This is the 4th part of my special series “The Story of Shad Boats.” The series features Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford’s extraordinary journey to document the history of North Carolina’s “state boat.”
This is a portrait of boat builder George Washington Creef on Roanoke Island, N.C., sometime early in the early 1900s. He is the man that is widely considered the inventor of the shad boat.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford were beginning their research on shad boats, they were still able to visit older men and women who remembered “Wash” Creef from their childhoods.
Earl, in particular, did a sizable number of interviews with former shad boat builders, fishermen and other Roanoke Islanders that had known Creef when they were young and the old boat builder was one of the island’s more memorable characters.
Looking at those interviews now, I get the impression that the old islanders recalled Creef with great respect for his craftsmanship in the boatyard, but maybe remembered him just as fondly for his friendly disposition and endearing eccentricities.
From Currituck to East Lake
According to family lore, George Washington Creef’s ancestors first arrived on the Outer Banks when one of them shipwrecked at Cape Hatteras and married a local woman.
A generation later, in 1851, Wash Creef married Margaret Howard in Currituck, an old seaport north of Roanoke Island. Some time later, the couple and their children moved south and west to East Lake, the little settlement on the mainland of Dare County where Creef had been born in 1829.
East Lake is located 14 miles west of Roanoke Island, near the mouth of the Alligator River.
At the time, East Lake was a remote, almost frontier outpost– the broad waters of the Alligator River lay to the west, the great inland sea known as the Albemarle Sound to the north and, to the south and east, the vast pocosin swamps that now make up the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
That was long before the bridges across the Alligator River and Croatan Sound were built, so in many ways East Lake and the little settlements around it might as well have been an island.
That does not mean it was not a busy place, however. A large shad fishing fleet of 25 boats operated out of the village in 1880, according to the Feb. 17, 1880 edition of The Economist, a newspaper in Elizabeth City.
I have also heard many tales of logging crews and sawmill workers in the neighborhood of East Lake late in the 19th century.
According to those stories, the workers included African Americans from distant towns and even Russian Jewish and German immigrants from as far away as New York City.
Unfortunately, I don’t know much about George Washington Creef’s time at East Lake. Only a few remnants of his family’s life can be found there today and I’m afraid they’re all in the family graveyard.
The Creefs buried their 17-year-old daughter Ann Elizabeth there in 1869.
Today other Creefs rest near her grave. Two of them, Phoebe Ann Creef and her 3-year-old son Grady, actually died in a shad boat.
In the spring of 1903, a sudden gale or perhaps a tornado overturned the boat while they were returning from a visit with relatives. Two of the passengers survived, but Phoebe and Grady did not.
A Shad Boat named Dolphin
We do not know exactly when George Washington Creef and his family left his home in East Lake and moved to Roanoke Island.
That is partly because he seems to have moved back and forth between the two places for a number of years.
A sworn affidavit at the National Archives indicates that Creef already lived and worked on Roanoke Island during the Civil War.
But then, only a few years after the war, in 1869, he and his wife buried their daughter Ann Elizabeth at East Lake.
A year later, in 1870, the federal census also lists Creef and his family as living at East Lake.
But a year after that, in the same affidavit I mentioned above, Creef testified that he was living at Roanoke Island again.
Working for the Union Navy
My colleague Chris Meekins is the person that found George Washington Creef’s affidavit and sent me a copy.
A native of Elizabeth City, Chris is a former archivist at the State Archives of North Carolina, where he helped me many a time. He is currently a research historian at the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources in Raleigh.
He is also a direct descendant of both George Washington Creef’s brother Valentine and his sister Clarissa.
Creef’s affidavit was part of an 1871 application to the Southern Claims Commission. In the affidavit, Creef was testifying in support of a man named George B. Bliven’s desire to have the federal government reimburse him for confiscating several of his buildings on Roanoke Island during the war.
Apart from the information that he offered in respect to Bliven’s claim, Creef gave sworn testimony in relation to three important aspects of his own life.
First, Creef was a “Unionist.” As were many other whites on that part of the North Carolina coast, he was “loyal” to the United States during the Civil War, not to the Confederacy.
Second, Creef was living on Roanoke Island and working for Union forces during the war. “I was employed by the U.S. Navy freighting coal in my own vessel,” he said in the affidavit.
Third, Creef testified that he was residing on Roanoke Island in 1871, when he gave his sworn statement to the claims agent.
Apparently Creef did go back and forth a great deal between East Lake and Roanoke Island in the 1860s and ’70s. He may even have kept a home in both places and spent part of the year in one place and part of the year in the other place, depending on the availability of work.
Evidence is sparse, but according to local lore, Creef built the first shad boat on Roanoke Island in the late 1870s. By that time, at the very latest, he and his family had come to the island to stay.
According to Creef’s grandson, Vernon Davis, that first shad boat was named the Dolphin.
The Swamp Forests at East Lake
Creef may have turned to making shad boats because he could no longer find the big juniper and cypress trees necessary to build the kind of dug-out-type workboats called kunners that I discussed in my last post.
One of Earl’s sources, a former shad boat builder named Gus Montague, had heard that when he was young.
Montague may have been right or at least partly right. After the Civil War, northern timber companies did clear-cut thousands of square miles of old-growth forestland on the North Carolina coast. That included vast tracts of juniper and cypress forest around East Lake and other parts of the Alligator River.
At that time, the juniper was especially valuable. Also known as Atlantic white cedar, juniper is a wetlands species of tree that boat and ship builders value because its wood is strong, lightweight, easily worked and water resistant.
As we’ll see in my later posts in this series, local boat builders relied almost exclusively on juniper to construct shad boats. The lumber companies of course dressed and sold plenty of juniper to boat builders on the North Carolina coast, but they found far larger markets for juniper elsewhere.
