The Herring Workers

Women gutting and heading at either the Perry-Belch or Cannons Ferry herring fishery, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Women gutting and heading herring at either the Perry-Belch or Cannons Ferry fishery, ca. 1937-41. Like so many women in those days, they’re using old fertilizer bags as aprons. Many a family came down to the river with that kind of fertilizer bag and carried salt herring home in them, too. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

A few years ago, I carried a box of Charles Farrell’s old photographs of the state’s great herring fisheries back to one of the communities on the Chowan River where he took them. The photographs are poignant and beautiful, and the herring workers in them are unforgettable, but I also find them a little haunting because they remind me of all that can be lost.

Farrell took the photographs between 1937 and 1941. At the time, he was documenting fishing communities up and down the North Carolina coast. Today they are preserved at the State Archives in Raleigh.

A herring cutter at the Terrapin Point fishery in Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Terrapin Point is the site of a great swamp forest looking out on Cashie River and Albemarle Sound. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring cutter, Terrapin Point fishery near Merry Hill, in Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

When I carried the photographs to the Chowan River, I was trying to find anyone at all that might be able to identify some of the people in them or tell me what it had been like to work in those legendary herring fisheries.

Two men salting herring at the Perry-Belch company, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Two men stirring salt into herring at the Perry-Belch company, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring had been important on the Chowan River for thousands of years. The Chowanoke, an Algonquin-speaking tribe, had fished for herring on the river for ages, and before them other indigenous people.

When the British took the land, they fished for herring, too. They had started commercial fishing on the river in the mid-1700s. Enslaved laborers from Africa and their descendants did most of the fishing and the shore work.

Perry-Belch herring fishery, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Perry-Belch herring fishery, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

From the late 1700s until nearly the end of the 20th century, the river was home to one of the largest commercial fisheries for river herring in the U.S. Some say it was the largest in the world for a great part of that time. Local fishermen once caught millions of tons of herring a year on the river.

In a five-year period, between 1878 and 1883, a single fishery on the Chowan River harvested 15 million herring.

Even a century later, the herring were still coming. I’ll never forget visiting one of my favorite historians, Alice Eley Jones, on the Chowan River back in the 1990s. After living in the Raleigh-Durham area for many years, she had returned to her hometown of Murfreesboro, on the upper part of the river. Alice and I drove all around the river and its creeks that day while she talked about the importance of herring in the area’s history.

“Fish literally clogged these streams,” Alice told me. She was talking about when she was a girl. “You could wade into Vaughan Creek and pick them up with your hand or a bucket. It’s not like it was one or two fish. It was millions of fish!”

She went on:

“Everybody went herring fishing. Some would have dip nets. Some would have bow nets. People would go down here, catch the fish, clean the fish and fry the fish right on the shore. Churches would go. It was a community event, a time of fellowship and community.”

The roe canning room at Perry-Belch, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Like everything else in those days, the jobs at a herring fishery was meticulously divided by race. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The roe canning room at Perry-Belch, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Like everything else in those days, the jobs within a fishing company were meticulously divided by race and gender. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

That has changed. The herring fishery suffered a slow decline during much of the 20th century and it collapsed completely in the 1980s and ’90s– a victim of increasingly poor water quality, grave habitat loss and probably at least a measure of overfishing both on inland waters and out in the Atlantic.

Up-close look at gutting a herring. This woman's bucket is marked "Cannons Ferry Fish Co., Tyner, N.C.," which was on the east side of the Chowan, but I'm not sure that this wasn't Perry-Belch on the west side of the river. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Chowan River, ca. 1937-41. Up-close look at gutting a herring. Experienced women headed and gutted a herring in seconds. Paid piece-rate, the fastest cleaned as many as 10,000 herring a day and maybe earned a dollar per thousand. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

In a desperate gambit, state regulators closed the herring fishery altogether in 2007.  For the first time in history, nobody could legally catch a herring on the Chowan River. The regulators hoped that the herring might come back on their own if they were not being harvested at all. The fishery is still closed on the Chowan River and throughout the state’s waters.

A man, probably a fisherman, at the Perry-Belch herring company, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

A man, probably a fisherman, at the Perry-Belch herring company, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Charles Farrell’s photographs remind us of a different time though, and perhaps they also give us a vision of what could be again if the river is restored to health. When Farrell visited the Chowan, great shoals of herring still migrated out of the Atlantic at the end of every winter and swam up into the Albemarle Sound and its tributaries to spawn.

