Lawrence S. Earley: The Stories I Heard

The Workboats of Core Sound by Lawrence S. EarleyWe welcome a guest post today from Lawrence S. Earley, author of The Workboats of Core Sound: Stories and Photographs of a Changing World. Along the wide waters of eastern North Carolina, the people of many scattered villages separated by creeks, marshes, and rivers depend on shallow-water boats, both for their livelihoods as fishermen and to maintain connections with one another and with the rest of the world. As Earley discovered, each workboat has stories to tell, of boatbuilders and fishermen, and of family members and past events associated with these boats. The rich history of these hand-built wooden fishing boats, the people who work them, and the communities they serve lies at the heart of Earley’s evocative new book of essays, interviews, and photographs.

In the following post, Earley introduces us to some of the boats and the people who work them.


One might well ask me why I spent much of the last eight years working on a book about old boats. Kenneth Grahame answered that question one way long ago in the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows: “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

A lot of people would agree with that, but it wasn’t the “messing about” in boats that drew me Down East time and again. The stories were the draw. I spent time in a lot of living rooms listening to stories about fishermen and boatbuilders and their boats. I was amazed at how easily people could recall intimate details about the boats—who built them, where, when, whom they were sold to, what happened to them. The stories were what kept me coming back.

Wasted Wood, Atlantic, 1985, photo by Lawrence S. Earley
Wasted Wood, Atlantic, 1985.
Photo © Lawrence S. Earley

I asked David Smith of Atlantic why his father’s boat was called Wasted Wood. He said: “The Wasted Wood was named the David M. and that was my name. But they always called it the Wasted Wood because she had great big timbers. Will Mason wasted a lot of wood when he built that boat. The name just stuck; that’s what it was always called. It sounds funny when you say the name of the boat was the Wasted Wood. People kind of laugh. But growing up, that was the name of it; there wasn’t anything funny about it.”

Some of the stories had little to do with the boats and more to do with the person himself or herself, with the way they looked at things or with their sense of humor. Crab-house owner and born story-teller John Paul Lewis of Davis told me this delightful tale about a man from Atlantic long ago: “A lot of our boats went to Norfolk. One man [had a] boat named the Louise, and she was built in the early twenties, probably. But he went to Norfolk and kept her tied up to the Atlantic Ice Company, right where the ferry crossed from Portsmouth to Norfolk, East Main St. And I’d take shrimp there to be frozen in the fall and he got to be a very good friend of mine. And he stayed in Norfolk twenty years on the Louise. He kept her up and painted her. And when he came back to Atlantic he walked across the road to his wife’s house, and said, ‘What’re we having for supper?'”

Milan Lewis of Atlantic said that he had joined the Navy during the Second World War. “I didn’t go in because I was patriotic,” he said. “I went in because I was digging clams for 40 cents a bushel, and I thought the Navy would be better, which was a mistake. The clamming was better.”

J. M. Brown of Gloucester responded to my question about the difficulty of building a boat alone in this way. “It’s hard to do much boatwork by yourself,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “You need someone to hold the end of something, you know.”

Lawrence S. Earley is a writer and photographer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. His new book is The Workboats of Core Sound: Stories and Photographs of a Changing World. He is also author of Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (2004). You can see additional photos at his website.