By Jack Haubach ~
Have you ever felt like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court as you tried to figure out some of the names and places in the South? A perfect example of what I mean is fish camp. I have spent many weekends living out of a tent, fishing, and drinking beer around a campfire. This was what I expected when a discussion of fish camps first began. My native Carolinian friends would ask, “Do you have a favorite fish camp yet?” Somehow, I figured we were not at all on the same page.
After a few visits to fish camps, I still do not have a favorite. And, I still have no idea why these perfectly good, climate-controlled restaurants are known as camps. The locals I spoke to have a variety of ideas about their origins. One thing these stories have in common is the Catawba River and dates: the Depression era of the 1930s and 1940s. The story then turns on which area of the Catawba River basin you called home.
Boiling Lard and a Mess of Fish
One story on the origin of fish camps told of fishermen who reeled in a good weekend catch from the Catawba. They would bring lard to a boil in wash pots and prepare a mess of fish for their friends and relations. As the Depression took hold, the fishermen sold their catches to cotton mill workers for additional income. The addition of a tin roof to cover the pot and some rough wooden furnishings gave the place a camp-like atmosphere. The name stuck.
So, how do we get from this classic Depression image of folks eating in the open air around a campfire to the restaurants today known as fish camps? Asking this question is akin to asking who invented baseball? Everyone has his own story. Again, there is a common thread: the end of WWII. For example, people from Lake Wylie will tell you about the Riverview Inn. Founded in 1946 by Irwen W. Burns Sr., it used military-surplus field kitchen stoves and sheet metal pots. The stovetops were fired with gasoline. The menu was Catawba River trout and catfish, all-you-could-eat for about a dollar. Built of rough-sawn oak boards, the restaurant seated 60. In later years the pirate “Captain Windy” greeted customers. The restaurant is now closed.
Local Fish and Seats for 550
Travel up the Catawba into Gaston County, North Carolina, and you hear a similar story. This time, the hero is Luther Lineberger. In 1948, this restaurateur began with Friday and Saturday night fish fries for “his friends and fellow workers from the Cramerton Mills,” says the Belmont Historical Society. The rough-sawn wooden building stood until 1998, when fire destroyed it.
Go south along the river to a place near Fort Lawn, South Carolina, called the Catawba Fish Camp, to where folks claim the first “modern” fish camp is located. Opened in 1952 by Pleasant Baker, it featured both local and some coastal fish like shrimp and whole flounder. The restaurant seated 100 and also had chicken on the menu. Today the place seats 550 and has a much more expanded menu than its original five items.
Fish from the Coast
Also expanded is the number of fish camps throughout this area today. Dozens are found in the Catawba River basin alone. By the 1960s, the idea of a basic meal of fish and simply fixed sides like coleslaw and hush puppies (that is another name needing research) became popular with folks locally and beyond. Fish from the Catawba have all but disappeared from menus now.
The fish served today is almost exclusively shipped in from coastal waters or is farm raised. Many of the restaurants now have nautical themes and have added “Captain” to their names.
This, of course, is just good marketing. Put a pirate in your name or logo and the kids will drag parents to the restaurant even while claiming to hate fish. For most of these places, however, the origins of the fish camp still dictate the atmosphere you will find. The décor, although not the rough-sawed lumber of old, is still simple. Wooden tables, often set to seat ten or more, are still readily available. These big tables are a holdover from the days when mill workers only had family time on the weekends, and fish camps were affordable places to go. Now as then, family and friends can find great comfort in gathering to enjoy one another and eat good food at the local fish camp.
About the author: Jack Haubach is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and is on the executive team for Living @ SCCL magazine where this article was originally published. Jack is also a regular performer in the Dramatic Arts Club in SCCL. Thank you, Jack, for sharing your article with our readers. For another article on fish camps, please click here.
Headline photo courtesy of John Salzarulo. Article photos courtesy of Fishcamp on Broad Creek.