"Raising the Story" of Menhaden Fishing

In 2005, Beaufort Fisheries, the last menhaden factory in North Carolina, closed its doors.  Many would think that would be the "end of the story" but no so ... With the help of the NC Humanities Council and the hard work of many, the story - like the nets - has been "raised" once more.

Menhaden Day...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center Harkers Island, North Carolina

It has been five years since Beaufort Fisheries on the Beaufort waterfront closed its doors.  But the legacy doesn’t stop there. The story of menhaden fishing in Beaufort, NC is being “raised” once again through community meetings, on-going interviews, middle school projects, research and a day-long celebration of the men and women of this industry.  

menhadenboatsdock.JPG“Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing” was presented on Saturday, February 27th at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center on Harkers Island.  Captains, crew, pilots, seine menders, and factory workers will be on hand to share stories, photos, and answer questions about their experience in this unique fishery. A People’s Gallery of family photographs from the industry was organized for display during the celebration allowing every family to honor their loved ones who have worked in this industry. The Menhaden Chanteymen performed work songs that crewmen used to sing to raise heavy nets of fish before new technology made chanteys obsolete in the workplace. 

Helping organize the event was a group of industry members who have been working with researcher Barbara Garrity-Blake in an effort to keep the history, accomplishments, and stories of the menhaden fishery alive. In partnership with the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center, the menhaden group submitted a proposal to the North Carolina Humanities Council, and was one of nine projects accepted statewide. “Just as it has always been a group effort to raise the fish,” Garrity-Blake said, “we are pulling together to raise the story of menhaden fishing so that the legacy of the industry is not forgotten.” 

Local menhaden companies once provided hundreds of jobs in Beaufort and surrounding areas with numerous factories and vessels, including dozens of steamers that came from Virginia to work the lucrative fall fishery. Grocery stores, hardware stories, gasoline docks, and department stores all benefited from the influx of people and money during menhaden’s fall fishing.  The smell of "shad" cooking on Lennoxville Road was recognized throughout Carteret County as the smell of money that was an important part of this county’s commercial fishing industry. 

Menhaden fishing was also a part of the culture and community that has not been forgotten locally. “I miss the fish factory. I miss the money. I miss all the guys hollering and cursing each other. We got along pretty good down there" said Theodius Goode in one of the recent interviews that has been part of this project. 

Dr. David Cecelski, noted North Carolina historian, will also be part of the day’s program to discuss the cultural and historical role of menhaden in North Carolina’s history.

“Raising the Story” is a multi-year-long project, and the February 27th, 2010 event showcased what had been done so far, including oral histories, occupational profiles, a photo essay exhibition by Scott Taylor, and video interviews by Beaufort Middle School students. Joe Smith of NOAA presented an overview of the menhaden industry, and historian Steve Goodwin discussed the history of fish factories Down East. 

Those who caught the fish and processed fishmeal and oil answered questions about their personal experiences in a roundtable discussion, and the Menhaden Chanteymen brought to the program the importance of the old worksongs.  As Ernest Davis, one of the original Chanteymen explained, “Singing gave you more spirit and power to pull, raise your fish better. If you didn’t sing, you wouldn’t get them.” 

A highlight of the day was the People’s Gallery where families in the menhaden fishery shared photos of generations of industry work. This project was made possible in part by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Pogy Fishing Down East by Steve Goodwin 

When we think of menhaden fishing in Carteret County we usually think of Beaufort and the large number of boats tied up at the docks there during the Fall fishing season, as well as the different factories operating in the area for so many years. However, there is another chapter in the history of our county’s menhaden fishing, and that is pogy fishing down east. The boats and catches were smaller, the equipment was not as sophisticated as the ocean-going menhaden vessels, but the work was still hard, provided employment, and contributed to the local economy. 

Pogy fishing in the sound normally meant fishing in Core Sound and the waters surrounding Harkers Island, though it extended to Bogue Sound and other inland waters. The fishing occurred in the warmer months of the year, with some continuing into the Fall. In the early years, fishing for menhaden was done by people who lived in close proximity to the fish factory (i. e., Lennoxville, Davis, Smyrna) or where the boat tied up (i. e., Harkers Island,Williston, Davis). For example, there were crews that were made up of men entirely from Harkers Island or Smyrna Davis. This occurred predominately because of road conditions and available transportation. 

As time passed and modes of travel improved, more people throughout the eastern part of Carteret County became involved in the industry, from Cedar Island to Beaufort. Their jobs extended from the seine loft to the factory, from bunt pullers to pogy boat captains. Many people began their fishing careers in our sound waters and either they and/or their family members continued the work at other locations (i. e., New Jersey, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico). Some even returned, finishing their menhaden fishing careers in the sound, such as the Dudley and Willis families from Lennoxville. 

I believe there were three captains, if I’m not mistaken, David, there was three captains today on the Gulf waters who got their start on the sound, you and David Yates and was it Harvey Summers? Ok. Three of them still around here today. I have identified forty-four boats that I believe fished, at different times, for menhaden in Core Sound, as well as the other sound waters of Carteret County. Of this total, twenty-six were built east of the North River Bridge, from Bettie to Atlantic. Only a limited number were actually built for pogy fishing, with the rest being converted at some stage of their career from freight or some other type fishing boat. 

