- An Eye for MulletCharles Farrell’s Photographs of the Brown’s Island Mullet Camp, 1938
In the autumn of 1938 a photographer named Charles A. Farrell visited a seasonal mullet fishing camp at Brown’s Island, in Onslow County, North Carolina. What he discovered there captured his imagination: a remote hamlet of fishermen’s shanties far from civilization and two legendary clans of fishermen in relentless pursuit of one of the Atlantic’s great schooling fishes, striped mullet, known on those shores as “jumping mullets.”
Neither of the two clans, the Gillikins or Lawrences, came from the mainland nearest the island. Instead, they traveled by boat there in the fall of the year from Otway, a small farming and fishing community forty miles to the east, in a section of the neighboring county, Carteret, that locals call “Down East.” Year after year for generations, the men left their homes in Otway and returned to Brown’s Island and the sea.
Farrell’s photographs provide a unique portrait of mullet camp life and an invaluable historical record of one of the largest commercial fisheries in the American South. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth century, the mullet trade on the North Carolina coast comprised the largest saltwater fishery in the South.1 Even as late as the 1930s, large numbers of fishermen still moved to the barrier islands every autumn to work out of camps like the one at Brown’s Island. From Ocracoke Inlet to Cape Fear, their camps lined the shores. Centered at Morehead City, N.C., fish dealers loaded so many barrels of salt mullet on outbound freight cars that local people referred to the railroad as “the Old Mullet Line.”
During the late 1930s, Farrell documented fishermen’s lives in a large swath of the North Carolina coast, as well as at Brown’s Island. The proprietor, along with his wife, of an art supply store and photography studio in Greensboro, in the state’s piedmont, Farrell had long had a special interest in the lives of commercial fishermen.2 He had been taking photographs in coastal communities for some time when, in 1938, he approached W. T. Couch at the University of North Carolina Press about publishing a book of the photographs. Couch had previously hired Farrell to take photographs for several other books. They signed a contract for Farrell’s coastal book later that year.3 Farrell completed the photographic portion of the book, but apparently made little headway with the text.4 Now preserved at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, his photographs are one of the fullest documentary accounts of southern fisheries at any time in the twentieth century.5
The following is a selection of Farrell’s photographs of the mullet fishermen at Brown’s [End Page 105] Island, with extended commentary.6 This article is part of a larger work-in-progress that examines coastal North Carolinians and their relationship to the sea through the close analysis of historical photographs taken between the Civil War and the end of the Age of Sail. Our world today is so different than that of only a century ago that few people can recognize even the most basic aspects of daily life and labor as seen in historical photographs like the ones of Brown’s Island. Fewer yet can appreciate the craftsmanship that is sometimes evident in them or grasp what they might tell us in any kind of deeper way about the changing nature of our relationship to the ocean and seashore.
With my own insufficiencies in that regard in mind, I have been attempting to develop a more knowing eye when it comes to looking at historical photographs such as the ones that Farrell made at Brown’s Island. To that end, I have drawn heavily from historical records, from consultations with more specialized scholars of maritime material culture, and, most importantly, from the wisdom of some of the oldest residents of the fishing communities that remain on the North Carolina coast, including the one where I grew up.7
Historian David S. Cecelski is the author of several award-winning books and...