My Father the Pepsi Cola Man: Rudy Gray Recalls Growing up in Waves, NC in the 1950s

Edited excerpt of oral history recorded by B. Garrity-Blake for Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake.

My father started working for Pepsi Cola, hauling Pepsi Colas out of Elizabeth City down here on Hatteras island.  I can remember when we would leave real early in the morning around about 5 o’clock to go up to catch the ferry out of Oregon Inlet.

At that time it was a wooden ferry that they take over Oregon Inlet, and they would have a chain hoist rig that would raise up the front of the ferry. They would drop a wooden ramp down on the beach. You would drive your truck up on the ferry real slow on this rinky-dink thing. 

 He would cross the inlet and go to Elizabeth City and that’s where he would pick up the Pepsis. The paved highway never started until what we call Whalebone Junction. 

It was an all-day affair from the time he left here and went across the ferry, drove to Elizabeth City, and back. My dad would stop and drop some Pepsis off there to the fishing center in Oregon Inlet.  It’s not like it is today.  It was just a small fishing center.

My father distributed Pepsis on all of Hatteras Island. He had lumber, boards, 2 by 12s or whatever he could find on the beach, and kept them shoved up underneath the truck. We’d be going along and the sand would get real soft like it does in the summertime. He would get stuck in the sand, and he’d have to pull those boards out from underneath that truck and start boarding his way.  He’d drive on the boards a little ways, then get another board.  It wasn’t real easy getting down here like it is today with the highway.              

I’d go with him to deliver the Pepsis. At one time I felt like I just about knew everybody on Hatteras Island except the people that was here in the Navy or Coast Guard.

In the olden days back when I was a kid the grocery stores is where all the older men would hang out in the afternoon.  It was a gathering place. At my grandfather’s store, A. H. Gray General Merchandise in Waves, there would be 10 or 12, 14 men sitting around talking, some of them playing dominos, checkers, and stuff like that.  People had more time to visit and socialize more than they do now.  Everybody’s got to hustle and bustle today.

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Everything We Have Comes from the Water: Elbert and Sandy Gaskill of Harkers Island, NC

Reprinted rom Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake; photograph by B. Merkley

“Everything we have, everything we eat, our whole livelihood has come from the water,” Sandy Gaskill observed. She and Elbert grew up together on Harkers Island and have been making a life together for more than fifty years. 

“We borrowed 1,500 dollars to get started,” said Elbert. “Bought an 18-foot boat, motor, gillnet, and waist boots. Soon as we started making money we paid it off.” 

Elbert has built boats, made his own clam rakes, and done his own engine repair. 

“I know a little bit about carpentry, can fix my nets, rigging, wiring, welding - you got to know a little bit about everything,” he points out. “When all else fails, you can grab your tub and rake and go clamming. Eat Vienna sausage, crackers, keep clamming til your back gives out, but you can pay your light bill.” 

Elbert has a low-key, humble demeanor. You might not guess that his fellow fishermen count him as one of the hardest-working, innovative members of their community. For example, Elbert was the first in North Carolina to try the “fish eye” in his trawl net, a type of finfish excluder device. 

“We were working back of Cedar Island - me and Buddy Gaskill, who later drowned – we studied it.” The men sewed the excluder device, which Elbert had built based on one he had seen at a fishing show, into a tail bag, while a second tail bag served as a control. They made a tow and checked their results. 

“When I hauled back, the bag with the fish eye device was smaller, and right red looking. Dumped it out and it was shrimp. It worked.” He emphasized that fishermen do not want to catch small fish and other bycatch because “that’s our livelihood!” 

Elbert thinks that Turtle Excluder Devices, called “turtle shooters” by fishermen, were a good innovation as well. “Turtle shooters was the best thing (managers) ever done,” he emphasized. “I shoot the whifferees (rays) right on out, and skates, grass, bycatch, jellyballs, turtles, and other stuff you don’t want to be bothered with.” 

“Right now,” he added, “if they said ‘You ain’t got to use a TED’ I’d still want to use it!” 

Sandy and Elbert maintain that the key to their success was working together and being prepared to switch gears and fisheries to adapt to conditions.  

“We’d get set up for channel netting,” Sandy said, “And he’d go floundering while I fished the channel net. He’d go scalloping from Harkers Island to Sneads Ferry in the wintertime and I’d open scallops.  Built a big boat for shrimping, but a hard freeze killed every spotted shrimp that season – had to leave the new boat to the dock and go hand clamming. During red tide we went offshore, sink netting.” 