There were a number of boats involved in the trade, especially the early sailing vessels, that I could not identify. In 1865 the first menhaden factory in North Carolina was established on the shores of Harkers Island (I believe it was called Harper’s Island at the time). Without a doubt, it was just a simple operation, consisting of iron kettles for cooking the fish over an open fire, wooden hand presses for removing the oil from the fish, and the fish scrap being spread over an open area to be dried by the sun. They would be turned occasionally and covered if the weather was bad. The fish would be caught in gill nets from open skiffs or sail craft. 

This operation lasted until 1873, when the factory equipment was moved to Cape Lookout, but it never continued in business at that location. In 1866 the Excelsior Oil and Guano Co., from Providence, Rhode Island, established a factory at Portsmouth. Mr. S. H. Gray was the business manager. This was considered a modern plant for the time, having the proper equipment and facilities needed for processing menhaden. Undoubtedly, it was a vast improvement from the operation at Harkers Island. 

Fishermen came from up north, where they had pogy fished for many years. With them, they brought their well-seasoned knowledge on how to catch fish, as well as the boats and equipment needed to do so. A big improvement from what it was on Harkers Island. The problem was, their minds or eyes overshot what was available. An advertisement in the New Bern Daily Journal of Commerce dated December 14, 1866, stated that “The Excelsior Oil & Guano Company, of Portsmouth, N. C., are now prepared to offer to the Planters of North Carolina, Fish Guano, manufactured at their works, which they warrant pure and free from adulteration.”  However, the fishing in the area proved not to be as profitable as first imagined. The summer heat, limited quantity of fish, poor quality of the fish caught, and the shallow waters in the area led to the factory closing in 1869. 

The next menhaden operation in the county was the factory established at Lennoxville, just east of Beaufort, in 1881 by Mr. Charles Pittman (C. P.) Dey, who came to the area from up north specifically for the purpose of starting a menhaden factory here. This was a sizeable and successful factory, with a large planked platform for drying the fish. Mr. Dey’s boats had access to both the ocean and the sound waters. Several larger vessels (Nellie B. Dey and the C. P. Dey) fished in the ocean, and there were some other boats (i. e., Olympia, Bonito, and Convoy), both sail and motor, that fished in the sound. Mr. Dey became a prominent businessman in Beaufort, becoming involved in several other ventures, as well as performing civic responsibilities for the town. 

Also, there were several early menhaden factories on the North River side of Beaufort   (i. e., Ralph Howland in 1882 at Steep Point, Jones and Caffrey in 1885 at Lennoxville) that had boats fishing in the surrounding waters. Mr. Howland’s factory had a steam boiler, hydraulic press, steam pump, and used purse boats with seines. David Willis and myself discussed this many times. It’s hard to believe that down in our section of the woods back in the 1880s they had hydraulic presses, but we found information telling us that it was that way. The factory was capable of processing 2,000 barrels of fish per day. The letterhead of his business showed Ralph Howland as a “manufacturer of fish scrap and oil, dealer in fish and general merchandise and commission merchant.” 

Now we move to Davis Shore where Abram Davis, and before I get going let me point out this boat here, the Three Samuels, you see she’s got purse boats behind her, got the seine, and look at that guy up in the crow’s nest. And you think of hard duty, and they’ve got guys up there in the forward part area looking for pogies, going out fishing. and Daniel Bell had a fish scrap and oil factory in the late 1880’s and into the 1890’s. I told Mr. Ed Pond about this. he pointed out to me one dayThe location of their operation later became known as “Folly Field Garden”, highly recognized by the local people for the vegetables that were grown there, thanks to the great fertilizer capabilities of menhaden.  

In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, Anson F. Davis had a factory on the shore of Davis, which included two skiffs, fish seine, and the 45 foot sailing schooner Hattie D. In a published statement dated May 5th, 1908, Mr. Davis was shown as a “Dealer in general merchandise. Manufacturer of fish scrap and oil. Buyer and shipper of clams, terrapin and wild fowl.” Undoubtedly, these early menhaden fishing operations at Davis were small “hand factories”, with the work being performed by manual labor. 

In 1865, Sutton Davis purchased property on Davis Ridge. He was a black man who was a highly skilled carpenter, boat builder, and fisherman. He built two sailing schooners, the Mary E. Reeves (45 foot long) and the Shamrock (50 foot long)and a menhaden factory. His family fished the boats and operated the plant. I also credit them with fishing another vessel, theGorden, which had a gasoline engine. This was the beginning of a long line of family members who were involved in the menhaden business, including Captain David Davis, Captain Adrian Davis, and Captain Herbert Davis. 

In the early 1900’s, Mr. Charles Wallace established a pogy factory near Middens Creek in Smyrna. He earlier had a plant on Calico Creek at Crab Point, Morehead City, but the shallow waters proved too much for the sailing vessels used there. The factory started small, but became larger through the years, and was considered a successful business, remaining operational until the 1930’s. Mr. Lemuel Hardy Pake was a foreman at the Smyrna plant. He later moved to Lennoxville to manage the Dey factory. Another plant foreman at Smyrna was Mr. Leon Simpson, who later moved to Beaufort and managed the Fish Meal Company on West Beaufort. Two of his sons continued in the pogy business – one, Monroe, was the plant manager for Beaufort Fisheries and the other, Berkeley, was a menhaden boat captain, as well as his son Jackie.  

