Mr. Underwood’s place is like home

Published 12:33 am Saturday, November 26, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

Mr. Underwood has a place on the Nottoway River, close by Delaware. We call it Mr. Underwood’s or Delaware depending on current use. From our house, it’s down to Fisher’s Mill, turn left before the bridge onto a twisting road that generally follows the run of Shady Brook.

About a mile from the Newsoms Road (and Delaware), on the right, is Mr. Underwood’s. His house is a noticeably tall, square structure. Not large, but obviously built with a large under house area for storage or other use. He has a large cleared front yard and a couple of outbuildings.

His side yard extends down a shallow bank to the river’s edge. There’s a small sandy beach along the near side; the far side is a low cut bank where waters are deepest. Beyond that a swampy area extends as far as you can see into the woods.

Off to the left is a strange looking spool-like structure, a small shed house and a couple of boats. A fishing net is stored on racks close beside the shed. This is Mr. Underwood’s fishing seine.

Beginning in the spring, Mr. Underwood, with hired help, pulls the seine across Nottoway River for whatever fish might be available. All the net is piled in the boat and is drawn across the river in a large loop.

One end has been staked out on land and the net is allowed to remain in the water for a short time before the opposite end is drawn back to that large spool-like apparatus. Hired hands turn the spool with large sticks and draw the net enclosure back to land. Fish are caught in the loop and transferred to the small shed’s holding tank.

Sometimes my father allows me to go with him to check what’s running. We always stare at the holding tanks. There are two large sections. The first section is where the catch is dumped; the second is where fish for sale are kept. Discards go back to the river. Many times, we return home with a “mess” of fish.

When herring are running, we eat fish several times. We clean the fish and extract the delicate roe to be eaten separately, sometimes mixed with hen eggs. It’s a real treat.

The herring have a lot of small bones and we always have fried corn bread with the meal. If a bone gets stuck in your throat, you take a bite of cornbread, chew and swallow. That generally clears up stuck bones. It happens fairly frequently and no one is greatly concerned.

During the summer, Mr. Underwood opens his yard for parking and his small beach area and river access for swimming. He charges about 5 cents per child and 10 cents for adults, I think. It’s a small amount and I’m never paying, so I don’t know for certain. The river runs slowly here in the summer, and I make my first efforts at swimming in the sandy bottomed, shallow edge. It’s a popular place.

Several churches, including ours, hold baptisms here. The congregation gathers at the water’s edge, our preacher stands about waist deep in the water and carries out a ritual older than Christianity, using modern words. Terms of acceptance into the faith are uttered as each person, in turn, is completely immersed in the water. “I baptize you in the name of the Father….”

I don’t know if Mr. Underwood charges for that or not.

My sister tells me this place used to be a river gardens/amusement park. Wisteria grew rampant in these woods and along the banks. People would take the train from Norfolk, Portsmouth, or other distant places to visit. Boat rides and other entertainments were offered. Wisteria still grows here, but not as abundantly as in bygone days.

I stand on the grassy bank overlooking the Nottoway just after it accepts the waters of Shady Brook. Over there, Mr. Underwood steps out of his side door and receives the few coins that permit members of my family to swim and play in the slow running river.

Over there, to my left, a ghost crew plays out a phantom fishing net across the dark waters and encircles the fish. Straight ahead, a church baptism, with singing, is in progress. The sweet smell of wisteria fills my soul. I am home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at