This is part of a series in which I take a deep dive into the stories behind historical photographs from the North Carolina coast.
This is a photograph of Charles P. Dey and his brother John Wesley Dey’s menhaden oil and scrap mill at Lennoxville, a mile and half east of Beaufort, in Carteret County, N.C., circa 1890. Their mill, or factory, was the first successful industrial-style menhaden operation on the North Carolina coast.
In a way, the Deys launched a new age of commercial fishing on the North Carolina coast. At the end of the 19th century, the menhaden industry grew into the state’s largest, most profitable commercial fishery and it remained at the heart of coastal life for more than a century.
Prior to the opening of the Dey factory in 1882, local menhaden fishing was typically a very different kind of business: less industrial, less oriented to distant markets and far smaller.
In those days, and particularly before the Civil War, coastal farmers often harvested the silvery little fish with sweep nets, standing on shore, and used the fish to fertilize their fields.
Other times local fishermen caught menhaden in sweep or gill nets using two-man sailing dugouts called cooners or other open sailing boats. They then traded them to farmers inland to use as fertilizer or poultry feed. In exchange for the fish, they received corn, sweet potatoes or other crops.
Around the time of the Civil War, a few small camps of fishermen began to do a little more with menhaden, which were known locally as “pogie,” “shad” or “fatbacks.”
In roughhewn camps that were often located on islands in local sounds, near where they made their catches, they separated the menhaden oil and scrap, which was what was left after they removed the oil.
At those camps, they did the cooking and pressing of the fish by hand with little mechanical help, not wholly unlike how local fishermen extracted oil from the blubber of whales and dolphins.
The scrap could be dried and used for fertilizer or animal feed, and there was a small market for the oil, particularly in Baltimore. However, locals found uses for the oil at home, too.
Among other things, they used the oil as a vermin treatment for cattle, hogs and other farm animals. They also mixed it with tar and used it to make waterproof paints for house roofs and for the hulls of their boats.
As fishermen in the British Isles often did, some local boatmen also coated their sails with a mixture of ochre, tar and fish oil. The mixture was said to preserve their cotton sails from the slow rot caused by exposure to seawater.
The use of the ochre left the sails with a red tint that was a strikingly beautiful sight near the end of the day, when the sun was setting and the sea seemed festooned in shades of red.
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Charles P. Dey first recognized the potential for a different kind of local menhaden fishery while he was an engineer on a Union troop train that ran between New Bern and Morehead City, just across the Newport River from Beaufort, during the Civil War.
At the time, Beaufort, Morehead City and New Bern had all been captured by Union forces and were under Federal occupation.
The Dey brothers didn’t launch the first menhaden factory on the North Carolina coast. Perhaps a handful of other, smaller operations had tried to make a go out of it since the Civil War.
In his authoritative study of the subject, Beyond the Crow’s Nest: The Story of the Menhaden Fishery of Carteret County, North Carolina, my friend Steve Goodwin recalls several of those enterprises. They included a small “hand factory” at Harkers Island, a more modern factory owned by the Excelsior Oil and Guano Co. at Portsmouth Island and another up-to-date factory established by a Rhode Island firm near Oregon Inlet, among others.
None of them lasted very long though. The Deys brothers’ factory at Lennoxville was the first of the state’s modern menhaden factories– the kind that would dominate the local industry for the next 123 years– to become a truly successful business venture.
Originally from Newark, N. J., the Dey brothers were two of many Carteret County menhaden industry leaders who came from the Jersey Shore and Long Island Sound in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The modern, far larger and more mechanized version of the U.S. menhaden industry had first developed in and around Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, beginning in the first half of the 19th century.
One of the world’s first industrial fisheries (preceded only by whaling), the new kind of menhaden fishing quickly spread from Rhode Island to the rest of New England as well as to Long Island and northern New Jersey.
In our photograph, we can see two men standing next to the Deys’ factory, an exemplar of the new, more industrial way of catching and processing menhaden. The pair may be talking in front of the shed that housed the factory’s steam engines that ran its machinery and pumps.
On the far side of the factory, you can see the top of the fish elevator. The factory’s hands pumped the menhaden out of the company’s boats and into the factory through that structure.
On the other side of the factory, not seen here, a dock reached into Taylor’s Creek near where it met North River, a broad estuary that mingled with the waters of Back Sound.
Inside the factory, workers often steamed hundreds of thousands of fish a day in more than a dozen vats. After steaming them, they placed the fish in hydraulic presses that separated the fish and oil.
