This is the 5th 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.”
Today I want to look at one of the most exciting and groundbreaking parts of Earl Willis, Jr.’s and Mike Alford’s research on shad boats—Earl’s compilation of a detailed registry of all known shad boats and shad boat builders. Nobody had ever attempted such a registry before and I think it is a tremendous accomplishment.
To compile his list of shad boats and shad boat builders, Earl drew on many archival sources, on his and Mike’s research and on interviews with the last generation of shad boat builders and fishermen.
Because of Earl’s registry, we can see with much great clarity than ever before who built shad boats, where shad boats were built and precisely where they were used— in short, the geography of shad boats.
With that in mind, I want to use Earl’s research today to create a rough map of the world of shad boats and their builders.
Roanoke Island and its Neighbors
The first thing that struck me about Earl’s findings was that they confirmed that Roanoke Island wasn’t just the place that shad boats were first built, but was always the capital of shad boat construction.
Earl identified 21 shad boat builders in all. As an 80-year-old waterman named Marshall Tillett told him in 1982, “A shad boat was the best and there were not many people who could build them.”
Of those 21 builders, nine had boatyards in Manteo, Wanchese or elsewhere on Roanoke Island. Among those boatyards was that of George Washington Creef, the boat’s inventor and the subject of my previous two posts in this series.
In addition to Creef and the other eight builders that Earl located on Roanoke Island, another shad boat builder, Mahn H. Basnight, also had a boatyard on the island for some period of time.
Basnight had been raised in George Washington Creef’s home on Roanoke Island. A local story even says that he was Creef’s assistant when he built the first shad boat, the Dolphin. However, once he was building shad boats on his own, Basnight moved around a good bit.
According to Earl’s research, Basnight built shad boats on Roanoke Island, but he also built the boats at yards in Columbia and Gum Neck on the mainland of Tyrrell County and at Manns Harbor on the mainland of Dare County.
In addition to those shad boat builders, Earl also identified eight other builders practically next door to Roanoke Island.
He found four builders in Manns Harbor, two in Mashoes, one in Nags Head and one in Colington.
Manns Harbor and Mashoes sit on the mainland of Dare County, just across Croatan Sound from Roanoke Island.
For a time, one of those builders, Ken Mann, also had a boatyard on Rabbit Island, once a marshy knoll near Mashoes but now not much more than a sand bar.
Remembering Rabbit Island’s Ken Mann
Speaking of Ken Mann, Earl often says that the great shad boat builders had two distinguishing characteristics: first, they were master builders. Second, they were real characters!
Judging from Earl and Mike’s research, Ken Mann was both.
In an article some years ago, Earl told this story about Ken Mann:
“A pipe was to Ken Mann as a long white beard was to Wash Creef and blue chambray work shirts were to Otis Dough. The pipe was perpetually in his mouth. One morning after spending a long time looking for his pipe, he asked his wife, Martha, if she knew its location. Martha informed him the pipe was in his mouth. In disbelief, he went outside to continue the search, but, of course, without success. Giving up, he began his daily chores. He went to the well to draw water, and as he bent over the well, he saw his reflection with the `lost’ pipe jutting out of his mouth. Totally surprised, his mouth fell open and the pipe went down the well!”
From Earl Willis, Jr., “The Birth of an American Watercraft: `Uncle Wash’ and the North Carolina Shad Boat,” Museum Small Craft Association’s Transactions vol. 3 (1996-97).
Located northeast of Roanoke Island, the villages of Nags Head and Colington are both on Bodie Island, one of the Outer Banks.
Taken together, that makes for a total of 18 shad boat builders at or very near Roanoke Island.
In fact, if you took those 18 builders and plotted the locations of their boatyards, you’d end up with a very small map, one that runs roughly 12 miles east-west and 13 miles north-south.
That was the heart of shad boat country. However, it was not the only place that shad boats were built. As I noted above, Earl also documented three other shad boat builders whose boatyards were located at least a somewhat greater distance from Roanoke Island.
Beyond Roanoke Island
One, Wallace O’Neal, built shad boats in Narrow Shores (now called Aydlett), on the western shore of Currituck Sound. That’s 30 miles north of Roanoke Island.
A second, Alvirah B. Wright, built shad boats on Arnuese Creek, just outside of Camden, on the north side of the Albemarle Sound. Camden is approximately 40 miles northwest of Roanoke Island.
A third, Rynalda “Nal” Midyette, was widely considered to have been one of the finest builders of shad boats and perhaps the builder with the highest level of craftsmanship after Wash Creef.
A number of veteran shad boatmen, including John Herbert on Hatteras Island and Earl’s uncle, Joe Meekins, on Roanoke Island, even considered Midyette’s boats in some ways superior to Creef’s when it came to their performance and level of craftsmanship.
(I’ll be featuring Nal Midyette’s boatbuilding career in a later post in this series.)
Midyette’s boatyard was in Engelhard, a fishing village on Far Creek, on the mainland of Hyde County. The village is located roughly 30 miles southwest of Roanoke Island.
Earl also discovered that another shad boat builder, James Thomas “Pink” Gard, started his boatbuilding career in Manns Harbor (where I listed him above) but later built shad boats at two different sites in Pasquotank County, which is on the north shore of the Albemarle Sound.
One of Gard’s boatyards was on Flattie Creek, in the Weeksville area, and the other was closer to Elizabeth City.
If we take my original map (above) and add in the locations of Wallace O’Neal, A. B. Wright, Nal Midyette and Pink Gard’s boatyards– and also go back and put in Mahn H. Basnight’s boatyards when he was building in Columbia and Gum Neck– we end up with a new map that forms roughly a pentagon, though one with its northeast face bent a bit.
That map takes in portions of Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Currituck, Camden and Pasquotank counties and runs approximately 35 miles east-west and 55 miles north-south.
Watermen occasionally used shad boats over a somewhat larger territory. For instance, Earl documented a shad boat on Ocracoke Island, more than 50 miles south of Roanoke Island.
In addition, when Mike was still at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, he documented the remains of a shad boat that had been found more than 150 miles south of Roanoke Island.
The nature writer, outdoorsman and small boat enthusiast Bob Simpson found the remains of that boat’s keel in waters near his home in Morehead City, N.C.
That was the exception, however. More typically, the world of the shad boat ranged from Roanoke Island north into Currituck Sound, south into the uppermost reaches of Pamlico Sound, east to the Outer Banks and as far west as Columbia and the Scuppernong River.
That was only a small part of North Carolina’s coastal waters, but it was territory shaped by a particular coastal environment, a particular fishery and a particular tradition of boat building.