In the early years Elbert apprenticed with Claude Brown of Marshallberg, setting pots in the wintertime for black sea bass in the ocean. Today Elbert is one of the few permit holders from this region who can participate in that fishery. 

“He’s been a hard worker and a good provider,” Sandy said, nodding her head. “He tends his own business and we don’t bother nobody.” 

“You have to act like it’s the last dollar to be made,” Elbert added.  

For all of the deck time Sandy has put in, she has worked just as hard on land sticking up for the fishing industry. “If it hadn’t been for the women,” Elbert declared, “fishing would be all be closed down.” 

Although always the backbone of fishing families, women became increasingly organized and vocal in North Carolina fish politics in the 1990s. “Ladies auxiliaries” formed to support the North Carolina Fisheries Association, and women sponsored fundraisers, protests, and trips to the state capital to appeal to lawmakers.   

“We’d go to Raleigh and sometimes we’d leave there laughing,” Sandy recalled. “Sometimes we’d leave a’crying. Most times we’d leave a’praying.”   

In the Gaskill’s living room hangs an award to Sandy from the North Carolina Coastal Federation for her efforts in stopping a large marina from being built on Harkers Island, which would have destroyed adjacent shellfish beds. Sandy also served on the county harbor authority and successfully fought to keep dock space affordable for commercial fishermen. 

 She, along with Karen Amspacher, Pam Morris, and the late Janice Smith, was instrumental in making the North Carolina Seafood Festival’s Blessing of the Fleet what it is today. 

 “It’s been 20 years we’ve been doing this Blessing,” Sandy said. The women elevated the event to a truly sacred experience, with a procession of boats big and small blessing lost loved ones with wreaths that are tossed into the water. 

Honoring ancestors is important, but so too is looking ahead to the next generation of commercial fishermen. Sandy and Elbert have hope in the future because they see young people entering the fisheries, and they hope more of them will participate in management. 

“I was on the state's crustacean advisory committee for eight years,” said Sandy. “I said, no, I’m not going back on - I want the young ones to take a turn, take part, and take an interest in it.” 

Sandy shared a story about a young fisherman who asked her about the North Carolina Fisheries Association, the state’s largest trade organization for the seafood industry. He was wondering if the organization cared about small fishermen. 

“I said, let me tell you something. We can’t make it without them, and they can’t make it without us. We have got to work together or we’re going to lose it all.”

Sandy is known for speaking passionately at fisheries and legislative meetings. “When everything you have comes from the water, you go to a meeting and speak from the heart. You go there to tell them the truth.” 

Her advice to the next generation of fishermen and fisheries warriors? “Don’t be afraid to speak up. You know what you’re talking about." 

Elbert concedes that young people have new challenges to face. “More than anything, our fish are going north.” He notes that greentail shrimp are now filling the Chesapeake Bay, sea mullets are appearing off New York, and trout and croaker are frequenting northern waters. 

“And sharks are coming up from the south. I’ve worked 12 o’clock shoal my whole life never bothered by a shark, but now they eat the tail bag!” 

At 73, Elbert is not deterred, and he and Sandy continue to rise to the challenges on land and sea alike. 

“All the income we’ve ever had has come from the water,” Sandy reflected. “Nothing else, just the water. And we’ve made it.”

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Can't Sit Home and Be Still: Tim Millis and Buddy Davis, Humble Patriarchs of Sneads Ferry, NC

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake

Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, located at the mouth of New River Inlet, was a beehive of activity one recent November morning. Every fish house was jammed with trawlers waiting their turn to pack out colossal green tail shrimp, also known as white shrimp. I found 85-year old Tim Millis chatting with fishermen and truck drivers at B.F. Millis, the seafood company his father started around World War II. 

“My daddy caught fish and sold fish all his life,” Mr. Millis explained.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as a young Tim Millis spent every minute possible around boats and fish boxes. He quit school at a young age because he preferred the water to a classroom. 

“I just wanted to be in the river,” he smiled. “My boy was the same way – he’d rather dig a ditch with a spoon than go to school!” 

Mr. Millis regrets that he didn’t stay in school. “I feel like if I had an education I’d a done better.” He shook his head and added, “But we got by, all this time.”

“Getting by” is an understatement, considering that B.F. Millis Seafood is a major supplier of North Carolina seafood, especially shrimp. 

