By Scott Graber
In October of 1974, I was a newly minted lawyer who was writing, on the side, for a weekly newspaper called Osceola. In this freelance role I wrote a piece on the (then) growing problem with imported shrimp from India, South America and Southeast Asia.
Sonny Gay brought the bow of the “Sandlapper” into Village Creek with the Temptations (“Papa was a Rolling Stone”) providing early morning harmony. At the wheel, staring into black nothingness, Sonny chatted with his unseen colleagues over the radio. “How you doing Captn’ Wayne? Where you going Donnie … up Wimbee?”
That day-long drag in St Helena Sound alerted me to the Japanese who were sinking their yen into shrimp fisheries throughout the world and, at the same time, building large, refrigerated trawlers that could stay at sea indefinitely. Those fisheries and fleets were flooding the United States with imported shrimp.
When I took my ride with Sonny Gay, those imports had reduced the price paid local shrimpers from $2.25 a pound (in 1973) to $1.50 a pound (in 1974).
I believed that this was the beginning of the end for shrimping in Beaufort County.
It was with equal parts interest and wistfulness that I learned that Woody Collins was gathering old photos, collecting stories, and undertaking research of that moribund industry. He was doing this work, with Laura Von Harten’s help, with the notion of writing a book about shrimping and that vanished way of life.
I can report that Woody’s book is now finished, bound and printed and available for purchase throughout the county. I can also report that it is worth every penny of its $50 purchase price.
“Where Have All the Shrimp Boats Gone?” begins by explaining that the canning of oysters started, in these parts, before the catching and canning of shrimp. The big actor in Beaufort was the L.P. Maggioni Company that was founded in 1870. But in 1923 Charlie Vecchio arrived in Port Royal with nine shrimp boats each one named for his wife, Jessie.
In Charlie Vecchio’s first season at Port Royal, the rough weather allowed him to fish only one or two days a week. In the two months he was there, his boats caught $25,000 worth of shrimp, after being headed and packed in wooden barrels, the catch amounted to 300,000 pounds.
It took 150 people an unrecorded number of days to head the catch with each earning $3 a day for the work. They often worked day and night under the large wooden shed that had been built on the old coaling station dock.
For those of you not familiar with the Parris Island coal chute, it was located within a few yards from the current Port Royal Observation Tower and this would become a favorite crabbing spot for my son, Zachary, when he was 8 years old.
A strength of Woody’s book are the dangerous details (the Stroudsberg Winch and the handling of block ice); but what makes his history worth reading are the stories of the men who chased and caught the shrimp. Some of these histories are founded on interviews undertaken by the late Laura Von Harten; but many come from Woody’s own recollections.
Regardless, we get to meet Anthony Lettich, both Jr. and Sr.; Johnny Vukas, Charlie Wilson; David Bogan; Pie Harter; George Randall and a host of other tough, risktakers who operated out of Port Royal and defined its culture.
During this same time Port Royal was home to another industry — Harris Blue Channel — that transformed local crabs into canned crabmeat and hosted another cohort of equally tough, hard-charging men and women.
Woody’s history moves from Port Royal to Beaufort where he tells the story of Joe Sola and the banker who financed Sola’s shrimp boat fleet — F.W. Scheper Sr. He tells us about Bubba Von Harten. Then to St. Helena and stories about Pierre and Beau Sam McGowan. Then to the Toomer Family on Hilton Head Island.
So where have all the shrimp boats gone? I fully expected an obituary at the end of Woody’s book.
But Woody writes about modern trawlers equipped with freezers.
With capacities of 30,000 pounds and up, these newer trawlers unload when they want to. They can play their shrimp like the commodity they have become.
He tells of enormous catches off North Carolina and in the Chesapeake Bay.
Most of the Beaufort County fleet was up there working. Forty basket tows got no praise. 50 baskets wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. One hundred basket tows got no rounds of applause.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.