterway. He rented a small house on Frank Smith’s farm while the dredge was working in the New River.
The last place we lived was Wilmington, North Carolina in a suburb called Sunset Park. When the waterway job was completed, we moved into Grandma’s house in Arlington, Florida. Grandpa had passed away and Grandma had to leave the Mayport Light House. Dad couldn’t get any work for several years.
Finally, he got called back to Lake Okeechobee where they were building a dike to keep the hurricanes from blowing all the water out of the lake and drowning all the people.
When that job was finished, he was sent down to the Keys at Matecumbe Key. Shortly after a terrible hurricane struck the Keys. The relief train they sent was too late and got blown off the tracks.
The dredge was pumping sand to build a roadway along side of the railroad. Everything was destroyed including the railroad to Key West.
My dad was one of the few survivors. He was told by the conch fisherman the hurricane was going to strike there. They said all the fish were schooling away. He left for home and the others didn’t believe the conchs, so they stayed and drowned. This was in 1935.
After the disaster on the Keys, dad got called to Chesapeake City, Maryland. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was being widened. He worked on the dredge Baltimore for several years till the job was finished. Then he went into business for himself doing machine work and welding. I stayed with the railroad as I didn’t like to deal with the public.
I’ll add a story about mom’s teaching career. Her first job was at a one room school back in the Bayou country. She had to commute by rowboat.
One of the men would pick her up Sunday night and take her to the school and she stayed with some folks until Friday and then they would take her back to Mayport for the weekend. Eventually she got a teaching job in the two-room school at Mayport.
I have had some copies made of the photos you asked about and will send them along. Any other information you would like, please let me know and I will try to find out for you.
A Dredge Boatman’s Life
The great Labor Day storm of 1935 was a category 5 hurricane that cut a 40-mile-wide swath through the Florida Keys.
At Matacumbe Key, where Oivind Lee had been working, the hurricane did not leave a single building or tree standing. Hundreds drowned there and on the neighboring islands.
I can’t thank Mr. Lee enough for sharing both his memories of the little village of Marines and his memories of his mother and father’s travels along the East Coast during the 1920s and ’30s.
The men that dredged the Intracoastal Waterway and the East Coast’s harbors and river channels are unsung heroes in my mind.
They labored hard and long, often lived away from home for years at a time and the jobs frequently took them far and yon.
Yet as Mr. Lee’s stories show us so well, those dredge boatmen contributed mightily to our coastal communities. They helped build great seaports and river towns. They kept the nation’s maritime commerce moving, and they made our waters safe, or at least as safe as could be.
In those days, they were, most of them, itinerants, wandering souls passing through, showing up at waterfront bars and dance halls, and sometime churches, and then gone again, headed to another dredging project somewhere else.
But things happen, even when you’re in a place for only a little while.
And sometimes they even found love, as Harold Lee’s father Oivind did when he fell for a lighthouse keeper’s daughter in Mayport, Florida. Or as Harold himself did, when he was just a little boy and sat on a wagon shed’s back sill with an old man named Jim that he would remember all his life.
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