Tim Millis’ daughter, Nancy Edens, runs the office and keeps on top of fish politics, serving on the Southern Shrimp Alliance as well as state and federal advisory committees. Mr. Millis’ son Timmy helps run the fish house and drives one of their three tractor trailers. His grandson Jeremy helps pack seafood and drives a truck, and grandson Steven is skipper of the trawler Davis Seafood. Even his school-aged great grandsons help shrimp during the summer. 

“We’re getting a steel boat built right now in Louisiana,” Tim Millis added, pulling out a photograph of the vessel. The 68-foot trawler will be fished by his son Timmy, and christened Captain Ben. “Named after my daddy, Ben Franklin Millis. He was born in 1903 and died in 1992.” 

Obviously retirement is not in the cards for the octogenarian. “I’m not going to set home and do nothing,” Tim Millis said softly. “I love every part of this business.”  

Mr. Millis noted that last year’s shrimp season was the best he’s ever seen, and this year’s season was showing no signs of letting up for the winter. 

“We might be heading for a year ‘round shrimp fishery,” he mused, given the warming trend. “That would be better than a seasonal fishery.”

In times past, before the days of federal permits, quotas, and closures, Sneads Ferry fishermen quit shrimping in the fall and targeted black sea bass during the winter months.  

“Used to, when we were done shrimping we’d all go black fishing,” he recalled, using the local term for black sea bass. Sea bass helped fishermen earn Christmas money and make it through the harsh months until spring. 

“We just caught black fish in crab pots, and there weren’t no limits or permits,” he said. 

On Christmas Eve in 1959, Tim Millis was hauling in pots of black sea bass about ten miles offshore in his vessel The Pal. His friend E.N. Lockamy was fishing nearby in his vessel Lane L. They worked along a ledge that came to be known, from that day forward, as Christmas Rock. 

“We done pretty good I reckon,” he reflected. “People still call it Christmas Rock.” 

William Theron “Buddy” Davis, standing on the dock at nearby Davis Seafood Company, smiled at the mention of Christmas Rock. 

“I been there many a time. Christmas Rock is a ledge that fish like to feed at, about three quarters of a mile long, and drops straight down. We’d quit shrimping and go black fishing there.” 

He said that the appearance of more white shrimp, also known as green tails, has helped Sneads Ferry make up for the loss of access to black sea bass. 

“It’s gotten good, white shrimp. We used to have mainly brown shrimp, summer shrimp, and we’d have go to South Carolina in the fall for white shrimp,” he explained. “I know a fella from McClellanville who’s up here right now shrimping because it’s not as good in South Carolina!” 

Buddy Davis, like Tim Millis, is the eldest member of a fishing clan.  His ancestors came to Sneads Ferry from Davis Shore in Carteret County. 

His connection to the area continues with his several Harkers Island-built boats: the 58-foot long Captain Davis was built by Jamie and Houston Lewis. The 60-foot long trawler William Michael was built on Harkers Island by Lloyd Willis in 1968. Hauled out and retired in the yard is the Henry Lewis, a 1955 Brady Lewis-built boat. 

“I wanted to fix it but seems like time is running out.”

His largest boat, the 70-foot-long Davis Seafood, was also built on Harkers Island by Jamie and Houston Lewis. It’s run by Tim Millis’ grandson, who is married to Buddy Davis’ daughter. The vessel packs out at B.F. Millis Seafood, an example of the family ties in a tight-knit community. 

Buddy Davis and his sons are building a 72-foot-long steel trawler across the road from the fish house just to “have something to do in the wintertime.” He confided, “I can’t be still.” At age 76, Mr. Davis still shrimps on a regular basis and shows no signs of slowing down. Two of his sons run family trawlers, and his youngest son Jody runs the fish house with his wife Vicky. 

Much of their seafood is sold retail, and in recent years the company purchased a peeling and deveining machine so that customers can buy ready-to-cook shrimp. 

“If you catch too many shrimp and can’t feed them off around here, you send them to the breader in Alabama,” Mr. Davis said. Surplus shrimp is transported south on B.F. Millis’ truck, and then breaded, frozen, and distributed all over. 

A steady flow of customers carrying coolers to Davis Seafood was a testament to the retail market’s popularity. “It’s really busy here with people coming to buy shrimp. Jacksonville is right up the road, and the beach is right here,” he said. “It’s nerve wracking through the week. I prefer to be out shrimping.” 

When asked if he was proud of how successful his family business was, Buddy Davis shrugged and said, “I don’t pay it much mind.” 

