Published January 4, 2024

Reedville is a small community in Virginia’s Northern Neck, a peninsula bordered by the Potomac River to the north, the Rappahannock River to the south, and the Chesapeake Bay to the east. Its history and identity is tied to the evolving commercial fishing industry; specifically, one small, lucrative fish: menhaden.

The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum has told the story of Reedville through programs and exhibitions since it was founded in 1988. This community institution has enjoyed a long history with Virginia Humanities and its Virginia Folklife Program; this past summer marked their most recent collaboration, when a team of Folklife interns helped transcribe a set of oral history interviews conducted by the museum in the early 2000s. 

Reedville Fishermen’s Museum docent Kathy Elsden, left, with Katy Clune and Virginia Folklife interns Kate Wietor and Kaity Wasinger (far right). This is an iron kettle for processing menhaden. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

By intertwining Virginia Folklife Program archival materials from Reedville with present-day voices, we hope to give insight into the past and future of this beloved community museum. 

The Town Fish Built

If you visit Reedville, you are almost guaranteed to hear the phrase, “This was once the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.” And it’s true—the mansions of “Millionaire’s Row” are a relic of the immense wealth that once sat along the shores of Cockrell Creek.

A brick home with stately vaulted roof and arches
This home on Millionaire’s Row, previously “The Gables” bed and breakfast, was built in 1909 for Captain James Fisher and features a schooner mast from the 1800s in its center. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the early twentieth century, Reedville was the center of the country’s menhaden fishing industry thanks to Elijah Reed, the town’s namesake. Menhaden is an essential component in industrial and agricultural products like fertilizer, paint, bait, and animal feed, as well consumable omega-3 supplements. Menhaden travel in massive schools and historically required nets pulled by large crews to bring in thousands of fish at a time. 

The cultural landscape of Reedville was shaped by the menhaden fishing industry. Descendants of ship captains (typically white) and crews (largely African American) that continue to live in Reedville take pride in this fishing heritage, even as fewer people earn their living on the water. Fourth of July parades featured dapper menhaden floats, like this 1991 celebration documented in Virginia Humanities’ archives. 

A menhaden float in Reedville’s 1991 Fourth of July parade (Source: Discovery Virginia)

Since 1970, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church has organized a Blessing of the Fleet boat parade and ceremony, which is co-hosted today by Omega Protein, the last menhaden reduction fishery on the East Coast and an essential, if at times controversial, employer for the region. Thanks to Omega Protein, today Reedville is still one of the “major ports for the landing of commercial fish in the United States, second only to Kodiak, Alaska,” according to the museum’s website.

A Community Museum Grows

As menhaden fishing grew increasingly mechanized and required fewer workers, retiring watermen and women were eager to ensure that their stories were told and their memories preserved for generations to come. In 1988, the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum was founded.

In 1989, Garry Barrow, the first Virginia state folklorist, began collaborating with the museum. Barrow worked intimately with its volunteer leadership team during its founding years to help develop its original exhibitions.

Letters between Barrow and Alice Butler, president of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum in the early 1990s, detail their discussions of grant applications, applications from potential curators, and the future of the museum. In 1991, Virginia Humanities awarded a planning grant to the Greater Reedville Association to support the development of the museum’s first exhibition, which included collecting oral histories “that are eloquent, funny, informative, and often profound.”

In 1993, the museum worked with the Virginia Folklife Program to develop a successful application for a $23,000 Virginia Humanities grant to produce a permanent and traveling exhibition on “the region’s four major fishing traditions—pound net fishing, crabbing, menhaden fishing, and oystering, and on the related expressive and material traditions of net mending, boat building, and chantey singing.” 

Clarice Williams at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum in 2022. Photo by Katy Clune/Virginia Humanities

Over the next ten years, the museum would be awarded more than $25,000 in additional grants from Virginia Humanities to support its ongoing oral history initiatives and community-engaged events. “We had a story to tell. So we told it,” Clarice Williams said in a 2022 interview with Katy Clune, current state folklorist. 

Williams was born in Rocky Mount, Virginia, in 1924 but grew up in Reedville as the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was part of the core group of volunteers that helped launch the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.

“Everybody wanted to be involved, we had no trouble getting anybody to do anything. They were there,” she said. 

That was the founding spirit of the museum— a local history needed to be told, so its people came together and made it happen. 

Virginia’s Chantey Singers

Almost from its very beginning, the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum sought to uplift a unique local tradition: chantey singing. 

Fishermen pulling a net full of menhaden
A crew pulls a net filled with menhaden to the surface. Photo courtesy of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum

Until the 1960s, a menhaden fishing boat would send out smaller “purse boats” to unfurl long nets and encircle the fish. After the crew pulled the nets tight, forcing the fish to the surface, they had to work in unison to haul the full, heavy nets on board. Singing helped coordinate this task.

 “They sang together, and then they pulled together,” explained Captain Charles R. Winstead, Jr. in a 2005 interview transcribed by the Virginia Folklife Program for the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.

Captain Charles Winstead describes when and how to sing a chantey in an interview for the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum in April 2005.

Born in Hendersonville in 1950, Winstead was known for being one of the best chantey leaders, sometimes on the request of other captains. 

“I been to Captain Fred Haney several times, more than once because he had a set of fish he couldn’t raise. I’d go to him, and I’d raise them,” he said. “To determine when to start singing, you’d get [the fish] as tight as you could get them. … You put [the crew] all together singing, and when they stopped singing, they all pulled together. And that made a big difference.”

Northern Neck Chantey Singers performing at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum in June 1991. Photo courtesy of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum

By 1960, however, commercial fishing boats were transitioning to the newly invented hydraulic power block, a revolution in fishing technology. Men were no longer needed to pull nets, boat crews got smaller, and there was no more reason to sing. 