Making the tin cans for herring roe, Perry-Belch Fish Co., Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Making the tin cans for herring roe, Perry-Belch Fish Co., Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The fish companies sent fresh herring, salted herring and canned herring roe far and wide, but herring were also a staff of life for people who lived on the river.

Unidentified fisherman at an unidentified fishery, probably on or near the Albemarle Sound, ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Unidentified herring fisherman, site unknown, but likely on the Albemarle Sound or at the mouth of the Cashie River, ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

In hard times I don’t know how they would have survived without them. Few winter pantries did not have a keg or two of salt herring in them, and some families ate herring and sometimes not much else for breakfast, lunch and supper.

Gutting and heading herring, probably at the Perry-Belch fish co. in Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Gutting and heading herring, probably at the Perry-Belch fish co. in Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Many of the oldest people I know in that part of the state recall making long trips to the Chowan River to purchase herring when they were young. Many families made the journey on Easter Monday, which was always a festive time at the herring beaches. Farmers brought carts, too. They often purchased “trash fish” and offal and carried them back home to use as fertilizer on their fields.

Some paid in cash. Others traded corn from their fields, a country ham or a mess of collard greens.

Young women, presumably herring workers, at the dock in Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. The boat behind them is the Hatteras, a state fisheries patrol boat. Capt. Tom Basnight, a Roanoke Islander, was Farrell's ride up the Chowan. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Young women, presumably herring workers, at the dock in Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. The boat behind them is the Hatteras, a state fisheries patrol boat. The boat’s captain, Tom Basnight, a Roanoke Islander, was Farrell’s ride up the Chowan. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

For fishermen and shore laborers alike, their work in the herring fishery was only seasonal. The fish’s spawning runs usually lasted about three months, roughly from mid-February into May. Most of the men returned to farms or timber mills or something like that for the rest of the year. Many of the women shore workers that we see in Farrell’s photographs probably returned to domestic work and/or worked in other people’s fields.

Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Nobody got rich cleaning herring, but the women always appreciated the chance to take home a few fish. In hard times, they could mean the world. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Nobody got rich cleaning herring, but taking home fresh fish every night, and sometimes a keg of salt herring at the end of the season, was a perk. In hard times, the fish could mean the world to a family. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

These photographs came from at least two sites on the Chowan River. One was the Perry-Belch herring company in Colerain, a small town on the west side of the river in Bertie County. Most local people today remember it as the Perry-Wynn Fish Co. The ownership and name changed in 1952.

Perry-Belch fishery, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. The women used the long handled tools to pull the herring toward them. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Perry-Belch fishery, Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-41. The women used long handled rakes to pull the herring toward them. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The other site is a herring fishing beach called Cannons Ferry. That beach is located on the edge of a hamlet called Tyner, which is on the other side of the river in Chowan County.

In addition to the photographs from the Chowan River, I’m also including here photographs from three other herring fisheries that Farrell visited on that part of the North Carolina coast.  They include the Brickell fishery near Edenton, the Terrapin Point fishery at the mouth of the Cashie River and the Kitty Hawk and/or Slades fishery in Plymouth, on the Roanoke River. All five fisheries are located within 25 miles of one another.

* * *

One of the things I like most about Charles Farrell’s photographs is that he never forgot how important women and children were to the fishing industry. In all his travels, he paid attention to both the men and women in fishing communities, and also to the children.

Terrapin Point Fishery, Merry Hill (Bertie Co.), N.C., May 5, 1941. The fishery was first established by the Winston family before the Civil War. You can see the fishermen laying out a small haul seine on the far side of the dock. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Terrapin Point Fishery, Merry Hill (Bertie Co.), N.C., May 5, 1941. The fishery was first established by the Winston family before the Civil War. In the 1930s, many of the fishermen apparently worked at one of the fishery owner’s two local lumber mills when it wasn’t fishing season. You can see them hauling in a seine on the far side of the dock. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

For that reason, we often see sides of the commercial fishing industry in Farrell’s photographs that we rarely see in the work of other photographers at that time– or now. He didn’t just visit fishermen, and he didn’t just photograph fishermen with their boats and nets.