One of the more popular boats to fish for Mr. Wallace’s factory was the Sickle. She was built at Williston in 1910 by Zephania Willis as a two-masted sharpie, and she also was probably the only big work boat built in the county that had both an engine and sails before being launched. The original owner of the vessel was William Irvin Willis of Williston. The following year, Mr. Zephania built the Alphonso, a boat that was used for menhaden fishing, amongst other work-life duties, and also became a popular name in the waterfront history of Carteret County. 

Getting back to the Sickle, she carried a crew of men from Davis and, when not fishing, the vessel would be tied up at a stake in Core Sound off the Davis shore side. At the end of the fishing day, the pilot and engineer would take the Sickle to the plant at Smyrna to unload fish, while the crew would go ashore at Davis on the purse boats, then the vessel would return to Davis for the night. Albert Murphy was one of the captains who fished the Sickle. Captain Albert fished with a crew of eleven men, including himself. Ownership of the vessel changed in the 1940’s, and she began working out of Beaufort and Morehead City. William Irvin Willis, who was the original owner of the Sickle, also used the boat for menhaden fishing. He is listed as having a fish scrap and oil factory at Williston in 1914. Mr. Willis had a business arrangement with the E. H. & J. A. Meadows Co. of New Bern, which was a fertilizer manufacturer. Menhaden caught by the Sickle undoubtedly were an important part of the fertilizer sold by the Meadows Co. 

In the late 1890’s, Alonzo Willis is shown as having a fish scrap factory at Williston. In 1914, it was listed as a fish scrap and oil factory. I have not been able to find any other information on his business, other than the location was at Sandy Point.  In the book Once Upon A Time,Stories of Davis, North Carolina, by Mabel Murphy Piner,   James Salter states that Warren, George and Tom Gilgo had a fish scrap and oil factory on the north side of Oyster Creek, about where the bridge is today. This was built between 1900 and 1902. However, they only operated it for a few years.  William Anson Davis recalls that his father, who was born in 1893, worked at a fish scrap and oil factory at Oyster Creek as a young man. After being cooked, the fish were laid on the ground to dry, and were turned at certain times by horse and drag. If the weather was bad, the fish were covered with a tarp. 

As the years progressed, the fishermen moved from gill nets to purse seines and from sail to motor. When the larger purse boats came into being, they were rowed around, with four men using sixteen foot oars, and the seine setters physically throwed the net out of the boats while they were being rowed. The tom weight had to be put overboard and retrieved manually. They would carry stones in the purse boats to throw ahead of the fish to turn them so they would stay inside the net. Fish were moved from the net to the mother boat with a large bail net. There were no sleeping quarters on the boat. About ten to twelve men constituted a crew, with the men usually walking to the shore side each morning and returning home later that day the same way. 

At the end of the fishing day the cotton nets had to be “pickled” with salt to keep them from rotting, using continuous buckets of water to penetrate the salt through the nets. Captain Elmer Dudley told me that the salt came in one hundred pound bags, which they toted to the boats, spread on the nets, and then they would wash the nets with seventy-five to eighty buckets of water. On the weekends, the nets were taken out of the purse boats and put on a net reel. Monday morning, they were put back in the boats before another fishing week could begin. The crew hung the nets and mended them if they needed repair. There were no seine loft crews in the earlier years. 

Talking about menhaden fishing, Elmer Dewey Willis said, “it was a chance to make a dollar, and we were anxious to have the opportunity”. In 1917, the Portsmouth Fisheries Co. was incorporated with a capital stock of $105,000. Principal subscribers included Charles Wallace, W. M. Webb, and John M. Morehead. They built a factory on Casey’s Island (Casey’s Point) off the village of Portsmouth, which became operational in 1919.  Two years prior, there were two boats built for Portsmouth Fisheries at the Bell-Wallace shipyard, Morehead City, the Captainand the Colonel. In November 1919 the factory burned down when the night watchman dropped his lantern (or lamp) and the place caught fire. I think his name was George Dixon and he lost his life during that fire. 

There is an interesting story I got from Ellen Cloud relating to a fisherman named Morris Fulford, who was born on Portsmouth, grew up on Hog Island, and lived his married life  in Beaufort. He helped Tom Salter drive the well for the factory on Casey’s Island. Before this happened, the water for the factory had to be brought over from Portsmouth. While digging, they found a natural spring, that, I am told, still flows under the water surface today. Morris Fulford was one of the menhaden fishermen who lost their lives the night the Parkins sank.That night in December, 1942.  

In the mid-1930’s, Eddie Copeland of Morehead City started a menhaden factory on the south side of Oyster Creek, about where the boat ramp is now. The plant had two 100 horsepower steam boilers, one 36 foot drier, and one twelve foot press. Boats fishing out of there included the Amos, Olic, Lala G., and the Charmer. On a side note, during World War II, Mr. Copeland, operating out of his business in Morehead City, was awarded a government contract worth $40,000 to $50,000 for canned ground menhaden, which was to be shipped overseas as food.Didn’t know that, did you, Joe? Cecil Morris of Atlantic took over ownership of the Oyster Creek factory about 1940. Then in the mid-40’s it was purchased by his brother, Lambert Morris. I don’t know if he was known as Judge Morris at that time or not. One of our county judges. In the late 1940’s, Mr. Morris moved his menhaden business to Lennoxville, operating as Morris Fish Company. His foreman at the Oyster Creek plant, Mr. Will Dudley, moved to Lennoxville to run the newer factory. One of the boats fishing from there was the Lala G. 