In 1991, Alice Butler invited William Hudnall to organize a performance of chantey singing for the museum’s Fourth of July celebration, which also honored breaking ground on a new building. 

Hudnall and his wife hosted six retired fishermen from Lancaster and Northumberland Counties, including Captain Charles Winstead, in their home for rehearsals. Before their performance—their first public appearance—Hudnall remarked, “When I talked to these men about arranging a group to sing chanteys, some of them looked at me strange, and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said ‘No, seriously!’ Now what happened is there are chanteys and there are chanteys. All the things that were sung on the fishboat can’t be sung here. Now fortunately, every member of this group is a deacon, except one, and that one is a deacon son. So you will be safe today with the chanteys.”  The Virginia Folklife Program documented this performance and an earlier rehearsal in June of that year.  

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers perform at Reedville’s 1991 Fourth of July celebration (Source: Discovery Virginia)

Following this successful appearance, a few local men came together to organize a professional group: the Northern Neck Chantey Singers. They performed Chesapeake Bay sea chanteys across the country during the 1990s and early 2000s. They recorded their 1993 album, See You When the Sun Comes Down, as part of the museum’s larger oral history project with support from the Virginia Folklife Program. Membership changed over the years, and in 2003 Lloyd Hill joined the group and began leading the onstage performances.

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers perform on May 14, 1993 (Source: Discovery Virginia)

“Singing has always been part of manual labor. … It made the time pass, made it go better, it maybe eased the burden. And it’s all like a shared agony, shared misery. You and your partner have been working together. You both are tired, but nobody wants to give up, so you keep pulling.”

In 2011, the chanteymen were approaching their 70s. They apprenticed a new member, Lewis R. Blackwell, with support from the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in an effort to keep the tradition going. Their performance at the 2011 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase includes their trademark banter and demonstration on how the maneuvers of the fishing net and the chorus of the chanteys worked together.

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers perform at the 2011 Virginia Folklife Showcase in Charlottesville

The End of a Tradition

In 2022, more than a decade later, Liz Buxton, then director of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, consulted with the Virginia Folklife Program on a grant application to digitize oral histories collected in the 2000s. While the museum did not receive grant funding, a team of interns from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Public History transcribed the interviews and Clune completed oral history interviews with Lloyd Hill and Clarice Williams on behalf of the museum.

Lloyd Hill in November 2022. Photo by Katy Clune/Virginia Humanities

Hill explained he thought it was unlikely the Northern Neck Chantey Singers would perform again. Their manager, Elton Smith, was 96 at the time of the interview. Two members had passed away since the outset of the pandemic. “I don’t know if I could get five or six guys together [to sing], to make it meaningful,” Hill said.

In their prime, the group was reliant on festival performances outside of Reedville to mostly white audiences. 

“People away appreciated [the chanteys] more than the people here, that probably lived a part of it. They didn’t appreciate it,” Hill said. “But, by the way, we were sometimes like young rock stars. People would gather around us, and we would tell our stories. At the Urbanna Oyster Fest, little kids would be around looking at the nets and stuff. We had kids pulling in nets. So they kind of enjoyed it. But all that kind of went away.”

 Lloyd Hill joined the Northern Neck Chantey Singers in 2003. Here he sings along with a 1991 recording, explaining the group eventually sang their standard “Lazarus” in a lower range.

Reedville chantey singing is bound to survive only in recordings, and this fate seems inevitable — appropriate, even — for work songs that were born from the legacy of slavery with no remaining context.

Northern Neck Chantey Singers at a 1993 performance. Courtesy the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum.

“Back in my father’s day, almost the entire crew was Black fisherman. The captain would be white, but everybody else would be Black,” Hill said. “It would be hard to find a Black waterman that currently works in Lancaster County. … I can’t name a waterman that makes his living from oystering and crabbing and gill netting and hull setting and pound netting. It isn’t happening anymore.”

Despite all the complications, Hill is still committed to ensuring people remember the chanteys: “When you learn from your past, you can just see what a proud heritage you are descended from. To let this die out would be just like saying that you don’t need libraries.”

Adapting a Community Museum for the Future

How does a museum dedicated to past ways of life remain relevant to its changing community? 

“If I had any words of wisdom to leave I would tell you, my friends and community workers, to keep on going, and never say the job is finished. It will never be finished. It must go from generation to generation.”

Alice Butler, Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, at her retirement party in September 1995 

Shauna McCranie, who has served as executive director of Reedville Fishermen’s Museum since June 2023, is harnessing the museum’s original spirit of community commitment and working to find new ways to make the organization sustainable. She has big goals: building expansions, more community events (such as art classes and concerts), and new ways to engage young people in their local history. In August 2023 she helped appoint the museum’s first teen board member, Anne Shackleford. 

Our team returned digitized and transcribed oral histories to the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum on 8/24/23. All photos by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

McCranie also wants to empower Reedvillians to share and preserve their own stories, in line with the museum’s goals since its founding. Support from the Virginia Folklife Program helped revive its oral history initiative, and now McCranie is hoping to get area youth involved. The museum is exploring possible partnerships with the Northumberland County Boys and Girls Club and ways to honor the remaining Northern Neck Chantey Singers at home, in their own community. 

Alice Butler’s sign off in the February 1992 Reedville Fishermen’s Museum newsletter (Source: Discovery Virginia)

Like all local history institutions, the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum must also root itself in the present if it wants to continue to thrive. As the museum’s past president Alice Butler wrote more than twenty years ago, “We are making history. Let’s preserve it.” 

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