Instead, Farrell also directed his camera’s lens toward the women and children heading and gutting fish, canning roe, peeling shrimp, mending nets and shucking oysters. It’s very unusual for that time and for today, too.

One of the workers at the Terrapin Point fishery, Merry Hill, N.C., 1941. Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

One of the workers at the Terrapin Point fishery, Merry Hill, N.C., 1941. Photo by Charles Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I don’t know, but I have wondered how much this focus on women’s work reflected his wife Anne’s influence. They were very much partners in his efforts to document the state’s fishing communities, as in the rest of their lives.

Anne Farrell was very knowledgeable about photography. She was the co-proprietor of their photo supply shop in Greensboro, N.C., and she ran the shop on her own for many years after he grew ill in the 1940s. She didn’t always accompany him on his trips to the coast, but she often did.

As I looked through the Charles A. Farrell Collection at the State Archives, I could even tell that she was sometimes the photographer, not him, because he appears in some of the photographs. I couldn’t begin to guess how often she was behind the camera. However, I do assume that she at least occasionally took coastal photographs that are attributed to him. She may also have occasionally influenced her husband’s choice of subjects, though again I don’t really know.

Farrell visited one of Roy Hampton’s fisheries on the Roanoke River, just west of Plymouth, N.C., in April of 1939. These fishermen are hauling in the seine with a hand-turned capstan, like the ones used on sailing ships to raise anchors and heavy ropes. According to Hampton’s son (quoted in Charles L. Heath, Jr.’s fascinating 1997 M.A. diss. at ECU), the fishermen and women at this fishery came from a rural community called High Piney in Martin County. They lived in Plymouth during the fishing season. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

As I look at Farrell’s photographs, I am also struck by the central role that African Americans played in the herring fishery. I won’t say any more about that here, but I think the photographs speak for themselves.

Hampton Fishery, Plymouth, N.C., April 1939. The fishermen spread the seine between this boat and another just like it, then hauled it to shore with the winch in our previous photograph. In the background we can see the North Carolina Pulp Co. When it was built two years earlier, it launched an economic boom in Plymouth but came at a cost: the owner of this fishery, Roy Hampton, waged a long battle against the company for releasing sulfurous pulp waste into the Roanoke River and decimating his two fisheries, Kitty Hawk and Slade. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

One of Roy Hampton’s two fisheries, Kitty Hawk or Slades, in Plymouth, N.C., April 1939. The fishermen will spread the seine between these two boats, then haul it ashore with the capstan seen in our previous photograph. Upriver we can see the North Carolina Pulp Co.’s mill. Built two years earlier, the mill launched an economic boom in Plymouth, but prosperity came at a cost: Roy Hampton waged a long battle against the company for releasing sulfurous pulp waste into the Roanoke River and decimating his fisheries. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I am a little disappointed that I wasn’t more successful at finding people that could fill in more of the details about the scenes in these photographs. Over the last few years, I’ve been carrying Farrell’s photographs back to the fishing communities where he took them and sharing them with the families of the men and women in the photographs.

I’ve also shared them with many local commercial fishermen and other coastal people that have a knowledge of the kinds of fishing that we see in the photographs. Their insights have been especially helpful in interpreting what is happening in the photographs in a deeper way.

Fisherman at the Brickle fishery near Edenton, N.C., ca. 1937-39. When Farrell visited the site, he saw a sign of changing times: the fishermen were hauling in their seine with a line attached to an automobile's axle. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

A weary fisherman at the Brickle fishery on Albemarle Sound, SE of Edenton, N.C., ca. 1937-39. When Farrell visited the site, he saw a sign of changing times: the fishermen were hauling in their seine with a line attached to an automobile’s back axle. No more horses or mules. No more doing it with hand-turned capstans. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Overall I feel as if I have been fairly successful. I have learned a tremendous amount from many different people who were kind enough to share their time and knowledge with me.

You can see the results in my photo essays featuring Farrell’s work in those other fishing communities. So far I’ve published pieces on the photographs that he took in Colington, Southport and at two sites in Onslow County, a mullet fishing camp at Brown’s Island and a village on the New River that was later destroyed to make way for the construction of Camp Lejeune.

