Varnamtown’s Fishermen at Bald Head Island, 1938

Mullet fishermen's feet, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fishermen’s feet, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina. All of Farrell’s photographs can be found at the State Archives’ flickr site.

According to his family’ papers at the Greensboro History Museum, the photographer Charles Farrell visited the Varnamtown fishermen at Bald Head Island, N.C., in the fall of 1938.

Varnumtown, Bald Head Island and Southport are all located in Brunswick County, on the far southeast part of the North Carolina coast. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

Varnumtown, Bald Head Island and Southport are all located in Brunswick County, on the far southeastern part of the North Carolina coast. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

At the time, he was staying in Southport, where he was photographing commercial fishermen and women mainly in the town’s two largest fisheries, the menhaden industry and the shrimp industry.

However, one day he also accepted an invitation to join a boating excursion across the Cape Fear River to Bald Head Island.

Bald Head Island, 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Bald Head Island, 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Today Bald Head Island is home to a sprawling beach resort (as well as a lovely wildlife preserve). At that time, though, the island was uninhabited, except for the likes of wild hogs and goats.

The wild hogs and goats roamed the island’s palmetto groves and live oak forests, looking askance no doubt at the fishermen, hunters and beachgoers that occasionally showed up.

Farrell did not expect to find commercial fishermen on the island that day. However, when he and his group arrived on the island, he discovered a crew of mullet fishermen at work. They were fishing on the ocean beach, not the river side of the island, quite likely on the same stretch of seashore and in much the same way as their families had been doing for generations.

(Mullet crews tended to be territorial, to say the least, and one did not tread on another crew’s beach lightly. Once a clan of fishermen claimed a beach, they often kept it for generations.)

Mullet fishermen, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fishermen, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. The 1930s were hard times on the North Carolina coast, but people found ways to make do: note the way that the fisherman on the right has “buttoned” his sweater. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Better known locally as “jumping mullet” or “popeye mullet” (for obvious reasons when you get to know them), striped mullet made up one of the most important saltwater fisheries on the North Carolina coast all the way from the late 1700s to World War II.

That was due partly to the incredible abundance of striped mullet in the waters just offshore the state’s barrier islands, particularly between Cape Lookout and the South Carolina border.

The striped mullet fishery also flourished because the fish take so well to being preserved with salt. Salting was the only method for preserving fish that was used extensively on the North Carolina coast prior to the introduction of mechanical ice making and refrigeration.

Mullet fishing at Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fishermen waiting to haul on the warp attached to the seaward end of the seine,  Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, North Carolina’s fish dealers shipped vast quantities of salt mullet across the Eastern Seaboard. Kegs of salt mullet were also a staple in local pantries and winter storehouses.

On Bald Head Island, Farrell learned that the mullet fishing crew there came from Varnamtown, a fishing village 12 miles to the west in the tidal waters of the Lockwood Folly River.

Most– and maybe all– of the mullet fishermen at Bald Head Island that day were members of the Varnam clan– if not Varnams, they were likely cousins by marriage or other distant relatives.

The Varnams were a tough lot, by reputation, and some of the best known fishermen, vessel captains and boat builders on that part of the coast.

Like so many of the old fishing families, the Varnams (sometimes spelled “Varnums”) came to the North Carolina coast from a maritime part of New England– in their case, Sagadahoc County, Maine. The first Varnam settled on the banks of the Lockwood Folly River not long before the Civil War.

Mullet fishermen at Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fishermen next to their boat in front of the shed where they stored the boat and gear, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. The man on the left, who looks like an ex-seaman, is holding one of the boat’s oars. The end of another oar is visible between the two fishermen in the middle. We can’t see it, but the seine is either loaded into the back of the boat or is drying on a net spread nearby. When the lookout spied a school of mullet, they carried the boat (loaded with the seine) into the surf suspended from two heavy poles, run crossways over the boat, each of the four ends supported by two or three fishermen.  Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The first Varnam to come south, Roland Varnam, is said to have met a Native American woman, Sarah Jane Pridgen, when he arrived.  The couple married and settled down by the shore and raised a family.

Over the generations, the Varnams stuck to the water: fishing, carrying freight and going to sea. Even into the early 1900s, the Varnams were building wooden sailing vessels, some of them for fishing and others for hauling freight between the little villages of Brunswick County and Wilmington.

Mullet fisherman, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fisherman on the ocean beach at Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Most mulleting crews had make-shift huts or cabins where they stayed during the fishing season. We don’t see them in Farrell’s photographs at Bald Head, but they may have been elsewhere on the island. I suppose it’s possible that they even stayed in one of the lighthouse keepers’ old houses, which were abandoned by that time. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

As late as 1900, Capt. W. H. Varnam built a 37-foot coasting schooner, the Lillie V. Three years later, Harry Varnam and Roland Varnam (perhaps the first local Varnam’s grandson), along with John Holden, built and launched a new sharpie, the H. and V. Royall.