Milton Styron told me of the time back in the 1940’s when he was dry boatman on the Lala G., fishing out of the Oyster Creek factory. It was during the Fall and they made a set in Styron’s Bay and caught 810 thousand menhaden. They caught the fish on a Tuesday morning, and started bailing them on the Lala G. until she was loaded, which was no more than 125 thousand, if that much. It took until Friday to get all the fish out of the net and to the factory.  In the Atlantic area there were several operations that were believed to be involved in the catching and processing of menhaden, although no factories existed like the ones at Smyrna and Oyster Creek. The facilities there normally would use what scrap fish were available, but often-times menhaden was the predominant fishing. 

In the early 1940’s, Lambert Morris had a processing plant at Hall’s Point and Gaston Fulcher had one in the area of Clem Fulcher’s Lane. It is not known how long they were in business.  Clayton Fulcher also had a facility at Atlantic where menhaden and other by-products of hauling and seining were processed. There was one boat, the H. C. Drewer, that was used for a period of time just for catching menhaden. The scrap was bagged and sold for fertilizer. The plant burned about 1954. Wallace Fisheries, which was the name taken by the menhaden business established by Charles Wallace, built a menhaden factory on Bogue Sound about 1911, on the site where the community college is today. From this location, they had access to fishing in both the ocean and the sound, though it was a few years later before they added the larger ocean fishing vessels to their fleet. 

Two of their boats that fished in the sound were the Alphonso and the Charmer. Captain Roy Goodwin of Lennoxville fished the Alphonso, but he tied up in Beaufort, where he and his crew lived. In the off-season, Captain Roy would take the Alphonso to Core Sound to catch clams and scallops.  Now we move over to Lennoxville and the Taylor’s Creek Fish Scrap & Oil Co., which began about 1917 and had a continuous involvement in pogy fishing in the sound, until it closed in the early 1930’s. Beaufort Fisheries replaced the outgoing factory and kept fishing in the sound until the mid-1990’s. 

Some of the boats fishing for both factories were the Bernice Cree, Reaper, Lloyd T., Tampa, and the Virginia Bell. During some fishing seasons both the Tampa and the Bernice Cree had crews from Harkers Island and would tie-up offshore the island when not fishing. Stacy Davis told me that he was pilot on the Bernice Cree, with his father as captain, and Stacy and the engineer would run the boat to the Beaufort factory to be unloaded, then back to Harkers Island for the night. While there, they sometimes would go uptown to the Sinclair dock for fuel.  Growing up as a young boy in Beaufort, a lot of my time in the summer months was spent in Taylor’s Creek, which we called the “Cut”. I well recall the smell of the factory, which was an accepted part of life, and the boats going up and down the Cut, particularly the Lloyd T., Virginia Bell,and the Sickle

All these boats had single story houses on the stern. When they went by, the water would be drawn away from the side of the bank, like it was being sucked by a vacuum cleaner. In the 1950’s, Beaufort Fisheries added some new boats to their sound fleet to replace the ones that had served their time. Three of these were built in Williston – the Bogue Sound, Jarrett Bay, and the newest Lloyd T. The Core Sound was also part of the fleet, as was the older Verona. All these boats were wooden. Then the Lennoxville, a steel boat, was built at New Bern, and in the 1970’s two more steel boats were added, the Jule and the Taylor’s Creek. Of these boats, the Taylor’s Creek is now being used in the summer months to fish for menhaden in the coastal waters of Massachusetts.  

In 1959, I started fishing on the Verona the day after school ended and quit the day before school started. I was sixteen at the time. The following summer I worked on the Bogue Sound,and continued working on this boat, while going to school, through the summer of 1963.  Some of our crew came from Beaufort and some from Morehead City. I had a 1947 Plymouth and for several summers I would go to Morehead each morning, Monday through Saturday, to pick up five men at their homes, and then go to the factory. This would take place way before daylight hours, usually about three o’clock, unless we were going to the waters off Atlantic, when we would leave the dock about midnight. 

On Mondays and Thursdays, we would stop at the Beaufort Ice Company to get a block of ice, which would go in the trunk of that old Plymouth. There was an ice box, insulated with tin, aboard the boat where we would keep our drinks and the food that needed to be kept cold. On the inside bottom of the box was galvanized piping, through which water was fed from a wooden keg behind the ice box. The block of ice was placed on the pipes. There was a faucet outside the box and a long handled drinking cup. Boy, was that water cold, but good on a hot day. 

As soon as we departed from the factory dock the purse boats were secured to the stern and we started moving toward the sound. Some of the men would try to get some sleep, though there were no bunks, while others would be in the galley talking, playing cards (with Tonk being the game of choice), or fixing breakfast on the Shipmate stove. At dawn, the call was made to get in your boots and put on your oilskins, so that we would be ready for that hoped-for daylight set, which usually proved to be the biggest set of the day. 

There was one airplane spotter for the five boats. The captain, mate and dry boatman were up the mast looking for a school of menhaden to set on. If the airplane spotter was not available, the dry boatman would row out to where the fish were and point out to the captain and mate when and where to part the purse boats so the net would begin to surround the fish. Pulling the net in was done totally by manual labor, as there were no power blocks the years I fished in the sound. After the net was hardened, the fish were taken aboard the mother boat by a four foot by four foot bail net. There were 14 to 15 men in the crew. 