Herring fisherman in a cypress dugout, Roanoke River, probably near Plymouth, N.C., ca. 1937-39. When it came to herring, there was a niche for just about everybody: lone fishermen from Plymouth's black neighborhoods, for instance, built their own dugouts and drifted netted for herring, then sold them door-to-door. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring fisherman in a cypress dugout, Roanoke River near Plymouth, N.C., ca. 1937-39. When it came to herring, there was a niche for just about everybody: lone fishermen from black neighborhoods, such as Sugar Hill in Plymouth, often built their own dugouts and drift netted for herring, then sold the fish at the shore or had children hawk them door-to-door in town. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Time has been passing though, and as we all know, time can be very unforgiving when we’re trying to hold onto the voices of the past. So far I have utterly failed at finding the people that might tell me more about these photographs of herring fisheries on the Chowan and elsewhere in northeastern North Carolina. I haven’t given up hope though. Perhaps someone will read this and say something like,” Well gracious, he should talk to my great-aunt Daphne!”

I will be waiting for that call.

* * *

Cannons Ferry seems a bit like a ghost town now. A few years ago, I drove down to that side of the Chowan River to see if I could find anybody that might be able to identify some of the people in Farrell’s photographs. I found a nice little boardwalk with signs that discuss the herring fishery’s history, and there’s a beautiful view of the river. But mostly I remember empty homes, old wharf pilings and a few abandoned cinderblock buildings.

Farrell also visited an anchor gill net fishery just outside of Edenton, N.C. ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Farrell also visited an anchor gill net fishery on the edge of Edenton, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I was hoping that I might even find some of the people that used to work at Cannons Ferry in the 1930s still alive or at least find their children or grandchildren that could tell me about them.

If I did, I hoped that they might be willing to sit a spell and tell me what it was like.

Herring worker, probably at Terrapin Point near Merry Hill (Bertie County), N.C., ca. 1937-39. In between hauls, the women sometimes got a chance to take catnaps. Many fisheries ran day and night. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring worker, probably at Terrapin Point near Merry Hill (Bertie County), N.C., ca. 1937-39. Between hauls, the women sometimes had a chance to take catnaps. Many fisheries ran day and night. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

While I was down there, I did meet a group of local fishermen that had just come off the river. (They weren’t herring fishing.) We spread out copies of Farrell’s Chowan River photographs on one of their pickup trucks and looked at them together, which I think we all enjoyed.

They had things to tell me about herring fishing for sure, but every time they thought they might recognize one of the people in a photograph, they’d hesitate and say something like, “Well, they’ve been dead a long time now,” or “Their family moved away a long time ago.”

Young couple probably at the Terrapin Point fishery, located where in the Cashie River, the Roanoke & Albemarle Sound come together in Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

One of my favorite Farrell photographs: a young couple at the Terrapin Point fishery at the mouth of the Cashie River in Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Cannons Ferry is a beautiful place, though so many of its old homes seem to have been abandoned and all that’s left of the fishery are those old pilings and the remains of old fish sheds. The river’s dark waters are broad there, the shores lined as far as you can see by cypress trees, and you can’t help but feel that you’re on the edge of something great and mysterious and wild.

I was there at dusk and when I looked out on the river, I saw hardly a light. I saw only mile after mile of the cypress glades that mark the edge of the great swamplands that reach north up into the Great Dismal.

Before getting in my car and heading home, I walked up the road a little toward those swamps, passing maybe a half-dozen old fish camps. I could hear a whippoorwill singing not too far off, and I thought about the people in these photographs, and how interesting and how beautiful they all look. As I walked along the shore, I thought I could almost hear their heartbeats.

*  * *

2 thoughts on “The Herring Workers

  1. So, how is the herring business these day?

    I have not bought a favorite can of herring for many years and your piece jumps up my interest. Economically, what is the estimated value annually of all herring processed and sold world wide? Are certain countries heavy users compared to the rest of us?

    Like

  2. I love this! My father (born 1910) told me that my grandmother used to work in shrimping in Brunswick, GA in the 1920’s and 1930’s. My father and uncle used to cook fish and shrimp for people to eat. Maybe someone took pictures of the shimpers that is similar to these NC herring worker’s photos.
    Seeing the women in these images made me think of my father’s stories. Thank you for sharing this information.

    Liked by 1 person

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