The Lost Photographs: Remembering North Carolina’s Fishing Communities in the 1930s and ’40s

Manns Harbor, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Manns Harbor, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Over the last several years, I have written a series of photo essays focusing on Charles A. Farrell’s photographs of fishing communities on the North Carolina coast in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

This is the tenth and last essay that I am devoting to Farrell’s remarkable collection of photographs.

In this essay, I will showcase photographs that he took on Cedar Island, Wanchese, Manns Harbor and one or two other fishing villages that I have not previously featured in this series, as well as a few old favorites.

Fish house worker, herring and shad fishery, Terrapin Point (Bertie County), N.C., ca. 1938. Photo by Charles A. Ferrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Fish house worker, herring and shad fishery, Terrapin Point (Bertie County), N.C., May 1941. Photo by Charles A. Ferrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

But I mainly want to do something else, and it is something that maybe I should have done when I began this series. At that time, I suppose that I was afraid that it would distract from the people and places in his photographs.

But now I think it is time to explain why Charles Farrell never published his extraordinary photographs and why he and his photographs were forgotten for so many years.

Herring fisherman on the Chowan River near Colerain, ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring fisherman on the Chowan River near Colerain, ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

* * *

That story goes back to the 1930s when Farrell, and often his wife Anne, began traveling the backroads of the North Carolina coast.

At that time, they lived in Greensboro, N.C., where they ran an art supply business, camera store and photography studio called The Art Shop. But whenever they could spare the time, they headed east to the coast.

A 5-masted schooner on Currituck Sound ca. 1937-39. That was the very end of the Age of Sail in shipping, when only a few large carriers of grain, coal, fertilizer and other bulk goods still came into North Carolina waters. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

One of the last great schooners to visit North Carolina waters, Currituck Sound ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

How Charles Farrell came to feel so akin to the state’s fishing communities has never been clear to me. His father was an itinerant tintype photographer who, after the Civil War, traveled from hamlet to hamlet, making portraits for people who had often never seen a camera before.

Herring roe canning room, Perry-Belch Co., Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring roe canning room, Perry-Belch Co., Colerain, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I have wondered if Charles’  father used to visit the fishing villages that his son later grew so entranced by, and if his father’s stories later led Charles to visit those communities and fall under their spell. But of course, I don’t really know.

Brothers James Lewis Beasley, Jr. and Ralph Beasley at play on Little Colington Island, ca. 1938. They are playing a game the village children called “hoop and wire,” using an old coat hanger and a round gill net weight. both boys grew up and became commercial fishermen. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Brothers James Lewis Beasley, Jr. and Ralph Beasley at play on Little Colington Island, ca. 1938. They are playing a game the village children called “hoop and wire,” using an old coat hanger and a round gill net weight. Both boys grew up and became commercial fishermen. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

What I do know though is that Charles kept returning to those fishing communities again and again, as if he was searching for some lost part of himself by the sea.

Beginning in 1936 or 1937, he began  documenting life and work in dozens of the state’s fishing communities.

Salted mullet roe drying in the sun, Brown's Island (Onslow County), N.C. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Salted mullet roe drying in the sun, Brown’s Island (Onslow County), N.C. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Those of you that live on or often visit the North Carolina coast will recognize the names of some of the places that he visited—Beaufort, Southport, Nags Head, Manteo, Edenton and others.

Mother and child, probably members of the Taylor family, Sea Level, N.C., ca. 1935-40. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mother and child, probably members of the Taylor family, Sea Level, N.C., ca. 1935-40. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

You may or may not recognize the names of some of the other places he visited: Terrapin Point, Colerain, Brown’s Island, Marines, Stumpy Point and others that barely exist anymore, though some of them were among the state’s most important centers of commercial fishing in the 1930s.

An enchanting young couple at the Terrapin Point shad and herring fishery in Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1938-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

An enchanting young couple at the Terrapin Point shad and herring fishery in Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1938-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The most compelling thing about Farrell’s work to me has always been that he had a special eye for those that usually go unseen in historical photographs of North Carolina’s fishing communities: women, people of color, children and the aged.

