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Capt. Eugene W. Gore: The Smell of Money

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 6/9/2002. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Born in 1916, Capt. Eugene W. Gore worked his way up from kitchen boy to become one of the first African-American captains in the great menhaden fishing fleet of North Carolina. I talked with him at his office in the little coastal town of Southport, where the Cape Fear River flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Menhaden are an oily little fish also known as "pogie," "mossbunkers" or "fatbacks." A relative of sardines, they are not a food fish, but were used mainly for fertilizer, oil and animal feed. Concentrated in Southport, Morehead City and Beaufort, the menhaden industry was the state's largest commercial fishery for most of the last century. Its fishing boats were also famous for having African-American leadership earlier than any other industry in the South.

Menhaden fishermen like Capt. Gore once chased fish from New Jersey to Texas. Nowadays there is only one menhaden plant left in North Carolina, and the tourism business tries to keep its boats as far away as possible. Gore recalls another era, when local people celebrated his boat's arrival in port and referred to the fish factories' rank odor as "the smell of money."

Eugene W. Gore. Photo by Sher Stoneman, 2002.In Eugene Gore's words:
As a young boy I liked to go out on the boat more or less to eat and help out my granddaddy. He was a cook on a menhaden vessel. As long as I was young enough to stay in the kitchen, I liked it. But if a captain is short a man and a boy was out on the boat, he'd tell him to get in the net. The first time I looked at all that net I said that's too much net for men to have to pull back by hand. The more I pulled it, the more determined I was not to pull that net all my life.

The menhaden business was the only industry that they had here. During that time you go fishing or you go work on somebody's farm. Big muscles and strong backs, them are the kind of men they hired. Of course you couldn't go out there with a boatload of green men. Somebody was liable to get killed.

Before I was a captain I was a mate. The first time I got some experience as a mate was in 1950 or '51. The mate, he's in one of the purse boats that go catch the fish. You got a mate in one and a captain in one, half of the men in this one and half in that one. You drop off and leave the big boat there drifting. You go around the fish and meet way over there, and when you got the net closed up under them you pull and pull and pull.

We're talking about a mess of fish. If they show that color on the water like a great big red spot, and if it's got any kind of size, I tell you what, hold on. Shooo. You load those old wooden boats down with pogie and then fill the decks up and water be running across the decks back and forth across the boat.

I carried a crew from Morehead, some of them from Beaufort, but most of them from right here in Brunswick County. But when men would leave and go home 'cause they weren't making any money, then people come stand around the dock, maybe some from Angola Prison and everywhere else. Some of them were nice people. Some of them were kind of rough.

Oh, I have seen some rough weather, but the only time I really worried about the crew is when the Dewey caught afire. She burnt with me in the Gulf of Mexico right off the Calcasieu River. It was in 1956. She had one of those old donkey engines in the back that got afire and you couldn't put it out. I got them to lower the purse boats down and get in.

The boss man, he told me I done right. He said, you didn't lose a man? I said, no sir. He said we can build another boat, but it takes 21 years to build a man.

He's the guy who give me a chance to be a captain. You know, God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. I don't care how bad a group you get in, there's somebody in there that sympathizes with black people. I know that from experience. He called me at home one day. He said, Gene, I want you to go captain on the Dewey. I said, whoo, I don't know. He said, I already talked with Gordon -- he meant my captain. He said he hated to see you leave him, but he said he'd be less than a man to hold you back.

A black man as a captain in 1953, '54, that was a high position. A black man in charge of 20, 30 head of men. See, there's one thing the white man learned. He learned to look at money. He ain't going to get the Rotary Club people to do that hard work, is he? You didn't see no white men way back yonder in that net. The only white men on that boat were the captain and the engineer and the pilot. And see, if you get a black mate, that's going to get you a crew, and you got to have the crew to make the money.

Let me tell you a story about what it was like out there. In the fall of '58 it looked like we were going to have a bad season. Nobody hadn't had no fish that fall. The spotter plane would fly way up to the Chesapeake Bay and back and not see anything. The fleet would run up as far as Womble Shoal buoy up on the other side of Ocracoke, then turn around, head back south to Beaufort.

One day I turned around there and all of them fast boats were way ahead of me. See, my old boat, The Simpson Brothers, was slower than a lot of the boats.

Well, that evening, them fish popped up! Them big roe pogies! The plane man said, Oh Lord, that's all you want right here! He said The Simpson Brothers and one other boat are the only two boats that can get back there before night and get a set. Boy, the rest of them captains were going crazy on the radio!

Oh man, I had 'em on her. Made one set, boy. It was breezing up northeast and fogging up when I passed Hatteras light. I was in the deep, and she had a big hole in her too -- she was a wet boat. But I got her into Beaufort. I was the first one to carry in a load of fish that season. That's when it paid to have a slow boat.
Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: : 
Eugene W. Gore lived from December 28, 1916 - March 11, 2013.

Obituary: Eugene W. Gore., March 19, 2013.

Origin - location: 
December 28, 1916 - March 11, 2013