Oral History: Abundant Seafood on Federal Point – 1948-1956

 by:  Howard HewettJones Creek, TX – July, 2015 – Part 7

Background
Some of the following background information is from my recollection of the events as I grew up on Federal Point between 1939 and 1956, and what my father, Howard Curtis Hewett Sr, and my grandmother, Addie Jane Lewis Hewett, related to me. Other background information is from research and is so noted.

A major portion of our seafood came out of the bays south of where we lived in Fort Fisher.  But first, it is important to understand how those bays were formed.

A major Atlantic storm in 1761 opened an inlet that crossed the peninsula south of the current Fort Fisher monument. The New Inlet had a major impact on the main channel or ‘Bald Head’ channel of the Cape Fear River resulting in the significant decrease in depth.

By 1839, sand, silt and forming shoals from the New Inlet threatened the southerly approach to the river from the Bald Head channel. There were concerns that the Bald Head channel would not be available to shipping coming into the river from the southerly approach. The alternate route would force shipping to go out around ‘Frying Pan Shoals’ and enter the river through the New Inlet. This added to their passage time into Wilmington.

Northerly shipping traffic could enter the New Inlet, which avoided the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals, located 29 southeast of Smith Island.

New Inlet as recorded in Civil War mapping records, 1864 (Cowles, Davis, Perry, & In 1871, Kirkley, 1895)

New Inlet as recorded in Civil War mapping records, 1864
(Cowles, Davis, Perry, & Kirkley, 1895)

In 1870 funds were appropriated to close the New Inlet and other breaches that occurred as a result of storms and gales. The land mass was a narrow strip of sandy beach with very low swampland on the river side. The map above is an excellent representation of the topography of Federal Point in 1864. By observing the map, one can see what a formidable task the closing of the New Inlet and breaches were.

In 1871, another storm further deepened the New Inlet. Actual construction work to close the New Inlet took place from 1870 to 1891. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were the overseers of the rock dam project.

They sank wooden cribbing and then added stones to bring the dam to sea level. Asst. Engineer Henry Bacon suggested that they add heavy granite capstones to bring the structure to two feet above sea level.

In 1877, a storm opened a breach between Smith Island, commonly called ‘Bald Head’ and Zeke’s Island which Civil War Military Maps recorded as ‘Zeeks Island’ (see the map above).

From 1881-1891, a dam similar in construction to the one built between Buchanan Battery to Zeke’s Island dam was built from Zeke’s Island to Smith Island.

When all the construction was completed, the upper section from the Buchanan Battery to Zeke’s Island was approximately 5,300 feet. The Swash Defense Dam from Zeke’s Island to Smith’s Island was 12,800 feet. The total distance of the project was over three miles (Reaves, 2011).

In 1891, the New Inlet was declared officially closed (Jackson, 1995). This rock dam is known by the locals as “The Rocks.” With the closing, tidal basins formed between The Rocks and the Atlantic. For our family, these bays became a plentiful source of shellfish.

During the time that I was growing up on Federal Point, there was the existence of another inlet south of the original New Inlet. We called it “Corncake Inlet.” I do not know exactly when Corncake Inlet opened, but it was a much smaller inlet. I do recall that Corncake Inlet would be wider and deeper depending on storm activity. Corncake Inlet was the source for fresh seawater for the bays.

My best recollection from stories told by my dad is that a schooner carrying corn went aground on a shoal while entering the inlet and remained there for a several days. These schooners were called corn-crackers because of their cargoes. I always wondered if that is how the inlet received its name. I assume it was opened before The Rocks were completed, but these breaches opened and closed depending on storm activity.

Dad liked to take our boat up toward the Corncake Inlet to fish for sheepshead at a place that he referred to as the “cribbing.” As I can best remember, it was east of the rock dam, basically located in the direction of Corncake Inlet. I believe that the cribbing was the remains of a temporary cofferdam that controlled some of the water flowing through the inlet into the river during the rock dam construction. I based this on the heavy flow of water traveling through this cut when we were fishing at this location.

However, after completing some research, I discovered another possibility. The cribbing may have been the remains of a stone dike cribbing built in 1853 by Captain Daniel P. Woodbury (Rayburn, 1984). What I recall seeing was mainly a wooden structure at water level. There could have been stones under the water.

Seafood on Federal Point
Acquiring seafood on Federal Point was a family affair. On a falling tide or low tide, we would head for the bays located just south of where we lived at 833 S. Fort Fisher Blvd (images).