They piped the oil into an “oil room” for processing and then into barrels, while they spread what was left of the fish (the scrap) onto planks that covered a two-acre field behind the factory, seen in the foreground here. On the near right, a tarpaulin protects a pile of fish scrap from the weather.
After drying the fish for several days, the factory’s workers collected, bagged and stored the scrap in the warehouse to the left.
The Deys‘ workers transported the fish scrap to fertilizer companies on the North Carolina coast and beyond. Those companies combined the scrap with ingredients such as bone meal, guano and potash in order to serve southern farmers that were struggling to improve exhausted soils and still learning how to farm profitably without slave labor.
The Dey brothers’ first shipment, in June 1882, had been to the Navassa Guano Co. at Meares Bluff, a fertilizer company on the Cape Fear River 5 miles upriver of Wilmington, N.C.
For years the Navassa Guano Co. purchased a large majority of the fish scrap produced at the Dey brothers’ factory as well as that of the handful of other fish oil and scrap mills scattered along the North Carolina coast.
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The Dey brothers’ oil and scrap mill was a thoroughly modern enterprise: the factory utilized 48 horsepower engines, hydraulic pumps and lifts and an extensive system of steam piping.
As of 1887, according to Steve Goodwin’s research, the company employed 34 men in the factory and another 40 men worked the company’s fishing boats. The fishing season stretched over eight months of the year.
The factory’s workers included boat builders, who, in the period from 1882 to 1887, built two fishing steamers, a schooner and a large number of smaller wooden boats for catching the fish.
As was standard in the northern fishery, the brothers employed fishing steamers of a kind first built in Rhode Island in 1870. Each vessel carried a pair of smaller wooden boats in which the boat’s crew caught the small, oily fish with rigs called “purse nets.”
The Menhaden Industry’s Rhode Island Roots
The first menhaden fishing steamer was designed and built at John Brown Herreshoff’s legendary shipyard in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1870. Herreshoff, who was blind, built the steamer for the Church brothers, seven brothers, all captains of vessels, who owned a menhaden factory a few miles away in Tiverton, Rhode Island.
By the late 1800s, the average weight of the new menhaden steamers was about 60 tons. Typically, they were built of yellow pine, with white-oak frames, and they had a water-tight tank in their middle in which the crews of 12 to 15 men stowed their catches.
The lineage of the menhaden fishing rig called a “purse net” or “purse seine” is less clear. In the late 1870s, however, a federal fishery biologist named G. Brown Goode was told that a Maine fisherman invented the rig in or about 1837.
Goode believed the rig was first used to catch menhaden near Seaconnet, Rhode Island, some years later.
The opening of the Dey factory was also a landmark event of another kind. It marked the dawn of a tough, hardscrabble and tight-knit community of menhaden fishermen and factory workers and their families—Lennoxville.
Steve Goodwin, whose father was a menhaden boat captain in Beaufort, has a wonderful description of Lennoxville’s early history in his book Beyond the Crow’s Nest: The Story of the Menhaden Fishery of Carteret County, North Carolina.
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After the arrival of the Dey brothers, other menhaden companies followed. By 1913 there were four fish oil and scrap mills in Beaufort/Lennoxville, three others a few miles west in Morehead City and two others just to the east, one in Smyrna and one in Williston.
For the next 120 years, Lennoxville was known for its fish factories and a way of life that revolved around factory whistles, company cook houses and hauls of millions of fish a year.
Lennoxville life also revolved around the comings and goings of boats and their crews to menhaden fishing ports as far away as Monmouth, New Jersey, and Moss Point, Mississippi.
At those times, fishermen and sometimes factory workers too were often gone for months at a time, before they came back home to Lennoxville.
For all intents and purposes, Lennoxville was a company town, or most often a companies’ town—and the companies were menhaden fishing companies.
On the other end of Taylor’s Creek, the town of Beaufort attracted many summer visitors. Few ever got to Lennoxville’s decidedly unfashionable end of the creek. Nonetheless, if the wind was blowing right, the summer visitors got a good indication that it was not far off. The aroma of drying fish scrap was hard to miss.
The last menhaden factory in Lennoxville—and the last in North Carolina—closed its doors in 2005. According to Steve Goodwin, who should know if anybody does, Lennoxville produced more menhaden boat captains than any other community in Carteret County.
As always, the work of my friends Steve Goodwin and Barbara Garrity-Blake has been my guide to the history of the menhaden industry in Carteret County—thank you again, Steve and Barbara. If you want to learn more, be sure to find a copy of Steve’s landmark study, Beyond the Crow’s Nest, and also be sure to check out Barbara’s groundbreaking work in “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing.”