One of the last old-time net-makers leaves his story in our hands

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 26, 2012 

Arthur Orage's life weaves a Lowcountry story that should never die.

When this fisherman whose father also was a fisherman died this week at age 88, he was among the few on Hilton Head Island carrying on the tradition of net-making that is rooted in Africa.

He was honored last year by the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island for preserving the Gullah culture through art. His art was the time-consuming blur of fingers weaving row upon row of cotton twine into cast nets. In his latter years, he started weaving using nylon, and adding strings of green or pink into some of his utilitarian off-white nets.

Museum founder and director Louise Miller Cohen said Orage stood out because he could make or repair any kind of net. And he could do more than weave; he could do the footings where weights are sewn into the bottom so the large circular net will sink to the creek bottom after it has been cast with a perfect, tiresome twist. The net is pulled up by rope, bringing with it something to eat, something to barter, perhaps something to sell.

Orage could make cast nets for shrimp, cast nets for fish (with a larger opening), and "poor man nets" used for both shrimp and fish. He could make long seines, and he could make and repair the nets used on the big shrimp trawlers -- the Tidal Wave, the Surf and Arthur J. Funk -- that he ran from here to Key West and as far as Texas, following the money.

On the side, he picked oysters.

"He lived out of the river," said his son, Lawrence Orage. "Whatever money he got came from the river. That's what he loved."

Cohen tells the story about the time Orage was begged to take a job with Sea Pines. He accepted but said, "Just don't let me see a shrimp boat."

Sure enough, on the first day his job took him near the water. It was his last day of working on land.

Orage grew up on Skull Creek, in a house where the Chart House restaurant is today. His parents, Paul and Elizabeth Orage, were native islanders. His father taught him to sew nets. Arthur Orage never sat still. He kept a large garden with watermelon, okra, corn, greens behind his house off Wild Horse Road. He was weaving nets right up to the end.

A couple of years ago, his wife, Bessie, and the four children and Louise Cohen took a trip to Key West to let him see his old stamping grounds. They all loved it. He was the tour guide and they were the tourists.

Others still make nets, including Arthur Stewart and Murray Christopher on Hilton Head. Joseph "Cap'n Crip" Legree Jr. of St. Helena Island was honored by the state in 2009 for his lifetime achievement in the folk arts for his net-making.

The nets capture a story of resourceful African Americans left alone on quiet islands considered wastelands following the Civil War. They fended for themselves in family compounds, working together to live off the land and sea. It's a story told by the skill and pluck of Arthur Orage, one that should never die.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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