The great shipyards of Philadelphia, New York and New England built sailing ships far larger than any vessel ever constructed on the North Carolina coast and they were especially eager buyers of the region’s juniper.
All looked to the swamp forests around East Lake as a potential source of wood for boat and shipbuilding. At the same time, other industries looked to that part of the North Carolina coast as a source of juniper to use for shingles, siding and other construction uses.
To meet that demand, company towns sprang up, mills were built and rail lines laid into some of coastal North Carolina’s most remote swamps.
As the loggers and their rail lines advanced, the old growth juniper grew scarcer by the day. As Guy Montague said, maybe the loss of the old growth forests did contribute to the end of the age of the kunner and to the birth of the shad boat.
A Home in Wanchese
Whenever the Creefs settled on Roanoke Island, they apparently first found a new home on the island’s north end, but eventually settled in the village of Wanchese, on what locals call the “lower end” of the island.
The Creefs’ grown daughter Rebecca Cudworth and her family moved next door to them in Wanchese. Earl told me that Creef’s boat shop was in the Cudworths’ backyard, across the road from what is now the right side of the Bethany United Methodist Church.
When Earl (and sometimes Mike too) visited them, Roanoke Island’s old timers recalled Creef more than a little fondly. He was an interesting and colorful character, a devout Baptist and a warm, sociable man.
He lived to be 88 years old. Most of Earl’s sources remembered him only as an elderly man with a long white beard and plenty of time on his hands. A few, though, were old enough to recall him in his boat shed.
Earl’s oldest interviewee was Mrs. Evelyn Davis. Born in or about 1881, she was 100 years old when Earl visited her.
Another of the older Roanoke Islanders with whom Earl spoke, Sallye Baum Tillet, described Creef as being a “a grand old soul.”
By all accounts, he was friendly, outgoing and had a colorful way of talking. His language was full of colorful expressions that probably arose far back in the early part of the 19th century.
Mrs. Tillet remembered how Creef loved to visit people and would sit and talk for hours at a time.
She recalled his affection for fried chicken, too.
“If he knew a preacher was going to be a particular house, he would show up because of his love of fried chicken…,” she told Earl.
He apparently wasn’t shy.
Mrs. Tillet also recalled Creef’s sociability. He often visited her family in Baum Town, a short ways from Wanchese.
At her home, the old boat builder sometimes lingered so late that he would spend the night with her family instead of walking home.
That habit reveals a sense of time and a sense of hospitality that marks the old boat builder and Mrs. Tillet’s parents as thoroughly 19th century beings.
The Song of the Oyster Shucker
You could see Creef’s sociability when he visited Elizabeth City as well, Mrs. Tillet recalled.
A river port 60 miles from Roanoke Island, Elizabeth City was a bit of a boomtown in those days and its streets were full of oyster shuckers, sawmill workers, canal boatmen and merchants and hawkers of all types.
They came from many different places– in the late 1800s, for instance, many “Bohemians” worked in the town’s oyster shucking factories. Recruited in New York City and sometimes Baltimore, they were largely immigrant laborers from Poland, Dalmatia and other Slavic countries.
In its Oct. 27, 1893 edition, a local newspaper, the Economist-Falcon, recalled Elizabeth City’s heyday a couple years earlier, perhaps just a bit tongue in cheek, but still quite serious too:
“New people, new faces, new ways, new manners…. The song of the oyster shucker was heard in the land, the refrain of its suggestive melody was joined by Bohemians, Hittites, Hivites, Jebezites, Virginians, Marylanders and Afro-Americans….”
You got to love Creef. When he walked those streets, it was said, he spoke to everybody he met and inquired after their family and friends.
According to Mrs. Tillet, Creef didn’t know a soul in Elizabeth City!
Of course, he was more accustomed to the rustic paths and cart roads of Roanoke Island. On those byways, he probably did know everybody or at least somebody in their family.
Building in Pairs
Wash Creef’s great-grandson also told Earl about one of the old boat builder’s habits that’s a bit harder to understand.
“Whenever Uncle Wash built anything, it was in pairs,” H. A. Creef, Jr. said.
We saw that in the photograph of the two shad boats under construction in Wash Creef’s boatyard in Wanchese in my last post.
Neither Mike nor Earl are sure why Creef built boats in pairs, but it’s possible that a single juniper log yielded two keels, so he felt that he might as well go ahead and make two shad boats at a time.
The tendency was not confined to his boats, however. “When he built the coffin for his wife, he constructed one for himself and stored it in the loft of his boat building shed,” his great-grandson told Earl.
That, I took as a gesture of love and devotion. But that did mean that the old boat builder could often see his own coffin and, if his loft was open as in so many boatyards, maybe see it every day.
On top of everything else, Wash Creef was obviously a man at peace with his mortality, another sign of his being a holdover from another century.
A Community of Boat Builders
According to a large body of local lore, George Washington Creef was the sole inventor of the shad boat.
That might be correct, but Mike Alford has cautioned me about attributing the boat’s design solely to Creef.
He believes that the story may be somewhat more nuanced.
When he looks closely at the surviving examples of early shad boats and at historical photographs of early shad boats, he sees enough variation in their construction to raise at least a doubt or two.
Without taking anything away from George Washington Creef, Mike has suggested to me that we should always remember that local boat builders constantly watched and learned from one another.
The variation that he sees in those early shad boats makes him wonder if the boat’s design emerged somewhat more gradually out of the efforts of a community of boat builders.
In our conversations, Mike emphasizes that this is only a theory, and he in no way means to say that Creef did not play the central role in the boat’s creation.
He just want us to consider that other, unsung boat builders may have also made important contributions to the birth and early growth of the shad boat.
As I have heard Mike say a thousand times about a thousand subjects, “This would be a good area for more research.”