In the 1950’s, Charles Davis, Eddie Copeland, and Otis Purifoy started the Seashore Packing Co., on Town Creek, Beaufort. A wooden boat, the Sea Dog, was built to fish in the sound for their processing plant. In the mid-1960’s, Charles Davis became the principal owner and the firm’s name was changed to Sea & Sound Processing Co. The Hush Puppy, a steel boat, was built to replace the Sea Dog. After the plant went out of business in the 1980’s the Hush Puppywas sold to a firm fishing out of Reedville, Virginia. She is still fishing there.  Back in 1984, James Styron started a menhaden bait business at Davis. For some years, his son, Kenny Styron, was captain of their vessel, the Capt. David, and Milton Styron was the pilot. The crew consisted of ten men, using two purse boats with power blocks. For several years the fish were bailed aboard the larger boat, but later a suction rig was added. When needed, a run boat, the Nadine S., was used to carry the extra fish. They were in business until 2003. 

Getting back to the Sound in the early fishery, if your name ended with Dudley, Goodwin, Lewis, Lupton or Willis and you lived on Lennoxville, either you or some of your kinfolks were involved in Sound fishing. I’d like to close by talking about someone I admire very much and that is Mr. Elmo Wade. When thinking of menhaden fishing in the years gone by, one of the names that comes to mind is Mr. Elmo Wade, a master boat designer and builder from Williston. 

A lot of pictures have been taken and articles written about the down east boat builders, and rightfully so, but very, very little has ever been mentioned or written about Mr. Elmo. Probably because he built commercial boats. From 1945 to 1956 he led a team of men in building twenty-one menhaden boats, fifteen of which were built for Harvey Smith on the property of the Fish Meal factory at West  Beaufort. The carpenters who assisted him in building these boats were predominately from Williston and Davis. The boats they built were well constructed, had beautiful lines and flare, and were very functional fishing in their trade. The large model of a menhaden boat in the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort was built by Elmo Wade. In the 1950’s, he  built three menhaden boats for Beaufort Fisheries to fish in the sound waters—the Core Sound, Jarrett Bay, and the Bogue Sound.  

About Menhaden Chanteymen

For more than a century, folklorists and ballad hunters have mined the North Carolina mountains for folksongs and traditional crafts, virtually unaware that such treasures could be found in abundance along the watery byways of the coast. Many of the richest folk traditions in the state are associated with maritime occupations, or "working the water," as people say.

In the town of Beaufort, in Carteret County, commercial fishing enterprises have long operated fleets to net huge catches of fish called menhaden, or shad as they're more commonly called by the local fishermen. In processing facilities along the water, the fish are converted to a variety of uses, from feeds and fertilizers to paints, perfumes, and Omega 3 oil supplements for the heart.The ship-board crews employed by menhaden companies have been predominantly African-American [del black] over the years, and the work assigned to them has been physically demanding. Menhaden are caught by encircling large schools of fish in two small "purse" boats, capturing the fish with a purse seine net which surround the fish with their nets. This purse seine must be pulled tight or "hardened," drawing it in from the bottom in order to capture the fish and lift them to the surface of the water. A "scoop" net once was used to bail the catch to the hold of the main fishing vessel. 

Since the late-1950s, this work has been performed with the aid of pumps, hydraulic winches and lifters; prior to this time it was done by hand. As it was not uncommon for a catch to exceed 100,000 fish, hardening the net required great strength and coordination on the part of the crew was a powerful process.To help ease and pace this extraordinary labor, the men sang "chanteys" or worksongs. Generally a leader would sing out the first line of the song by himself, to be answered with another line sung in harmony by the rest of the crew. The songs or lines were drawn from many sources, including lumber crews, road crews, prison yards, and hymns. 

Many of the chanteys were written by Beaufort-based fishermen during long, sleepless nights on the water.Folklorists Michael and Debbie Luster, hired by the North Carolina Arts Council in 1988 to survey the folk culture of Carteret County, were fascinated by what they'd heard of the chantey-singing tradition. They arranged a gathering of about a dozen retired fishermen, hoping that a few might be able to recall verses or even perform some of the old songs. Though they had not sung together in more than thirty years, the singers found their parts with ease. The lines were recollected almost effortlessly when they began to pantomime the action of working the net.

The great success of the venture persuaded the men to accept an invitation to perform in public at an event sponsored by the North Carolina Maritime Museum, in Beaufort. This reunion concert brought misty eyes to the audience and singers alike, and renewed the pride of the community in these beautiful sounds that once rolled across the water.After that memorable occasion, the Menhaden Chanteymen, as they liked to be called then, were constantly in the public eye. They performed for the North Carolina General Assembly and the National Council on the Arts, appeared at Carnegie Hall, and were featured on national television and radio. And every Friday night they gathered at the parish house of St. Stephen's Congregational Church in Beaufort to sing for themselves and to share the fellowship wrought by decades of rugged camaraderie at sea.


By David Cecelski

For the last six months I have been following this project celebrating the local menhaden industry’s history. As the guest of Barbara Garrity-Blake and Karen Amspacher, I attended the community forum at Ann Street United Methodist Church, where hundreds of Beaufort residents gathered to tell stories about the fishery’s glory days. Later, I joined Barbara at Beaufort Middle School, when Lee Crumbacker, Lionel Gilgo, and Ernest “King” Davis enthralled Ms. Boyette’s 7th grade class with stories about their menhaden fishing days. Barbara also shared with me Steve Goodwin’s unique collection of historical photographs of menhaden fishing and Scott Taylor’s poignant documentary photographs of what is left of the old Beaufort Fisheries factory.