Young boy and woman, perhaps his mom, on front porch of a general store probably in Nags Head, but possibly elsewhere in Dare County, ca. 1938-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Young boy and woman, perhaps his mom, on front porch of a general store probably in Nags Head, but possibly elsewhere in Dare County, ca. 1938-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

In addition, Farrell carried his camera places that other photographers did not go: the insides of canneries and fish houses, the mess halls and engine rooms of fishing boats, salting sheds, net lofts, bunk houses and wherever else he found those that made their livings from the sea.

Farrell visited this herring fishery 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. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Farrell visited this herring fishery on the Roanoke River, just west of Plymouth, N.C., in April 1939. The fishermen are hauling in the seine with a hand-turned capstan, like the ones used on sailing ships to raise anchors and heavy ropes. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Now preserved at the State Archives in Raleigh, his photographs make up the fullest visual portrait of North Carolina’s fishing communities in the first half of the 20th century in existence.

Clams and clam rakes on the bow of a fishing boat, Sea Level, N.C., ca. 1935-40. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Clam rakes, Sea Level, N.C., ca. 1935-40. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

* * *

In the late 1930s,  Farrell signed a contract with William Couch, the editor-in-chief at the University of North Carolina Press, to publish a book that would feature his photographs of North Carolina’s fishing communities.

Farrell never finished that book, however. The photographs were never published in a book or anywhere else. For decades, the prints and negatives remained in boxes, all but forgotten, presumably either at the Farrells’ home or shop in Greensboro.

Fisherman, Terrapin Point (Bertie County), N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Fisherman at either Terrapin Point or the mouth of the Cashie River (Bertie County), N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

As gifted as he was as a photographer, Farrell soon realized that he had not developed his talents as a writer and the book that he and Couch envisioned was to have been a combination of photographs and writing.

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

But something else was going on, too, which I realized while I was doing background research on Farrell’s life in preparation for writing the first photo essay in this series.

Young Elizabeth Taylor (later Turner) visiting a mullet fisherman's camp on Brown's Island (Onslow County), ca. 1939. She recalled the visit when I spoke with her. At that time, she was 99 years old but has since passed. we can see salted spots drying on the cabin wall behind her. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Young Elizabeth Taylor (later Turner) visiting a mullet fishermen’s camp on Brown’s Island (Onslow County), ca. 1939. I met her when she was 99 years old and she recalled the visit in vivid detail. We can see salted spots drying on the cabin wall behind her. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

That photo essay was called “An Eye for Mullet: The Photographs of Charles A. Farrell.” In that first part of the series, I focused on just one group of photographs, which Farrell took at a mullet fishermen’s camp on Brown’s Island, in Onslow County, N.C., in 1938.

Southport, N.C., 1938. In Southport, 93-year-old ex-menhaden fisherman Charles"Pete" Joyner told me that he used to play with these boys. They'd cavort on the waterfront until the shrimp boats came in, then help unload the boats, They often helped their mothers peel and head the shrimp at the shrimp house where they worked as well. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Southport, N.C., 1938. When I visited his home in Southport, 93-year-old ex-menhaden fisherman Charles”Pete” Joyner told me that he used to play with these boys. They’d cavort on the waterfront until the shrimp boats came in, then help unload the boats. They often also helped their mothers peel and head the shrimp at the local shrimp houses. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

That photo-essay originally appeared in Southern Cultures, a scholarly journal published by the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A family getting a lovely little spritsail skiff ready for a trip up the sound, Wanchese, N.C., ca. 1989-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

A family getting a lovely little spritsail skiff ready for a trip up the sound, Wanchese, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

What I discovered was that Farrell was struggling with what would eventually become an incapacitating mental illness while he was working on his book of coastal photographs.

I learned something of his illness from his family. I spoke with his younger sister, one of his sons and one of his nephews. All generously shared their recollections of Charles Farrell with me. I appreciated this especially because, at least for his son, it was painful to do so.