Clamming
Our family believed that what we called the upper bay was a clamming paradise. The upper bay was east of the Fort Fisher munition bunkers.

Clamming Rake

Clamming Rake

When the tide was out, the large sand flats would yield clams about the size of a small to medium fist. Our tools of the trade were four-prong rakes. You did not have to rake very deep – usually less than an inch. A bubble hole would sometimes indicate the presence of a clam.

The resulting designs in the sand from the raking process were quiet similar to “Karesansui” as in Japanese Zen garden art.  I assure you that at the time, I did not have any idea what a Zen garden was.

The only way our family prepared clams was by making clam chowder. You could go to the bays and get a “mess” of clams and have clam chowder for dinner. Chicken soup was a well-known combatant for the common cold, but in our family clam chowder was used exclusively.

Oysters for Dinner
There were two methods of oystering that we used. The favorite and most productive was chipping oysters off the rocks with a homemade chipping hammer. With approximately three miles of rocks, there were ample surfaces for oysters to grow. Most of the oysters grew on the bay side of the “Rocks.” The accessibility to the rocks was made available by a concrete cap that was installed in the 1930’s by the Corps of Engineers (Jackson, 1995). The farther you walked out on the rocks, the availability and quality of oysters increased.

Prior to moving to Texas in 1956, we went oystering on the Rocks for the last time. On this trip, we came off the rock with four bushels of oysters. Dad and I each carried the inside handles of two bushels while Grandmother and my brother Tom Hewett carried the outside handles. We had to stop from time to time to rest, but we were able to make it to the trailer.

The reason I share this particular event is that Grandmother had been claiming her hip had been hurting for a couple of weeks. A couple weeks after the oystering trip we found out she was suffering from a broken hip. My grandmother, Addie Lewis Hewett Todd, was around 70 years old at that time; it could be said that she was cut from some very good cloth – one tough pioneer grandmother. Grandmother lived to be 96 years old.

The other oystering method required a boat and a clam basket device that had long handles. Mechanically the mechanism was similar to a post-hole digger. However, instead of two shovel devices there were two baskets that opened and closed with the movement of the handles. I would refer to them as long-handle tongs. This method required positioning the boat over an oyster bed that was maybe two to three feet under the water. You could locate these beds at low tide so at high tide we could position the boat over the top of the bed. This method was more of a hit and miss operation because you could not see exactly what you were doing and you brought up a lot of mud and shells.

North Carolina Oyster Roast
We had a fire pit made of brick that had a metal plate over the pit. Oysters were placed on the plate with the oyster’s mouth pointing down; joints were in an upward position. Wet burlap bags were placed over the oysters. A fire was started in the pit and when the metal plate became hot a little water was poured over the burlap to get the process started. As steam was created, the oysters would open up their mouths resulting in the liquid inside draining down on the plate, which converted to more steam. Dad would monitor the oysters and would enhance the steam process by adding more water as needed. He always liked to see a lot of steam. Within a short time all of the oysters would be opened and very tender.

Oystering Knives

Oystering Knives

The oysters were then brought to the table. If wanted you wanted to eat, each individual had to shuck his or her own oysters. When we had guests that were not familiar with the methods of shucking oysters, someone in the family would get them started; most folks were able to quickly get a feel for the process and could be left alone.

The shucked oysters went into a cup containing each individual’s favorite sauce mixture. Our family was partial to a melted butter, heated ketchup and vinegar mixture with a little hot sauce. Crackling cornbread was the family’s favorite accompaniment to be eaten along with the oysters.

Shrimping on the Cape Fear River
Some of my fondest memories are of late afternoon trips to the river. Dad had purchased some fairly good shrimp nets on one of our trips to Holden Beach in Brunswick County. With the panels from the net he made a seine net with lead on the bottom rope and corks on the top and two staffs on each end. It is hard to say how long it was, but my guess it was approximately four feet high and 150 feet long. We would load the whole family, along with those who happened to be visiting on the flat-bed trailer pulled by our Cub Cadet Tractor and head over to the river using Davis Road.

The Davis’ river front property was adjacent to the Hewett’s river front property. Living on a beach with the Atlantic at our door, we had a lot of summer visitors. Visitors who wanted to help would split up into two groups with Dad (Howard Curtis Hewett Sr.) manning the staff closest to the shore. Dad was the director of operations and I was in charge of the other end. We would pull the net out into the river until it was approximately 3-1/2 feet deep. Then we would pull the net parallel to the shore for 50 yards or so; finally, we headed for the shore.