Finally, she sent me an extraordinary group of oral history interviews that she did with people who had worked in the local menhaden industry. Over the last six months, Barbara talked with menhaden fishermen and factory workers everywhere from the Piggly-Wiggly in Beaufort to Frazier Town Road in Harlowe, the back side of Cedar Island to the oldest fishermen’s homes in Black Cat. In those interviews, she has given us a poignant and unforgettable glimpse at the local menhaden industry’s last days. At her invitation, I would like to take this chance to talk a little today about what I heard in those interviews.

Nobody could listen to these oral history interviews without being impressed at what the menhaden fishery meant to Carteret County. Listening to them, you hear a lot about the “the smell of money.” Jule Wheatley, the last owner of Beaufort Fisheries, told Barbara how his grandfather purchased the company’s mortgage during the Great Depression. The company and every one of the county’s banks had gone bankrupt, but his grandfather and other leading citizens knew that they had to do something to keep the menhaden business alive. At that time, there were probably 7 or 8 menhaden factories in Beaufort and Morehead City, menhaden catches formed the state’s largest, most profitable saltwater fishery, and the little town of Beaufort was the center of the Eastern Seaboard’s menhaden fleet.

The oily little fish were the town’s lifeblood. In his usual, understated way of saying things, commercial fisherman Jonathan Robinson called Beaufort “the Constantinople of the menhaden industry.” If you did not work for one of the menhaden companies, you likely sold them groceries, refit their boats’ engines, or made the burlap bags for their fish meal.  At the community forum at Ann Street church, a retired grocer came to the open mike and recalled the autumn days when 75 or 100 pogie (menhaden) boats docked on Front Street on Saturday nights, each with a crew of 18 to 20 men. He remembered how all the grocers in town worked all night stocking the boats for the next week. “That was a lot of groceries,” he said.

Ernest “King” Davis’s story was typical of what the industry’s wages meant to local fishermen and fish factory workers. A resident of Beaufort, he left school when he was 15 years old and went menhaden fishing for Piggy Potter at Beaufort Fisheries. “It was hard work, but that’s what I had to do,” he testified. He fished for 41 years and became one of the most respected first mates on the East Coast. He not only sent all five of his own children to college, but he helped to raise and educate his 9 younger brothers and sisters as well./Delilah Bryant, whom Barbara interviewed at her home in Harlowe, explained how her father and other family members who worked at Harvey Smith’s menhaden factory would go into town and some of the people would say, “Oh, you all stink.” The aroma of the fish, the fish oil, and the fish meal was, indisputably, rather strong. At the time, though, her father did not blink an eye. He would only say back to them, “That’s money you smell.”

Those men and women talked about the menhaden industry changing in many ways over their lifetimes. There were new technologies: motors on purse boats, power blocks, hardening rigs, spotter planes, fish pumps, nylon nets, steel boats, and many more. The way of doing business changed, too. Things got more corporate, unions made headway, and state and federal governments enacted a raft of environmental regulations, just to name a few. But through it all, I could hear two things in the men’s voices: a love for menhaden fishing—master net mender Lee Crumbacker said it well: “it grows on you like a barnacle on a pole”—and a fierce pride in their craftsmanship. Lee put it right out there: the guys at Beaufort Fisheries, he told Barbara, “were the best at everything we did.” And he added: “It wasn’t a job—it was a way of life.”

When these guys describe the craftsmanship of William Bryant, of Harlowe, in the fish oil room, of Levi Beveridge, Lee’s mentor in the net shop, or, for that matter, Lee himself, they do not sound as if they are describing old guys working in a smelly, antiquated, broken-down fish factory: they sound as if they are remembering artists with a genius for what they did with boats, nets, and oil.

The reverence for the older generation is evident in all their voices. From Jules Wheatley to the factory’s janitor, they all spoke with reverential pride of William Bryant’s gifts as head of the factory’s oil room. He “turned out oil that was 99% pure, the best in the business,” I heard again and again. And Lee Crumbacker, speaking of Levi Beveridge, told Barbara unequivocally: “He was the best there ever was.” He also said, “He was like a father to me. All the old men down there were like that to me—old-style, good people.” Then Lee paused and said, “I helped put them in the ground.”

Likewise, Bobby Chambers, a young ring-setter from Morehead City who fished for Standard Products, said, “I was taught a lot of things by the older fishermen that experienced fishing back when they had the wooden boats, and when they had to pull the nets by hand and salt the nets. I’ll never forget the stories that they told me.” Recalling his menhaden fishing days, when he worked six months a year in the Gulf of Mexico and was back home the other six months, he went on: “To sit back and hear those guys…at night, you pretty much forgot about the hard day. Everybody would…play cards or sit around and eat fish or talk fishing stories or tell a few stories that weren’t true, but, you know, it was all fun.  And then at the end of the season…you hated to leave, because the guys were going in their direction and you were going in yours, and … [you were] just hoping that [you] would see these guys next year.”

