by Nancy Gadzuk
The Federal Point Historic Preservation Society hosted a special guest on Monday, November 2, 2015: Howard Hewett, who has chronicled details of his childhood in several articles on the History Center’s website. Howard was visiting North Carolina recently and he shared memories of his childhood here in the late 1930’s up to 1956, when the Ethyl Dow plant closed and his family moved to Texas.
Howard gave us some family history, beginning with Hewett ancestors arriving first in Massachusetts and then moving to Brunswick County in the 1700’s, and eventually to Federal Point in 1900. As Howard put it, ‘We stand on our family’s shoulders. It’s important to know your history.’ Indeed, the large audience included many Hewett, Lewis, and Davis family members.
Howard shared recollections about farming and fishing, and by the time he got to Myrtle Grove School and Carolina Beach Elementary School, others began chiming in with their own recollections of school and agreed: ‘We really ripped up our britches there.’
Women in the audience recalled taking their ironing boards down to the beach and using them as surfboards. They needed to take care to keep the pointed end of the board above the sand; otherwise the point would stick in the sand and flip them off the board. Of course their mothers were not to find out about these adventures!
Howard’s story of the mullet run was one of many memorable tales from the evening. In an area where people depended heavily on the sea for sustenance, a successful autumn mullet run was an important economic event, and could determine how well, or how much, a family would eat all winter long.
When Howard’s father noticed the swell of a large school of fish in the water after church one Sunday, it caused a temporary theological crisis for the family. Howard’s grandmother was, as he put it, a wash foot Methodist, and the family relied heavily on Scripture to define daily life.
Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest, but Grandmother (who also had a hankering for mullet roe and grits) reminded them of the need to provide for the family. With backing from the New Testament, Grandmother gave her approval to take advantage of what would turn out to be a boon for the entire community. Howard, his father, and Uncle Crawford Lewis headed for the beach.
The first person to see a school of fish would put a ‘spotter’ nearby to make claim to the fish. The fish run then belonged the spotter and his family. This was an unwritten rule, but one everyone in Federal Point knew and honored. Howard, age 9, served as spotter for the mullets while the men were getting the boat ready.
This particular mullet run went right past Walter Winner’s place. Walter, also a fisherman, shouted out to Howard an offer of help should his father and his Uncle Crawford need it to manage the mullet run.
Howard climbed in the boat to help the men with the nets and they pushed off into the water, rowing hard against the surf. As it turned out, the mullet run was so large that many volunteers were needed on shore to help contain the fish.
When the mullet run was done, the Hewett family had all the mullet they needed, salted and stored for the winter. All the volunteers took fish home, and the remainder was sold to a fish house in Wilmington. Between 1000 and 1500 pounds of mullet were taken.
It had been a good day on the water, and the community, working together as one, got to share in the bounty.
Likewise, it was a good evening at the History Center sharing memories, and at least one person referred to the meeting as ‘a big old family reunion.’