For as long as anyone could remember the only scallops harvested by the Island “proggers” were the “bay scallops” that were found on grass lumps and shoals all along the sound side shores of Shackleford and Core Banks. But in the mid 1960s local fisherman uncovered large mounds of “sea scallops” just off of Cape Lookout, and there arose a new industry, mostly for local women, of opening and preparing them for market.
Before the sea scallop supplies were totally depleted a few years later, there would be as many as six “scallop houses” on the Island shore that were dedicated almost entirely to opening scallops and packaging them for resale. The walls of the scallop houses were lined with benches and tile chutes that fed through the outer walls. Through them the scallop openers (for some reason, they were never called “shuckers” by the locals) could deposit their empty shells after they had scraped off the gut and cut out the heart (meat).
The cleaned scallops were placed in quart plastic jars and eventually into a one gallon tin container. The guts were dropped into a bucket and usually poured overboard. In fact, so many scallop guts were discarded that they overwhelmed the natural food chain of pin fish and sea gulls that generally served as the disposal system for the marine waste that Islanders had been throwing into the sound for as long as anyone could remember. In the midsummer heat, the decomposing scallop wastes that washed up on the shore would let off a pungent odor that was as identifiable as it was odorous. Smelling “scallop guts” became an accepted, albeit dreaded, part of the dog days of summer.
Most of the openers got into their place not long after sun up, and in the mid summer that meant 6:30 am or earlier. Some of the more skilled openers could average opening a gallon an hour. At $2 a gallon, they could earn as much as $15 to $20 a day, which often was more than what their husbands were making as laborers or as fishermen. Others, like my mother and sisters, would open one or two gallons every day to supplement the family income. Hard as it is for my children to comprehend, $2, or $4, or $6 a day could make a real difference in how a family lived. I distinctly recall that the $10 that bought my first pair of Converse AllStars (basketball shoes) came directly from five gallons of scallops opened by my mother on David’s Dock.
Another by product of the scallop boom of the mid 60s on the Island was that the many thousands of harvested scallop shells began to pile up along the shore all the way from Shell Point to Red Hill. Before long, the sandy beaches that had lined the shoreline since the dawn of time were replaced by what looked like clabbered lanes of sand mixed with calico ridged sea shells. The new pavement was much too prickly for the bare feet of fishermen, and especially for their children who for a hundred years had run along the shore pulling toy boats or chasing after shorebirds. The sandy and unbroken shore line that I had know was suddenly gone, and would never come back.
By the time that the scallop houses fell into disuse, the bed of shells was deep enough that it would take a generation or more for the sand and waves to disperse them, and by then, the shore itself had been dissected by breakwaters, bulkheads, and piers built on long rows of pilings. The unbroken and unhindered pathway that had once been the “shortest distance between any two places” on the Island, had morphed into an obstacle course that has made walking on the shore more a dream than a pastime.