Late one night in 1862, a slave waterman named Dempsey Hill slipped into the customs house in Beaufort, N.C., removed copies of the latest nautical charts and buried them in the local cemetery-- the one people now call the Old Burying Ground.
Today I’m excited to start a special series called "The Story of Shad Boats." Over a dozen posts, I'll be exploring Earl Willis, Jr. and Mike Alford's extraordinary research on the origins, construction and history of those legendary traditional workboats that once graced North Carolina's coastal waters.
At the corner of Pollock and Cedar Street in this lovely historic town on the North Carolina coast, the Godette Hotel is a forgotten African American historical landmark that could have come straight out of the Academy Award-winning movie Green Book. Now the Town of Beaufort is making plans to demolish the hotel. “Why,” town councilman Charles McDonald asks, “are they trying to destroy all the black history in the community?”
In this photograph (above), we see the blackfish boat Margaret at an unidentified port probably in southern New Jersey in 1934. Standing in the bow is Capt. Einar Neilsen, a Norwegian immigrant. Capt. Neilsen was part of a largely forgotten enclave of Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch blackfish fishermen and their families that left New Jersey and made their homes in Beaufort, N.C., beginning in the 1910s.
The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has recently made available for the first time more than 20,000 historical photographs from America's fishing communities, including those here on the North Carolina coast. It is an extraordinary collection: the photographs from every issue of the National Fisherman, the leading trade journal of the commercial fishing industry.
On the other side of Union River Bay, just west of where I am staying on Mount Desert Island, in a village called Blue Hill, the menhaden oil and scrap industry was born, if one can say it was born anywhere.
One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.
My daughter Vera Cecelski just told me that Historic Stagville in Durham County still has a few tickets left for its Jonkunnu Lantern Tour! The Tour will include a Jonkunnu procession featuring incredible local drummers, some amazing dancers and lots of schoolchildren and it’s this Saturday, December 8th, at 5:15 PM! You can get tickets by calling (919) 620-0120.
A memory. As part of my research on the William F. Nye Co.’s bottlenose dolphin fishery at Hatteras Island, I visited Keith Rittmaster at the old mobile home trailer that he used as the headquarters for his research on stranded sea mammals.
A fish market crowded with fishermen, fish buyers and fishmongers at the bottom of Middle Street, on the Trent River waterfront, New Bern, N.C., circa 1905. A pair of fishermen in a sail skiff are culling their catch, while a boy, obscured by an older man, probably his father or an uncle, poles what is probably a log-built skiff around them.
I love to walk around old graveyards. One of my favorite places to wander among the headstones is near where I grew up. The graveyard is called Oceanview Cemetery, and it’s in the little coastal town of Beaufort, N.C.
My conversation with folk singer and social activist Guy Carawan had gone in surprising directions. When I called him, now almost a decade ago, I had really just wanted to know more about his pilgrimage to his father’s homeplace in Pamlico County, N.C. in the summer of 1953.
I called the legendary folksinger and social activist Guy Carawan after I listened to his oral history interview at the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was in his 80s when I contacted him. (He has since passed away.) He was very generous with his time and he seemed to enjoy re-visiting his younger days.
A waterfront scene in downtown Beaufort, N.C., ca. 1900. The sloop Nettie B. Smith and other boats nestle up to the county dock at the foot of Turner Street. As it does now, the town sat on a broad peninsula that was surrounded by oyster bays, salt marsh and tidal flats.
Waterfront at Beaufort, N.C., circa 1890-1900. Though dappled with age spots, this photograph captures well both the extent to which the harbor lay at the old town’s heart and the number and diversity of sailing craft that were typical of the port in the last days of the Age of Sail. Nearly 20 sailing vessels can be seen in a single glance westward down Taylors Creek and toward the inlet on a mid-day low tide.
While my collards are cooking, I am thinking about my Great-aunt Irene. She was my grandmother’s youngest sister. She was born in Core Creek, in Carteret County, N.C., in 1919. She and her brothers and sisters grew up on a remote little farm next to the salt marsh, but Irene looks beautiful and glamorous in the family’s old black and white photographs.
I grew up by the salt marshes and brackish creeks of a quiet North Carolina tidewater community that lies between the Neuse River and the Newport River at a place where they are both great saltwater bays on the edge of the sea. Oysters were just a part of my life. When I was a young boy, we still picked up oysters on the rocks off Mill Creek, or the flats off Harkers Island, and opened them and downed them, standing knee deep in the water without a thought to pollution or getting ill. Come the first cold snap in autumn, we relished oysters as the highlight of dinners that my grandmother Vera served every Sunday after church.
In 2009 and 2010, an extraordinary community project, called “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing,” commemorated the central role that the menhaden industry played here in Carteret County, N.C, for generations. Inspired by the closing of the state's last menhaden factory, Beaufort Fisheries, in 2005, the project involved a series of community forums, school events and documentary projects. Led by cultural anthropologist and local fisheries activist, and my old friend, Barbara Garrity-Blake, the project’s organizers worked hand-in-hand with former menhaden fishermen and factory workers to create a unique community-wide period of reflection on the passing of a way of life.