Almost to a one, they came out of menhaden fishing families. Milton Styron told Barbara that he started menhaden fishing with his dad and his brother Buddy when the boys were just 6 or 7 years old. “We weren’t big enough to do the job, but we grew into it,” he said. They fished for the old Morris Brothers menhaden factory in Davis and worked aboard a sharpie, the Leilia G. Now in his late 80s, Mr. Milton also told Barbara that “he loved to do it the best of anything in the world”—more than any other kind of fishing. Similarly, Capt. David Willis, who grew up in Lennoxville, dropped out of high school and started menhaden fishing with his father. “My daddy would carry me out when I was little,” he told Barbara. “It kind of stuck.” Now working in the Gulf of Mexico, Capt. Willis is in his 52nd season of menhaden fishing.

The factory was the same way. Delilah Bryant told Barbara that her father worked at Beaufort Fisheries and at Harvey Smith’s factories in New York and Louisiana. She married a gentleman, William Bryant, who became the legendary master oil man at Beaufort Fisheries. Four of their children also worked in the industry. Similarly, Johnny Simpson, the last foreman at Beaufort Fisheries, grew up in Black Cat when his father was foreman there and he started in the factory’s cookhouse when he was 14 or 15 years old. His wife, Sue, ran the cookhouse and raised her children there. She and her kids often slept on the cookhouse’s 2nd floor at night so that she could prepare the “midnight supper” for the factory workers and then get up at 5:30 AM to make biscuits for their breakfast. “I liked it because it was a family thing,” she told Barbara.

The feeling of family went beyond blood kinship, too. “We were like a big family,” Johnny and Sue Simpson’s daughter, Tish Tickle, told Barbara, and she meant the whole operation at Beaufort Fisheries. Lee Crumbacker echoed her words. “It was like a big family,” he said. No wonder that he took it so hard when the factory, the state’s last menhaden factory, closed five years ago. “I’ve lost my home,” he explained to the children at Beaufort Middle School. That day at the school, one of the children asked Lee how he feels when he passes the old factory now. He did not sugarcoat his answer: “I drive by and it tears my heart out,” he said.

The sense of family in the menhaden business was not limited to Carteret County, either. As Jonathan Robinson put it, the menhaden industry was “a boundless community of fishing people” Menhaden fishing was a thread that connected coastal towns from Maine to Texas. The stories I heard in Barbara’s interviews brought to life all the other historic fishing ports where Beaufort’s boats carried local men. I listened to tales of hurricanes in Empire, Louisiana; water spouts off Sabine, Texas; girl friends in Pascagoula, Mississippi; and sharing apartment complexes with Cuban, Portuguese, and Swedish fishermen in Port Monmouth, New Jersey. The guys married girls in Lewis, Delaware, had babies in Apalachicola, Florida, and bailed cousins out of the county jail in Reedsville, Virginia. News spread quickly among the menhaden fishing towns, too. “It was almost like you were in the same town,” Lee Crumbacker recalled.

The hardest part of menhaden fishing, I heard over and over again, was spending so much time away from families. “I never got used to leaving my family,” Bobby Chambers told Barbara. He went on to explain: “Because after six months, you’d come home for six months and it seemed like time would go by so fast, then all of a sudden you had to leave again. And to leave your family was pretty much a hard thing….  My daughter has graduated from college [and] my son is getting out of high school, so…they can look back…now and say Daddy did what he did to take care of us, …because I just hated to see them cry when I would leave…. But they understand now.”

One of the highlights of Barbara’s interviews was the way that Randy Jackson, the maintenance man at Beaufort Fisheries, meticulously described the factory’s inner workings. Listening to his words, you can conjure up the sight of William Bryant in the factory’s oil room, Elwood Simpson in the “dump house,” “Old Man” Willard running one of the cookers, Zeke Merrell in the press room, and Ross Goode and Sherman Nolan in the scrap house. (“He was a tough man, buddy,” Jackson said of Goode. He described Goode standing in the steam like a ghost, a lit cigarette in his mouth.) Goode’s son, Theotis, worked in the tool room and did odd jobs around the plant, while Lee Crumbacker ran the net house, joined, in later years, by his wife, Nadine. The plant’s machinery was so old and dilapidated that they often could not find parts, so a fellow named Jim Bertram made all the parts by hand. Jackson’s words really make the old place come to life. He even described the factory’s cats, which, like the men and women who worked there, also had to find new homes when Beaufort Fisheries closed.

There was of course no shortage of stories about hard work in these interviews. “It was a man’s job, believe me,” Bobby Chambers told Barbara. “Out there it was hard because you had to get right back up from sun up to sun down. As long as the sun was up and the plane spotter could spot fish, you would fish.” In the Gulf, it was often hot; up here, it was often cold. “At night we were so tired we couldn’t sleep,” King Davis told Barbara. “We’d stay up and make up chantey songs.” He remembered days so cold that, in his words, the ropes “would cut your hand so you could see the bone and not feel it.” At night they rubbed alcohol on their hands to get the feeling back in them.

Before the days of power blocks and hardening rigs, the captains needed big, strong men in the net. “These were real men,” Lee Crumbacker told Barbara. The factory was no picnic, either. Randy Jackson told Barbara that “it was hard and nasty. You had to like it to stay there. When you had to do something like fix a raw box chain, [there’d be] maggots, chain grease, fish oil, spider webs.” When the head of the factory’s dump room, Elwood Simpson, “walked across the floor, you could hear the maggots crackling under [his] feet,” Jackson recalled. “But,” Jackson also said, “I can tell you that he loved it.”

