What’s a “fish camp”?

When people move from one state to another, they often have a ton of questions when they arrive at their new locale, stuff like “how does voter registration work here?”, “when do I need to change my car’s tags?”, “when’s trash pickup day?”, “how late are liquor stores open around here?” and “what’s the deal with local handgun laws?”. That sort of thing.

Of course, when I moved from Atlanta to Belmont, North Carolina in early 2003 I asked all those questions (and more). But I noticed one thing that seemed to be particular to Gaston Country, North Carolina… the “fish camp”. I gathered (correctly, as it turns out) that a fish camp is a locally-owned restaurant that serves up heapin’ helpins of fried seafood. But why is it a camp? And why are almost all fish camps located in Gaston County?

It turns out that it has to do with textile mills. You see, from around 1900 until sometime in the 1960s, Gaston County North Carolina was the epicenter of America’s textile industry. If Gaston County’s Chamber of Commerce is to be believed, during the county’s heyday there were more looms in Gaston County than in any other county or city in the United States. Although most of these mills have closed down and moved to Mexico, Malaysia or China, you can still see the remnants of the industry everywhere in Gaston County, from the needle and thread on Belmont’s town seal to the “mill houses” that dot the downtowns of most cities in the county.

But I was talking about fish camps. The Catawba River runs through Gaston County, and actually forms the border between Gaston and Mecklenburg county in the east. And when the textile mills were big, mill workers often went to the river on Sundays to fish. This not only gave the men time to hang out with “the boys”, it also gave them the chance to provide a cheap dinner for the family. Remember, the mills were huge around here, so there were a lot of people doing this on a nice Sunday afternoon.

Well, it didn’t take long before a budding entrepreneur noticed the men fishing, so someone – and I haven’t been able to find out exactly who yet – built a little shack by the river and offered to clean and cook the fish for a modest fee. And that, my friends, was the first fish camp. But it wouldn’t be that way for long. Someone else saw someone making money off the fishermen, and soon fish camps began offering covered (but not enclosed) seating. It was probably also around this time that fish camps started offering drinks and side items, like Cole slaw and fries. The “park pavilion” style seating arrangement was then replaced with genuine buildings, although the camps still carried out their original job of gutting and frying the fish that the mill workers brought in.

At some point though, that all changed. I don’t know where, when or why, but at some point – perhaps when the mills began to shut down – fish camps stopped taking in fish from their customers and just started buying it from food distributors or farmer’s markets in the area. Nowadays, fish camps are just plain ol’ seafood restaurants, just like any other Mom and Pop seafood restaurant anywhere in America. But in Gaston County, many of them retain the fish camp name and feel, even if their original purpose is (almost) lost to history.

4 Replies to “What’s a “fish camp”?”

  1. fish camps were started just as you have said, good job. the fishermen no longer supplied the cooks with the fish after food safty became and issue and the government got involved, so says my great grand father who owned a few of those fish camps. there is much more to a fish camp than just being a resturant though, it is all about how the fish are seasoned and cooked as well as the super friendly atmosphere between the patrons and the staff and owners. the carolinas and some parts of georgia still know and maintain the proper atmospheres ect to be fortunate enough to be called a fish camp, other sadly, are mere resturants that serve seafood and fish.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I lived most my life on the gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, where fresh seafood is both cheap and plentiful. When I moved to NC to work in Charlotte, I decided to live in Gaston County because it was more affordable. After failing to find decent seafood, I stumbles upon a fish camp that offered modestly priced and well prepared fish and shrimp. But I always wondered why the restaurant was called a fish camp. Now I only eat seafood from Fish Camps unless on the outer banks, because I know I can trust the food to be fresh and delicious.

  3. Well if you lived in Atlanta you weren’t far from old fish camps. My grandfather used to talk about the ones in the area now known as Vinings in Cobb Co. on the banks of the Chattahoochee. There were also some in Fulton Co. Indeed fish camps were located all over Georgia and Alabama in the early 1900’s; they certainly aren’t unique to N.C. Many of them also offered lodging in addition to the clean and cook service you mentioned, hence the word “camp.” Some even rented boats. Often it was a long ride on horseback or in a wagon for a fishing trip so an overnight stay was in order.

  4. You are all wrong. You are not going far enough back in southern history. The fish camp term originated in the “camp meeting” revivals various denominations held during the mid summer months while farmers were waiting for their crops to mature to harvest. Other than mid-winter, it was the only time of the year farm families could leave their farm work to attend a week long event away from home. It was also a good way to find compatible spouses for isolated farm families and stay within their religious denomination. Seafood from the coast was a very rare treat if you were inland and electricity and refrigeration were not available. Someone got the bright idea of collecting funds from the attendees on the first day of the camp meeting and sending a flatbed truck down to the coast to buy as much fresh seafood as they could and pack it back surrounded by 100 lb. blocks of ice. When they arrived, they served the seafood to the attendees of the revival until it ran out and the week ended. Years later enterprising entrepreneurs opened up fried seafood eateries and claimed to serve fresh seafood “camp meeting style”. Thus Fish Camps were coined.

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