Shrimp house workers, Southport, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Shrimp house workers, Southport, N.C., 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I also learned a good deal about Farrell’s mental illness from a collection of the family’s letters, diaries and other records that has been preserved at the Greensboro Historical Museum.

Ms. Annie Mills Norton Wiggins mending a gill net, Sneads Ferry, N.C., ca. 1936-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Ms. Annie Mills Norton Wiggins mending a gill net, Sneads Ferry, N.C., ca. 1936-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

I still do not fully understand the nature of his ailment, however. All I know for sure is that he struggled to write the book in the early 1940s, when he first tried to put pen to paper. That is evident in a series of correspondence between Farrell and his editors that is preserved at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Fish house worker resting between seine hauls, Terrapin Point shad and herring fishery, Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1938. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Fish house worker resting between seine hauls, Terrapin Point shad and herring fishery, Bertie County, N.C., May 1941. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

But the fate of Farrell’s coastal photographs was really sealed a few years later, in 1948, when he was hospitalized in Greensboro.

While in the hospital, Charles Farrell underwent a neurosurgical treatment called a “transorbital lobotomy.”

They were better known as “icepick lobotomies.” The first one in the U.S., which was performed at George Washington University in 1936, was actually done with an icepick.

Gill-net fisherman, Edenton, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Anchor net fisherman, Edenton, N.C., ca. 1937-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

In performing the procedures, surgeons severed the connections to the brain’s prefrontal cortex by driving a surgical tool through the patient’s eye socket with a small mallet.

Most Americans know of lobotomies, if they know of them at all, one of two ways. Some recall that Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of Pres. John F. Kennedy, had a prefrontal lobotomy in 1941. She was incapacitated the rest of her life, and the Kennedy family largely kept her out of the public eye.

Herring seine, Terrapin Point fishery near Merry Hill, in Bertie County, N.C., May 1941. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Herring seine, Terrapin Point fishery near Merry Hill, in Bertie County, N.C., May 1941. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Others remember the 1975 movie One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was based on Ken Kesey’s wonderful book of the same name.

At the movie’s end, Randall McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, is forced against his will to have a lobotomy to repress his rebellion against the asylum in which he was being held.

Shad fisherman, Wanchese, N.C., ca. 1935-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Shad fisherman, Wanchese, N.C., ca. 1935-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The peak year for the procedure’s use in the U.S. was 1949, just after Charles Farrell’s surgery. In that year, surgeons performed more than 5,000 transorbital lobotomies in the U.S.

Particularly in the 1940s and ‘50s, psychiatrists looked to the procedure for treating a host of mental illnesses for which they had no effective treatments at the time. Those mental illnesses ranged from schizophrenia to alcoholism.

Menhaden fishermen off Beaufort, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Menhaden fishermen off Beaufort, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The neurosurgeon most responsible for the procedure’s popularity in the U.S., Dr. Walter Freeman, referred to the desired effect as “surgically induced childhood.” Most patients, including Farrell, became passive, emotionally blunted and limited in their intellectual range.

Oyster shucking house, probably in Manns Harbor, Wanchese or Stumpy Point, ca. 1935-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Crab picking house (I think), probably in Manns Harbor, Wanchese or Stumpy Point, ca. 1935-39. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

The efficacy of transorbital lobotomies was widely debated. So was their morality. As early as 1950, some countries had banned them, considering them both ineffective and inhumane.

Reports of abuses of the procedure were also widespread.

In a sign of the mental health profession’s own maladies at that time, a strikingly disproportionate percentage of the procedures in the U.S. and other Western nations were done on women, often with an eye toward making them more docile and compliant.

Sitting on a porch probably in Nags Head, on Bodie Island. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Sitting on a porch probably in Nags Head, on Bodie Island. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

There is also some evidence that Dr. Freeman, at least, was more inclined to perform transorbital lobotomies on African American patients than on white patients.

