When menhaden fishing was a way of life in Lewes Del. town was a center of industry

September 29, 1993|By Molly Murray | Molly Murray,The (Wilmington) News Journal

LEWES, Del. -- Rufus Carter took up fishing two days before his 14th birthday.

He started out on a net boat, and was so young his father had to sign for his pay. He spent a dozen years on the water.

"The only reason I quit fishing . . . there was no future," the 64-year-old said. "The last three or four years, there wasn't no fish."

Mr. Carter and hundreds of others fished the coast for menhaden -- a foot-long oily fish more important to the economy of towns like Lewes than any tourist trade. It was hard work. Men in two small boats rowed to the fish from a mother ship, tossed a net overboard and circled back to form a "purse" around the menhaden. Then they'd pull.

Someone would start the chant: "We're goin' home but got no ready made money!" The net men would haul away and sing the reply: "One more dollar and a quarter."

The choral call and response went on until the fish were in.

In 1988, North Carolina folklorists organized The Menhaden Chanteymen to preserve the work songs. This year, Delaware folklorist Gregory Jenkins started searching for the men who drove the boats, worked the nets and processed the fish at factories in Lewes and Milford.

Mr. Jenkins found a half-dozen retirees who led him to others.

Then he invited the Beaufort, N.C., chanteymen to visit Lewes. The way he saw it, the menhaden moved along the coast and so did the fishermen. And he saw another connection: The Smith family, which owned fish-processing plants in Milford, Beaufort and other towns along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Few places were as important to the menhaden fishery as Lewes. By 1953, the city was the largest fishing port in the country, according to John Frye's book: "The Men All Singing: The Story of Menhaden Fishing." An estimated 390 million pounds of fish was landed, almost all of it menhaden -- a quarter of the menhaden landed on the East and Gulf coasts.

The fish, also called bunker, were used for their oil and to make fertilizer, feed, paint and perfume.

Mr. Carter, Isaac Brown, Cecil Benns and Waverly Jones all live close to the quiet streets that border the Lewes historic area. They followed the menhaden from Reedville, Va., to Lewes in the late 1930s, meeting and marrying local women. When the fish left, many of the net men stayed.

"There was more money to be made up here than in Virginia," Mr. Benns said.

The mother boats were small by modern standards and lacked refrigeration. When a boat was full, the captain took it to his company's closest plant for processing, he said.

"Even the men, all their clothes, smelled of fish," Mr. Brown said. "Money [in your pocket] would turn so brown" from the ammonia.

And when people complained, "Otis Smith used to say: 'What you smell was money,' " Mr. Jones said.

Today, menhaden fishing is almost fully automated, as spotter planes and radios help find the fish.

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