A hundred and more years ago, Randolph County’s mill villages were intimately attuned to the waters of Deep River. A good strong flow meant regular work as the mill’s water wheel or turbine turned the lineshafts and pulleys that powered the machinery. A drought meant the mill must stop until there was enough water to get it going again- an enforced vacation that was not always welcome. Floods on the other hand could push the wheels too hard, damaging the delicate machinery and again forcing the mill to stop for repairs.
The river and its mill ponds also provided transportation links in times when roads were primitive and poorly maintained. A powered flatboat regularly ran between the mills at Central Falls and Worthville, carrying raw cotton and finished goods. A passenger boat similarly once ran between Franklinville and Ramseuri. Even in leisure time, mill village residents looked toward the water. Picnics and community gatherings were held in mill-owned parks along the river, and at least in Franklinville and Worthville, organized paddle recreation in boats of various descriptions was common.
In a 1976 interview, 88-year –old Randleman resident Mrs. N.B. (Sophronia H.) Pickett told the Randolph Guide that “on Saturdays and Sundays the flatboats were used for recreational purposes, and she was sometimes a passenger on this ferry to Central Falls to attend ball games or other social events… In 1903, while the Worths were operating the Worthville mill, a beautiful park was created… for the pleasure of the residents, Mrs. Picket recalls. ‘The park, now long gone, was a favorite meeting place of the young people and a source of great enjoyment. Gravelled walks were shaded by age-old trees. There were swings, benches and a beautiful boat landing where one could get a canoe for a ride up or down the shady river.’” ii
Contemporary accounts note the care the Worths gave to the mill pond. “A new coat of paint has been put on the boats belonging to the park…” said the Worthville correspondent in March 1908.iii “The Worth Manufacturing Company are spending lots of money preparing for a picnic and boat races July 3rd,” he wrote in June 1909.iv Randleman also may have had such a facility, but the only reference is to its destruction. “The floods of last week are perhaps without parallel in all the history of this section…” says the courier in March 1912. “At Randleman… a small boat house and boat were carried off.”v
From several historic photographs of Randolph County boaters, I’ve identified three separate types of simple, flat-bottomed boat designs, well suited to the quiet waters of Piedmont rivers, ponds and lakes. All three can be seen in the following picture of the Worthville covered bridge, probably dating to circa-1900.
In the boat to the left a man is rowing a group of four in a skiff, a flat-bottomed boat with a pointed bow and square stern. This is a particularly large skiff, probably at least 16 feet in length. Two women in hats share the stern bench, with the rower in the middle and another man in the bow, facing aft. Given the large size of the boat, it was probably not a local product.
To their right is a man in a bowler hat rowing what looks something like a canoe, but on close inspection is probably a dory, given how the rower is using oars in an oarlock, not a paddle.. The boat is tapered at both ends, which rise from the lower middle where the oarlocks are positioned. The rower is facing the stern, which appears to be slightly square, while the bow is pointed. This is the case with a dory, a lightweight, shallow-draft boat from 16 to 23 feet long.
The dory is a simple design with high, raked sides, a flat bottom and sharp bows, a hull shape defined by the natural curve of sawn, overlapping planks. Dories are one of the oldest traditional forms of fishing boats used in both coastal waters and in the open sea, known to be both seaworthy and easy to row. This one is a long way from the ocean, but is just as suited to the calm waters of the Worthville mill pond. Other pictures of the Worthville boathouse show multiple dories, which were probably purchased elsewhere by the mill when the park was created. They were most likely professional products.
On the extreme right, pulled up on the shore near the end of the bridge, almost obscured in the shadows and cropped out of two other versions of this picture I have seen, is yet another style of boat. Undoubtedly a local homemade product, it is one of the simplest of all boats, known as a scow. Made of entirely of standard size straight planks, nailed or screwed together, the scow was as easy to build at home as a wooden box.
The most common size was 3 feet wide and 12 to 13 feet long, with a 5-foot flat bottom amidships and the bow and stern tapering (“rising”) to square end pieces only 4 inches high. Most scows were entirely symmetrical, with no clearly defined bow or stern. Scows were utilitarian work boats, designed for hauling the maximum amount of cargo, passengers or fish. Most early ferries were built using the scow design.
Very similar in design was another type of quiet-water, flat-bottomed boat, the punt. Known today almost entirely from pictures of Cambridge and Oxford students languorously punting along the Cam and Cherwell, punts were originally workboats used for fishing and hunting on shallow ponds and lakes. Instead of being propelled by rowing, punts are normally dragged along by the punter using a 16-foot-long pole pushed against the river bottom.
A scow and a punt are visually almost identical, with a punt measuring several feet longer than a scow, and sometimes more narrow. Recreational punting at British universities became popular in the 1870s, but punts were commonly used in the United States for duck hunting on shallow coastal sounds before gasoline engines were cheaply available.
The final style of boat used in 19th century Randolph County appears in two photographs in my collection from Franklinville. I believe it to be another skiff, much smaller than the one in the Worthville photo, and home-made product that required more complicated construction techniques than the dory or scow. The first photo shows the boat drawn up on the shore of one of the 3 Franklinville mill ponds. The Upper Mill, the Lower Mill, and the Ironworks all had separate impoundments, but this one is so narrow that it is most likely the Ironworks pond on Bush Creek, also known as “York’s Pond.”
This small skiff is very sharply pointed toward the bow, and probably could only safely hold two people. The homemade nature of this boat is evident from the second photograph, which clearly shows the rough-cut lumber. The sides are single 1-inch-thick planks at least 12 inches in width; a passenger seat braces the nose, and rudimentary “knees” or side braces stiffen the vertical plank sides. The bottom deck is made of six planks of varying widths, tied together by a batten running the width of the deck near the bow. The deck was probably built first, with the sides bent and nailed using the shape of the deck as a form or pattern.
The hydrodynamic V-shape of the Franklinville skiff may have made it easier to row than a scow, and clearly illustrates the evolution of boat-building from the square bow of the scow to the sharp prow of the dory. All of these 19th-century forms have roots in the Anglo-American watercraft traditions.
There undoubtedly were examples in Randolph County of native watercraft traditions such as the canoe and kayak, but no photographs of them are known. In eastern North Carolina, some examples of native dug-out canoes have been recovered by archeologists, but so far, nothing like that has been found in Randolph County.
i “C.F. Moon operated a gasoline boat between this place and Ramseur last week for the convenience of the Piedmont Association held at Ramseur. “Franklinville News,” The Courier, 20 Aug. 1908.
ii The Randolph Guide, 21 July 1976, page E-12.
iii The Courier, 26 March 1908.
iv The Courier, 3 June 1909.
v The Courier, 21 March 1912.