January 20, 2010

The Fisherman’s Quilt is made from T-shirts that
celebrate the island’s fishing community


“There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

That is what Water Rat told Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s classic childhood story, “The Wind in the Willows,” published in the late 1800s.

More than 100 years later, on Dec. 29, 2009, at the Ocracoke Fish House’s fourth annual oyster roast, a quilt containing those words was unveiled. The quilt, a compilation of patches made out of water-related T-shirts stitched together by Joyce Reynolds is being raffled as a fundraiser for the organization sponsoring the event – the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association (OWWA).

There is a story behind that quilt, and there are stories in the patches themselves, which, stitched together, tell the story of Ocracoke’s fishing community.

The story of the quilt began three years ago, when Joyce Reynolds, the minister at the Ocracoke United Methodist Church, came up with the idea of making a quilt to contribute to the watermen’s association.

Joyce specializes in making quilts from T-shirts, so she wanted to use some of Ocracoke’s fishing-related shirts.

Finding and collecting the shirts became a mission for Joyce--a way that she could contribute to helping the fish house.

Since many of the shirts were no longer for sale, she had to talk a number of people into giving her the shirt off their backs -- literally.

She also set about getting as many as possible of the shirts signed by those who were connected to them. She stood at the docks to catch the boat captains and get their signatures, and she flagged down Doran Quigg as he rode by on his bicycle, telling him she had to have the T-shirt he was wearing. He delivered it to her at church the following Sunday.

Quilting has long been a part of Ocracoke tradition, and Joyce’s T-shirt quilt was not the first quilt to be made and raffled to help support OWWA.

In 2008 the Ocracoke Needle and Thread Club, comprised of a number of local quilters who work together on such projects, presented the organization with a beautiful sampler quilt of water-related themes. Two years in the making, the Watermen’s Quilt raffle raised $1,500.

One of the T-shirt patches in Joyce’s quilt depicts OWWA’s logo, a fishing trawler and the name of the organization.

The story behind the OWWA T-shirt is one of hope, hard work, and a community pulling together to save a threatened tradition. 

Ocracoke’s fish house, South Point Seafood (another of the T-shirt patches) opened its doors in 1974, when Johnny Griffin began buying seafood from local fishermen on the docks at Silver Lake. Murray Fulcher, a local fisherman and advocate for waterman with the North Carolina General Assembly, bought and ran South Point Seafood for about 20 years before retiring.
The fish house changed hands and then was closed for nearly two years, threatening to bring an end to Ocracoke’s long tradition as a fishing village and to the jobs of a number of watermen who lived here.
Meanwhile, Ocracoke fisherman Hardy Plyer was appointed to a state committee to locate working waterfronts in North Carolina that were threatened by privatization. Ocracoke was among those identified.

Ocracoke fisherman Gene Ballance and Robin Payne, president of the board of the newly formed Ocracoke Foundation, began working together to raise money to reopen the fish house. They received funding from the North Carolina Rural Center, economic development grants through Hyde County, and a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.

They met their goal and three years ago Ocracoke Seafood Company opened its doors. The story of the watermen’s association and the fish house has been one of success since then.

OWWA is managed by Ocracoke’s fishermen, under the umbrella of the non-profit Ocracoke Foundation. The fish house, which goes by the name “Ocracoke Seafood,” is now self-supporting. Money taken in at fundraisers contributes to educational outreach programs, such as guidance for teachers to use in their classrooms and research projects. Representatives from the watermen’s association participate in the North Carolina Seafood Festival in Morehead City, the North Carolina Museum of History,  and the Core Sound Waterfowl Festival at Harkers Island. They produce promotional materials, including shirts with the OWWA logo, and bumper stickers which read, “Friends don’t let friends eat imported seafood,” thus supporting local buying. They are presently engaged in preparing a shallow draft barge to plant oysters in Pamlico Sound.

OWWA officers include David Hilton representing fin fishing, Jerry Lukefahr for shellfish, and Ernie Dosier for charter boat fishing. David Hilton is also the president of Ocracoke Seafood. They are presently working with N.C. Sea Grant to bring more diversity and better marketing, using the brand name “Ocracoke Fresh; Caught Today the Traditional Way.”

Hardy Plyer is the manager of Ocracoke Seafood, and his wife, Patti Johnson Plyer, runs the retail department which sells seafood to the public.

One of the T-shirts in the quilt depicts a fish camp with the words, “Hardy’s Fish Camp and Disco.” It was designed for Hardy and Patti’s wedding party, when the long-time partners decided to tie the knot.

Other T-shirts feature such water-related businesses as Tradewinds Bait and Tackle Shop, The Anchorage Marina, Fat Boy’s Fish Company, and Native Parasail.

Shirts from several of the charter-boat captains are represented, including Ronnie O’Neal’s Miss Kathleen, Farris O’Neal’s Drum Stick, John Ferrara’s Fish Tale, and Reid Robinson’s Devereux. There is a shirt from Rob Temple’s sailboat Wind Fall, from Rodney Mason’s hunting guide service, and from Wade Austin’s duck hunting business, as well as from the Ocracoke Island Crab Festival that used to draw big crowds.
One of the last T-shirts Joyce got was the one with the above mentioned quotation about messing about in boats, which seems to capture the spirit of this fishing community. The people who had originally marketed the shirts sold them at the Gathering Place, a little shop which stood at the entrance to the Community Store docks. The shop itself had been moved to a building in another part of the village, and the current owners, John and Ginny Moss, had stopped selling the shirts. Ben O’Neal still had one however, and when he heard that Joyce was waiting for one to complete her quilt, he left it stuffed in the handle of her door latch. Joyce finished the quilt and presented it to OWWA.

Raffle tickets for the quilt sell for $15 and can be bought at the fish house when it reopens at Easter or online at www.ocracokewatermen.org. The winning ticket will be picked at OWWA’s Labor Day Fish Fry.

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