Documenting Down East’s disappearing way of life
“Down East” in North Carolina does not mean what you think it means.
Larry Earley, former editor of “Wildlife in North Carolina” magazine and author of “Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest,” moved to the community of Atlantic in 2006 to live one week a month while photographing the working boats of Core Sound. He learned from his neighbors that “‘Down East’ North Carolina refers to the wet peninsula lying east of Beaufort, in coastal Carteret County, with its broad skies, extravagant marshes, shallow sounds, and notched bays.”
Earley complains, “Politicians, reporters and TV announcers regularly use ‘Down East’ as a synonym for eastern North Carolina in general. But for the people who actually live here, you're Down East only after you take N.C.101 from Havelock or U.S. 70 from Morehead City and Beaufort and cross the North River. Period.”
The result of Earley’s time Down East is “The Workboats of Core Sound: Stories and Photographs of a Changing World,” an extraordinary collection of writing and photographs of the working boats that watermen, mainly fishermen and shrimpers, have used for the past century in Core Sound. When gasoline and diesel engines replaced sails as the best power sources for watercraft, the boat builders Down East adapted. Each small fishing community had its own master boat builder. Each crafted his boats a little differently. So coastal people could look at a Core Sound fishing boat and tell you where and by whom it was built.
Earley fell in love with the boats and the people who built and operated them. “Though made of perishable wood, the old work-boats of Core Sound are surely one of the glories of the Down East region. They are monuments to some of the best of all human impulses: to work hard, to wrest elegant designs out of stubborn materials, and to craft things of utility and beauty. They strengthen the web of community bonds that would inevitably weaken without them, and thus they preserve an essential part of Down East culture. They are the history keepers, the memory keepers in a region that is looking to the future. They are compass points for communities seeking a new direction.”
This new direction is not welcome. Fishing is fast disappearing from Down East. Danny Mason from the village of Sea Level explained, “I've been fishing most of my life…. It seems like it's a dying process but I am trying to hold on. It's hard to find a crew, and the price of fuel is going sky-high and the things we sell it seems they don't go up much.”
James Paul Lewis of Davis said it more tersely, “It's all changed, and the fish business is history.”
Alton Chadwick in Marshallberg, told Earley, “You can't get nothing for what you catch no more. All the fish houses are closed now. Everything's gone. You got to go away from home now to get a job. I’m too old for that.”
In the little community of Atlantic where Earley stayed, Fulcher’s Fish House was the economic backbone of the village, once employing 50 full time and 50 more seasonal employees and once processing millions of pounds of fish, crabs, and shrimp. It closed in 2007.
The working boats that Earley photographed are disappearing, too, some the victim of old storms and others just abandoned or dismantled.
Times change. Earley’s photographs document and celebrate a way of life that is passing away.
He admires those watermen and their boats even as their way of life disappears. “In retrospect, what may be more significant about the changing economic life of Down East communities today is not that the fishermen are turning to other ways of making a living, but that so many have survived as fishermen for so long.”
D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. (The normal Sunday noon airing is preempted for Festival’s special fundraising programming.) Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4) on Fridays at 9 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch. Next week’s (Feb. 27) guest is Heather Williams, author of “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.”