The 1930s in Beaufort County: Hard Times?

Published 8:12 pm Friday, March 2, 2018

Life in Beaufort County in the 1930s, for town as well as country people, did not look much different than it had in previous history. The economy was still based on farming, forestry and shipping, with some fishing.

At the turn of the century, three out of four black farmers had become sharecroppers or tenant farmers, as well as one out of three white farmers, and the situation a generation later was not much different. Tobacco had replaced cotton as the primary cash crop; corn was widely grown, as well as grains, Irish potatoes, soybeans and sweet potatoes, and hog production had developed strongly. A brief depression in farm prices had even preceded the Great Depression, and the economic crash hit the farm economy hard. In 1929, cotton had been selling for 17 cents per pound, but in 1932, it was selling for less than seven cents.

Outside of the towns, rural life was rugged. Many folks who were not well-to-do normally travelled only as far as they could walk. Most provisions were not bought with money but rather grown, homemade, hunted, trapped, fished, foraged or bartered. Water came from a spring or hand pump. Heat and fire for cooking came from the wood stove or just the chimney if people were very poor. Clothes were made and mended by hand, repurposed into bedding, and a commonly used fabric was the feed sack. Laundry consisted of stirring clothing in a boiling pot with a stick. Soap was homemade from fat, lye and ashes. People rarely saw a doctor and there were no antibiotics. A housewife in her “spare time” might shell beans or attend to her sewing, or mend nets if the family lived near a waterway. Although there was a public school system, farm children often attended sporadically when they were not needed in the fields. An example of Tar Heel humor was the country man who explained, “I ain’t got no education, so I got to use my head!”

The stock market crash of 1929 brought down two of the three local banks, but the Bank of Washington remained open. Loy and Worthy’s “Washington and the Pamlico” cited the importance of mills to Washington: “During the 1930s depression, the Roanoke Railroad & Lumber Company and John Havens Moss Mill were the only sizable industries that gave employment on a continuous basis.” The latter also provided a grain bank for farmers.

Washington’s economy remained anchored by shipping and distribution. The waterfront continued to be dominated by functioning warehouses, working boats and busy docks and wharves. Goods like oil, food, lumber and hardware still travelled by boat as well as rail. Behind the downtown stores, farmers who had come to town on Saturday would park their mules and carts, and a few horses. Those who were better-off would park their trucks and cars.

In the 1930s, it was still common for local people to build their own boats. Locally available woods like cypress, white cedar, juniper and “live” (white) oak were commonly used. The major advancement was the addition of gasoline-driven vehicles, and gasoline-powered boats supplemented wind and steam. The Hatteras and Ocracoke freight boats would dock along the waterfront near the City Market at the bottom of Market Street or Sterling’s Fish Market adjacent to the Maola Ice Cream and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The Hatteras-Washington boat would pass the Pamlico Point Shoal lighthouse, which still had a real lighthouse keeper, near the river’s southern bank where it meets the Sound. There were also docks behind the Crystal Ice Company, where freight boats would take on cargoes of large ice blocks used to cool boxes of fish.

John Morgan, former register of deeds, described life at the time in his book “A Pleasant Gale on My Lee.” He recalled the busiest time of year for boat traffic in downtown Washington was during oyster season. Large schooners would bring loads of fish meal used in fertilizer production. After unloading at the two fertilizer factories, they would move to the Roanoke Railroad & Lumber Company and the Moss Planing Mill docks to take on loads of lumber for the return trip.

The Dorothy Leigh was a familiar sight at the Norfolk-Baltimore-Carolina shipping company dock located at Water and Bonner streets. The vessel would bring shipments of sugar from Norfolk to the sugar warehouse. The Preston and the Relief were two-masted schooners, with engines to supplement wind power, that ferried goods and people between Ocracoke and Washington. The Bessie Virginia was the last freight boat that served the Ocracoke-Washington run until the early 1960s, and she docked at the Fowle dock at the foot of Respess Street. Two commonly seen tug boats were owned by the Eureka Lumber Company.

Governmental safety nets had not existed before the Depression, so neighbors, extended family, churches and granges helped in emergencies. Life was closely subject to the forces of nature, and folks tended to take their religion seriously. Local life did not change in great measure until World War II. Generations of people in Beaufort County learned tenacity of character and ways of life close to the land and water.

Billie-Jean E. Mallison is a member of the Historic Port of Washington Project, a program undertaken by a group of dedicated volunteers who wish to preserve and call attention to the rich history of Washington. Visit the HPOW website at or follow us on Facebook at