Fish Camps: Fried History
Diane Turbyfill, Gaston Gazette
Frying fish 50 years ago was a social experience.
Men spent afternoons reeling in catfish, perch and carp. Their sons would join in, cleaning and prepping the catch and a fish fry would soon ensue.
That tradition evolved into an phenomenon that still draws a crowd most nights at local fish camps.
“There aren’t too many people who don’t like seafood, and people also like the history of fish camps,” said Don Lineberger.
Lineberger’s father, Luther Lineberger, was a pioneer in the fish camp business, making his start by cooking for friends, civic clubs and church groups on the riverbank.
“My dad just had so many friends and mother too. He thrived on making people happy and enjoyed seeing them enjoy food and fellowship,” said Don Lineberger.
That passion turned into a career for Lineberger, who quit his third-shift job at the mill to open Lineberger’s Fish Fry in 1948.
At its peak, Lineberger’s could seat more than 400 patrons and cars would line up on New Hope Road to make it into the parking lot, Lineberger said.
From that one fish camp, others were born.
A former manager at Lineberger’s, Raymond Stowe started Catfish Cove on Armstrong Ford Road in late 1990.
Howard Smith worked at Lineberger’s when he was 15. His father opened Twin Tops on New Hope Road in 1968. Smith is still in the business 45 years later.
“I worked in the kitchen. I cooked and rolled the fish,” Smith said. “I’ve stayed here all my life.”
Fish camps have changed some from their simple menus.
“Back in those days the only type fish we knew about was catfish, perch and carp and those types of fish,” said Lineberger. “At that time, the rivers were fairly clean and there was no question about eating fish out of those rivers.”
A wider variety of fish is available now and cooking techniques have changed.
Plates are still typically piled high with breaded fish, hushpuppies and french fries, but they don’t have to be. Salads, baked potatoes and broiled fish have been added to menus.
Twin Tops took a step toward modern technology last week by adding a credit card pay option, Smith said.
There are fewer fish camps today than 50 years ago, but the ones that survive stick to the same mantra observed by Luther Lineberger.
“Dad served a lot of food for the money, and he always served fresh fish,” said Lineberger.
The Lineberger family ran the fish camp after the death of the restaurant founder in 1978. Shortly after selling the business in the late 1990s, a fire broke out and burned the place to the ground.
Don Lineberger still has pictures, a scrapbook and keepsakes from his family’s business.
Those items have been placed in display cases at the Belmont Historical Society Cultural and Heritage Learning Center on Catawba Street.
The Historical Society will kick off the exhibit with an old fashioned fish fry from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Food will be cooked by Catfish Cove, and local bands will provide music.
The exhibit and event should be of interest to people across the county, Historical Society President Elizabeth Atterberry said.
“When you say Gaston County or Gastonia, you automatically think of fish camps. It is a part of our history and our heritage,” she said.