I also heard stories that sent chills down my spine. Every menhaden fisherman recalled a storm where they lost a friend or thought that they had lived their own last day. Many recalled a particular storm. When Barbara visited with Elvin Jones, Andrew Reels, and King Davis at the North River Volunteer Fire Department, they all remembered a day in 1963 when they were on the Shinnycock. Waves as high as a building would not let the boat cross over the Beaufort Bar. They all thought that they would never see home again. Water had come across the hole and the boat was underwater. “Crew was hollering and screaming,” Davis, the first mate at the time, said. “I told them it was alright, but I had already given up.”

Capt. Bill “Collard Green” Lewis recalled a night on the Lynn Ann when he was trying to fight his way back from Ocracoke Inlet. It took him 16 hours to get home in fierce winds and high waves. That night, another boat out there with him, the Amagansett, turned over in the waves. “There’s things that happened that I wake up in the night just scared to death, re-living some of the things I lived through,” he told us at Ann Street church. “In some of those squalls in Louisiana,” he said, “I’d wish I was a potato farmer in Idaho.”

Another incident that stood out for me was something that happened to Lee Crumbacker in the fall of ’74, before he started mending nets. He had been working on the Atlantic Queen in Chesapeake Bay and she was headed back to Beaufort when a cold front came through and stirred up 15-20 foot seas with hardly any warning at all. They had just made a big set off Rodanthe, a resort beach on the Outer Banks, but the storm came on so quick that Lee was caught in his purse boat and could not get back to the steamer. The wind and waves drove both purse boats into the breakers. “I had already given up,” he told Ms. Boyette’s class. “I remember thinking there are all these people up there on the island at restaurants and motels and they’re having a good time, and I’m going to die,” he said./Many of these guys had a way with words. One that comes right to mind is Worth Harris, a 96-year-old fisherman on Cedar Island. Born in 1913, he remembered the coming of the first gasoline engines on menhaden boats. Nobody could ever forget the way that he described the sail skiffs of his youth and what it was like to travel in them with only the noise of the wind and the rigging. Mr. Worth spent most of his life gill-netting, pound netting, and oystering, but he used to help out in the sail loft at Harvey Smith’s menhaden factory in Beaufort every fall and winter—and he has a poet’s heart.

Bobby Chambers, the fisherman from Morehead City, does, too. He had an especially lyrical way of describing the small moments in menhaden fishermen’s lives in a way that got close to the heart of things. “It was really, really hard work,” he told Barbara. “But looking back over it, I really appreciate every day of it. I’ve seen a lot of stuff and been in places…that I’ll never forget. Some things you cannot always record down or write down, but in your mind you’ll never forget these things. And I really got to see beautiful stuff, [things] on the water that God had created.”

And then of course there was the music. The fishermen mostly stopped singing their legendary chanteys with the introduction of power blocks and hardening rigs in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but those songs have remained a powerful memory for all who ever heard them. As a child, the first thing I ever heard about the menhaden industry was my mother’s stories about those chanteys. She grew up in Harlowe in the 1920s and ‘30s, when Highway 101 was still a dirt road, and the menhaden fishermen used to drive oxen and carts down 101 on their way from their homes in Craven Corner to the factories in Beaufort. Early Monday mornings, long before first light, she would wake up in her bed at the sound of those beautiful, haunting songs and listen to them as the fishermen moved through the darkness and toward the sea.

In their interviews with Barbara, the menhaden fishermen talked about those chanteys in much the same way as my mother. King Davis told her how they would sing all night long just to keep their minds off the cold and hurt. It “just seemed like music was all over the ocean,” he said. Capt. Willis spoke of the chanteys in much the same way. He remembered singing with the bunt pullers when he first started in the business. “There was just something about those chanteys. They made the hair rise up on the back of your neck.” His neighbor, Capt. George “Collard Green” Lewis, once told him that when he sang the chanteys he felt as if he could push his foot through the purse boat. “That’s the way I felt, too,” Capt. Willis said.

Those songs have not been heard on a menhaden boat in a long time, but older people from around here still remember them. On cool autumn days, you could sometimes hear them on shore coming across the water. They filled the air and stirred the heart and got deep inside your bones. And if you heard those songs, like my mother did when she was a little girl, you never forgot them or the way that they made you feel. It is hard to put into words, but it was not just the beauty of the melodies or the men’s fine voices, but the appearance that the music was rising right out of the sea. Beyond the gospel strains or the raunchy, sassy lyrics—because they sang both kinds of songs—you could hear something more: that sense of brotherhood that the guys described to Barbara, the feeling of family, their children’s tears when they went away, their wives and girlfriends’ hugs when they came home, the storms that nearly took their lives, the cold ropes that cut their hands to the bone, the pride that they took in their work, and, as Bobby Chambers said, the joy that they took in “the beautiful stuff…, [the things] on the water that God had created.” 

Menhaden Day Photographs...


Primrose and Mary Jones share a laugh with Barbara Blake during their interview.  

AlDudleyCapt.jpg Captain Al Dudley aboard his menhaden vessel. "We're big boats and look intimidating. Everybody loves a shrimp boat; everybody hates a menhaden boat. I can't understand that. They write songs and stories about shrimp boats and they write their Congressman about menhaden boats. I think they're the prettiest thing in the world, especially loaded."