The key was to have both staffs arrive at the same time. This process would yield (depending on the conditions) anywhere from a 2-1/2 to a 5-gallon bucket of shrimp. On lean days more pulls were required. Sometimes the Cape Fear River had such an abundance of shrimp that only a short-haul was necessary to fill a 5-gallon bucket.

On one occasion, I remember a small wave from a ship going down the channel causing shrimp to jump up on the shore, but I only recall seeing that once. By suppertime, we had shrimp peeled and ready for the frying pan.

An eight-foot long sink that was purchased from the surplus sold at the closing of the Army base after the war enhanced processing the shrimp. I recall it being a four-person process consisting of a couple of peelers, a person to devein, and a quality control inspector. The inspector was usually my grandmother because she was noted for her food preparation quality control. When it came to seafood, Grandmother’s seafood preparation techniques put her in a league of her own.

I have a special memory about Grandmother Roebuck (Meme) on one of the trips to the river. It was one of those times that we did not have a big group so Meme wanted to help on my end. Actually, I think she just wanted to get out in the water to cool off. On our second pull, we had moved farther down the beach than normal. This area of the beach had more of a muddy bottom than the usual sandy bottom.

As we started to shore, Meme got bogged down to her knees in the shallow water. To help her, I had to drop the staff. After getting her legs back on the surface of the bottom, she still could not stand up so I rolled her out of the area until she could stand up. Of course, she was laughing all the way. Now leaving the staff did not make my “no-nonsense” dad happy and I can’t write what he said to me but Meme sat down on the beach and roared with laughter. The more dad fussed with me, the more her laughter increased. To this day I have a hard time not smiling when I think about that afternoon at the river.

Fishing
There was an abundance of fish, but the variety depended on the time of year. The fall mullet run provided the family fish for a good part of the year. It was the only seafood that we salted down for short-term storage. When needed, the mullet was removed and soaked in fresh water until most of the brine was removed. Regardless of the soaking, the fish was always on the salty side.

The surf provided trout, blue fish, some flounder, croakers and Virginia mullet. Offshore there was an abundance of black bass around the wrecks of the blockade runners.

Hewett Family - Clam Diggers: Mr Todd, Danny Orr, Addie Jane, Mrs Orr

Clam Diggers: Mr Todd, Danny Orr, Addie Jane, Mrs Orr

The most prolific flounder fisherman of the family was my Uncle Crawford Lewis. Dad may have been a close second. Their method was to pull a small skiff with a rope tied to their waist along the shallow waters of the bays.

Their gigging tools consisted of a three-prong pitchfork and a gas lantern. With one hand holding the lantern and the pitch fork in the other, they would gig a flounder, set the lantern down on the bow of the skiff and in one fluid motion flip the flounder in the boat without actually reaching down into the water. The quantity was not what floundering was all about. Quality and size were more important. They would be looking for large flounders around 4-5 pounds.

Just enough for three families to have baked flounder and sometimes maybe a little fried fish. If the moon and the tide were right, it seemed like they would go every night. This might seem strange, but there was no television back in those days so when it got dark, it was time to go floundering. Providing food for a growing family was paramount. The favorite way to prepare the flounder was to bake the whole flounder in a roasting pot with onions and potatoes.

I think it is important to say that regardless of the abundance of seafood, we only took what we needed.

 

References
Davis G. B., Perry, L. J., & Kirkley, J. W. Compiled by Cowles, C. D. (1983). The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War. New York, NY: Fairfax Press.

Hewett, H.C. (2014). Fishing off Fort Fisher in a Small Boat in 1940s and 50s. Oral History, Federal Point Historical Preservation Society.

Jackson, S. (1995). The Closing of New Inlet (The Rocks) 1870-1881 … and the Swash Defense Dam 1881-1891.

Rayburn, R. H. (1984). One of the Finest Rivers in the South: Corps of Engineers Improvements on the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, 1870-1881. Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Inc., Volume 27, Number 2, May, 1984.

Rayburn, R.H. (1985). One of the Finest Rivers in the South: Corps of Engineers Improvements on the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, 1881-1891. Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Inc., Volume 28, Number 2, February, 1985.

Reaves, Bill. (2011). Federal Point Chronology 1725-1994. New Hanover Public Library & Federal Point Historic Preservation Society. Wilmington, NC. (Compiled by Bill Reaves from Wilmington newspapers articles.)

Howard Hewett

Howard Hewett