Tim Millis at B.F. Millis Seafood, Sneads Ferry

Tim Millis at B.F. Millis Seafood, Sneads Ferry

Buddy Davis on his trawler at Davis Seafood, Sneads Ferry, NC

Buddy Davis on his trawler at Davis Seafood, Sneads Ferry, NC

One of the Young Guns: Crabber Stephen Spruill of Columbia, NC

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake 

While working on a North Carolina Sea Grant-funded project that focuses on the next generation of commercial fishermen, I met 29-year old crabber Stephen Spruill of Columbia. Stephen is called a “young gun” by Willy Phillips of Full Circle Crab Company. “The young guns are the go-getters of the fishery,” Phillips explained. “And Stephen has always had that spark, he’s hungry and determined – he’s eat up with fishing.” 

“Mr. Willy’s known me my whole life,” said Stephen. “He wrote the letter that I took to DMF in Morehead to get my commercial fishing license. You had to have letters from dealers. I was thirteen – that’s when I was pulling pots from a canoe!” 

The apprenticeship system, where a young fisherman learns the ropes or gets guidance from a seasoned mentor, is how the fishing industry has worked for generations. We often hear from watermen that their skills were passed down from their father and grandfather. Stephen’s case is a bit unusual because his father was a farmer, and Stephen grew up on a farm on Bulls Bay. 

 His heart was in fishing, however, and by the time he was sixteen, he “never looked back.”

 “I knew the Albemarle Sound pretty good, but to crab full time I needed to learn some other things, other water bodies,” Stephen reflected. “When everybody went back to school in the fall, I wanted to go to Manns Harbor to crab. I ended up working as a mate on a couple of boats down there until I was comfortable enough to crab with my own rig down there.” 

Today Stephen fishes at least 700 pots with a boat named after his wife, the FV Miss Bridget.

Stephen is one of dozens of fishermen we’ve been interviewing to better understand the challenges young people face, navigating increasingly restrictive fisheries regulations and fast-changing economic headwinds. 

Some of our key questions are: how can fishermen more meaningfully engage in fisheries policymaking and research? What can be done to strengthen communication and a peer-to-peer network within the industry? What needs to change to instill economic and political stability so that fishermen can invest in their business with confidence?  

Like many of the younger fishermen we’ve been talking to, Stephen is worried about the direction North Carolina fisheries management has been going in recent years, with less emphasis on stakeholder input and data-driven decision making. 

 “All it takes is one proclamation – look how the flounder fishery has been taken away from us in the summer.” He also cited herring and rockfish (striped bass) that are no longer viable options for fishermen. “Everybody’s a crabber now because there’s nothing else to do in this region.” 

 Stephen recommends that managers restore the flexibility that fishermen once had in having several fisheries from which to choose. 

“Open up other fisheries and give people options to do something different. Give them something else to harvest, it’ll take a little pressure off of crabbing.”

This “young gun” puts in long hours on the water out of passion. But he also goes the extra mile out of economic necessity. He and his wife have three mouths to feed: their sons, ages twelve, six, and four. 

“My oldest boy loves fishing and can actually help me. The middle one is learning – he’s taking it all in!” Although Stephen is not confident that commercial fishing will be a profitable option by the time his boys get older, he hopes the opportunity will be there. 

“I would like to think that they could fish. I know I enjoy doing what I do.” 

The economics of crabbing are not trending positively, however. The price of menhaden, the primary bait used for the crab fishery, has soared in the wake of quota restrictions imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Developing a bait fishery in North Carolina might help, but the state would have to reconsider its 2012 ban on purse seine fishing, the most efficient method of catching menhaden. 

“A flat of bait is now $23.50,” Stephen exclaimed. “On a normal day I need 14 flats to bait 700 pots. And the price of pots has increased. Fuel has gone up and I burn 50 gallons a week.” Stephen also has two crewmen to pay. 

“Everything has gone up but the price of crabs!” 

Stephen Spruill, like many others in the seafood business, would like to see data-based management that involved the input of fishermen. 

“I’d work with scientists,” he added, “if I thought it’d better our standing.”  

Listening to young fishermen and their mentors about ways to better their standing is what the “Next Generation” project is all about. 

The Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network and Maine’s Commercial Fishermen’s Action Roundtable (C-FAR) provide good models for North Carolina to consider. The Young Fishermen’s Development Act was introduced in Congress this spring; it would provide training and support similar to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. 

Young people are the future. Why shouldn’t the next generation of fishermen have a chance to follow their passion?

“It’s not work,” Stephen said, “if you love what you do.”

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