I have also read accounts of surgeons using icepick lobotomies as a “treatment” for same-sex attraction. In a case I recently discovered near my home, a psychiatrist apparently also used the procedure in an unsuccessful attempt to “cure” a decorated World War II veteran of his affection for cross dressing.

Fisherman, Roanoke Island, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Fisherman, Roanoke Island, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

What led Farrell’s family and physicians to resort to a transorbital lobotomy is not clear to me. His surviving family, who were too young at the time to know for sure, suspect alcohol was involved.

But if the nature of his struggles is still mysterious, I do know this: Charles Farrell’s life as a photographer and artist ended on the day of his surgery.

When I spoke with his family, they told me that he lived a quiet, rather passive and apparently untroubled existence for the rest of his life. Unlike Rosemary Kennedy, he was never institutionalized, however. He could still speak intelligibly, and he still got around on his own a little.

Either Wachese or Manns Harbor, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Either Wachese or Manns Harbor, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

When I talked with his younger sister, she recalled that he even sometimes caught a city bus and went downtown to visit with old friends.

After her husband’s surgery, Anne Farrell ran The Art Shop until it went out of business in the early 1960s. She and Charles both lived until 1977. He died at the age of 84, and she was a year younger.

After their deaths, their son Roger Farrell, a distinguished professor of mathematics at Cornell, donated more than a thousand of Charles’ photographs to the State Archives of North Carolina. Roger and I talked about his father not long before he passed away in 2017 at the age of 88.

 * * *

Mullet fisherman Bedford Lawrence, Brown's Island, N.C., ca. 1937-39. His grandson, Mr. H. B. Lawrence, told me that he lived in Otway, N.C., worshiped at the North River Primitive Baptist Church, played fiddle at community square dances, had "an eye for mullet" and was no stranger to grief. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Mullet fisherman Bedford Lawrence, Brown’s Island, N.C., ca. 1937-39. His grandson, Mr. H. B. Lawrence, told me that he lived in Otway, N.C., worshiped at the North River Primitive Baptist Church, played fiddle at community square dances, had “an eye for mullet” and was no stranger to grief. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

When he took these photographs, we now know, Farrell was a broken man or, at the very least, a man on the edge of breaking.

I wish he could have known how much his photographs would come to mean to those of us seeking to understand North Carolina’s coastal past.

I also wish that he could have seen what happened when I carried his photographs back to the fishing communities where he took them and visited with the descendants of the people in those photographs.

Or what happened when I carried them to local fishing docks, spread them out at fish houses, took them to family reunions and church homecomings and shared them on local social media.

In several places, local people kindly hosted gatherings at community centers, local museums, and churches so that we could get together and look at the photographs and talk about them. At those events, we usually shared a supper and then I projected Farrell’s photographs on a screen.

How I wish he could have heard the memories that his photographs awakened, and the stories that spilled forth. How I wish he could have known the joy of it all, as we came face to face with his one true work of art, these portraits of a time and place bound deeply to the sea.

Graves covered with whelk shells, Cedar Island, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

Graves covered with conch (whelk) shells, Cedar Island, N.C., ca. 1937-41. Photo by Charles A. Farrell. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina

4 thoughts on “The Lost Photographs: Remembering North Carolina’s Fishing Communities in the 1930s and ’40s

  1. Thank you for this incredible series. As you say, I’m sure Farrell would have been very moved to know how his images mean to the fishing communities, and to those of us who are just learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved reading all. The photographs are remarkable in clarity and subject manner. My ancestors are from Brunswick County and majority grew up on Calabash River fishing for their next meal.  My mother loved mullet roe. She called it “poor man’s caviar”.  Best, Suzy King  From: David CecelskiSent: Wednesday, January 5, 2022 11:20 AMTo: calabashphotography@gmail.comSubject: [New post] The Lost Photographs: Remembering North Carolina’s Fishing Communities in the 1930s and ’40s David Cecelski posted: " Over the last several years, I have written a series of photo essays focusing on Charles A. Farrell’s photographs of fishing communities on the North Carolina coast in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This is the tenth and last essay that I am devot"

    Liked by 1 person

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