In the autumn of 1938, the photographer Charles Farrell visited a gang of mullet fishermen from Varnamtown while they hauled their nets on Bald Head Island, down in the far southeast corner of the North Carolina coast.
Through the eyes of Sneads Ferry's oldest residents, I came to see Charles Farrell's photographs as a window into a time when most of the village's people still made their livings from the sea.
Far more than I usually do, I am noticing the beauty in even the smallest, most everyday parts of my world.
Our trio of hogs cleaning up after a fishermen’s oyster or clam dinner on the sound side of Brown's Island. The fishermen left a pair of oyster knives stuck in the benches. The white belted animal on the right is a Hampshire, while the other two are mixed breeds. Hampshires are one of the oldest hog breeds in the U.S., popular for their easy temperaments, hardiness and foraging ability, all of which suited them well to life on Brown’s Island.
A Sunday visitor. The nearest villages to the Brown's Island mullet camp both lay 12 miles west at the mouth of the New River, a long haul anyway you made it in that day. “Yet most Sundays the girls arrive,” the photographer, Charles A. Farrell, noted. This young fan of Mickey Mouse was Elizabeth Turner (later Taylor). She lived on her aunt’s farm on the other side of Browns Sound and often visited the fishermen with her aunt and sisters. “Every fishermen on the island wanted his picture made with this charming lass,” Farrell wrote on the back of the original print.
Mullet roe drying in the sun, Brown's Island, 1938. The salted and sun-dried egg sacs of jumping mullet were a local delicacy and at least occasionally brought high prices in the New York market. The big roe mullet usually began to appear in local waters in late October or early November. After slitting open the fish’s belly and removing the roe, the fishermen washed and salted the roe and let it soak in the salt for two or three hours.
Two fishermen, brothers Carroll Lawrence and Lloyd Lawrence, salting spots on the sound side of the mullet camp at Brown’s Island. Carroll is coating the fish in salt in the big tray, while Lloyd is packing the fish in kegs. Once packed in salt, the fish will keep throughout the winter and well beyond.
The Gillikins and Lawrences carrying their surfboat, loaded with the mullet seine, to its resting place above the high tide line. Two rows of fishermen lifted the boat holding strong beams across their shoulders fore and aft, secured to the boat by a pair of heavy lines that ran stem to stern.
Briant Gillikin leaning on a mullet boat by a dune on the ocean side of Brown’s Island.
An interior view of one of the mullet camp’s bunkhouses. Capt. Briant Gillikin, the number two man in the camp, rests in the bunk on the left. The man in the other bunk is unidentified. The pine board walls are reinforced with wooden crates, some of them probably containing canned goods.
Young fishermen in camp at Brown's Island. A pair of heavy ash push-poles or long oars rests against the tar paper-and-slat roof of one of the camp cabins. On the far left, behind the young man in bib overalls and a pith helmet, a line of cork floats dangles from a nail. A cooking pan hangs on the wall behind him, and a washbasin sits on a shelf next to the cabin door.
Buck Gillikin, cook. Young Gillikin is making biscuits in a one-room cabin that served both as a kitchen and one of half-a-dozen bunkhouses at Brown's Island.
Leonard Gillikin posing with pipe on the ocean beach at Brown's Island. He is leaning on a tripod, presumably one that Charles Farrell used to support his camera. Though relatively young—he was born in 1913— Gillikin was the lead man on the mullet gang at Brown’s Island.
Bedford Lawrence on the ocean beach at Brown’s Island.
A view of the mullet camp from the ocean dunes facing the sound side of the island.
In the autumn of 1938 a photographer named Charles A. Farrell visited a seasonal mullet fishing camp at Brown’s Island, in Onslow County, N.C.
Few coastal visitors know that the secluded hammock of Davis Ridge was once home to an extraordinary community founded by liberated slaves. Nobody has lived at “the Ridge” since 1933, yet the legend of those African American fishermen, whalers and boatbuilders still echoes among the elderly people in the maritime communities between North River and Cedar Island that locals call “Down East.”