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.