I wish I knew who the specific fishermen in Farrell’s photographs were and something about more about them.

Mullet fisherman, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fisherman, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. He is resting on the bow of the crew’s boat with the shelter for the boat and their gear in the background. A fisherman this age might have still hauled the seine, but he might have been the camp’s cook or spotter. He might have just enjoyed a mullet fisherman’s life and joined the crew “to keep an eye on things.” If he was the spotter, he stationed himself up the beach and signaled the rest of the crew when he spied a school of mullet moving their way. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I have only a couple of guesses. One might have been Wesley B. Varnam, who had once been the keeper of “Old Baldy,” the Bald Head Island lighthouse, and knew the island especially well.

Another was almost certainly Johnny Varnum. I only know about him because he was a central figure in both a notorious double murder and a storied rescue of drowning swimmers.

In May of 1932, Varnum apparently discovered that his wife was having an affair with another man. He shot and killed his wife, then killed the other man. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to kill himself. He finally turned himself in to the local sheriff and was later given a 20-year sentence for manslaughter.

Mullet fishermen, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fishermen, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. They are fastening one end of the seine to the beach with a staff while other fishermen are rowing the crew’s boat through the surf and spreading the other end of the seine out in the water in an arc. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

In August 1937, however, Johnny Varnum was part of a prison work detail somewhere below Southport, presumably on Oak Island. The job of the prisoners on the work detail  was to catch and salt fish for the consumption of the state’s inmates.

While they were fishing there, a group of visitors from High Point, N.C., were cast fishing in heavy surf nearby.  A wave apparently knocked down a young boy, and a rip tide quickly pulled him over his head.  Seeing the boy in trouble, his mother and father and another woman went in after him, but all were soon panicking and in danger of drowning.

On hearing their cries, Johnny Varnum came to the rescue. Rushing to the scene,  he organized a chain of inmates from the shore into the breakers, with himself at the end of the chain reaching the four people in trouble and carrying them to safety.

Mullet fishermen, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fishermen, Bald Head Island, N.C., 1938. The crew’s boat is beyond this photograph’s frame to the left, leading the other end of the seine in an arc that will end up back on shore down the beach. The line, or warp, attached to the seine leads back to the staff and the two fishermen in the previous photograph. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

A year later, in September 1938, Johnny Varnum was given a full pardon and released from prison after only serving six years of his sentence. According to W. B. Keziah, the Southport Leader’s editor, he immediate joined his kindred from Varnamtown at the mullet fishery on Bald Head Island.

I don’t know which of the men in these photographs is Johnny Varnum, but he should have been there when Farrell visited the island.

This was still the Great Depression and we can tell that the gang of fishermen from Varnamtown was a threadbare lot. Note the shoeless, worn feet, the old, sun-bleached trousers and shirts and the one older fisherman (sitting next to the handsome young man in the straw hat) that used little wooden pegs to hold together his shirt, almost like toothpicks, instead of buying buttons.

In the 1930s nobody was making much money commercial fishing on the North Carolina coast, but the Varnamtown fishermen kept busy all year and seemed to be on the water all the time.

They fished for mullet on Bald Head Island in the fall. They joined Southport’s shrimping fleet when the shrimp were running, and they harvested oysters in the Lockwood Folly River in cold weather. When there wasn’t anything else to do, they retreated to their boatyards and fish houses, their duck blinds and hunting camps and the warmth of home and hearth.

Bringing a small haul of mullet onto the beach. In the distance, we can see "Old Baldy," the Bald Island Island Lighthouse, built in 1817 to mark the entrance to the Cape Fear River. The federal government ceased to operate the lighthouse in 1935. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Bringing a not very big haul of mullet onto the beach after the crew’s boat has brought the second end of the seine back to shore. In the distance, we can see “Old Baldy,” the Bald Island Island Lighthouse, built in 1817 to mark the entrance to the Cape Fear River. The federal government ceased to operate the lighthouse in 1935. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

5 thoughts on “Varnamtown’s Fishermen at Bald Head Island, 1938

  1. Your writing is a treasure, bringing to life old photographs and giving glimpses into ways of life that would otherwise be lost. You bring out the hearts of the hard-working people.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A few years ago we visited the fish market at varnumtown, and noticed a small shack out in the marsh across the way. One of the old timers there told a variation of the prisoner/surf rescue story. In his story the shack was gifted to the prisoner by the governor. I think he also said it was the only legally titled plot in NC wetlands!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes..that is across from what is known as “the landing” only by the locals..My Uncle Garland owned that fish house which is now owned by his son, Nicky Varnam (my cousin) and his wife, Jackie Varnam…great memories and a lot of history.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed this article and pictures so much. My Mama was born Gracie Varnam in Varnamtown..Wesley Varnam was my grandfather and Johnny Varnam was my great uncle. So very proud of my heritage and these hard working folks❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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