Published in Richmond Hill Reflections , Vol. 7, Number 4, September 2011
On the day I met Leonard Crosby, I found him where one might expect to find one of Richmond Hill’s few remaining shrimpers, at the end of a very bumpy road. These men have been a feather in Georgia’s cap for over half a century, but they are a cultural treasure that continues to grow scarce.
It takes a few bird calls and a game of Marco Polo to find Leonard on his property. The place is a picker’s delight. There are pieces of old cars, good ones that any respectable enthusiast should recognize. There are also relics of his profession (nets, stretches of rusted chain, pulleys, scraps of aged wood) everywhere. Grassy weeds and many of our region’s native vines wind through them, so that they are, in fact, one giant super-organism struggling to breath in the day’s sweltering heat.
“Once you go shrimpin’ and all, it gets in your blood,” Leonard says. It’s evident as we take a seat in his open-air office: a metal-roofed shelter with thick tarps drawn back on either side of the entrance. A stack of blue shrimp baskets is off to the right. There are freezers everywhere you look and a table that could have been in a 1970s kitchen is covered with photo albums, artwork and journals all revolving around those tasty crustaceans. The photos in Leonard’s albums are yellowed and show younger faces, with wide grins, standing by as net after net is emptied of its huge bounty.
Leonard began his fishing career with his first cousin, Fulton Love (of Love’s Seafood). They were hardly more than kids when they bought a speed boat and took off from King’s Ferry. “We knew how to run all them rice fields and all,” Leonard recalls. “And we’d run out to Ossabaw Sound or Saint Catherine’s Sound.” Back then, in the mid-60s, the Department of Natural Resources had those bodies of water open, and there were only two shrimp boats in Bryan County. A man named Isaiah Carter taught both Leonard and Fulton how to repair nets. Fulton took to it so well that he eventually opened a shop of his own, and Leonard would help him out during the winter months.
It is rather peculiar how when you chat with a Georgia shrimper, talk of the railroad soon follows. Both professions can go back in a family for generations, and often times people swap out one for the other. Leonard’s grandfather, father and uncle had all worked for either Seaboard or Coastline Railroad. Leonard, himself, retired from Seaboard after 13 years mostly spent as a Crew Dispatcher.
Meandering in and out of these two career paths is not unique to Richmond Hill. After having unloaded a morning’s catch from his uncle’s shrimp boat, the Miss Amber, at the Lazaretto Packing Company, on Tybee Island, Gregg McKenzie explained how it happened in his family. “My uncle [Captain George Branford McKenzie] is sixty,” he said. “He’s been fishing for 40 years. I’m 40 years old; I’ve been shrimping for 20 years.” Gregg’s little brother is 30, and he’s been shrimping for 10 years. Gregg wanted something different for his son, though. He’s one of the youngest people to ever drive a train for CSX railroad, Gregg boasts. “He shrimped for two years, but I had to get him out of the business,” the proud father laments. For Gregg, the choice was simple: an industry with benefits versus one that, he feels, has fallen as low it can go.
Gregg’s uncle, Captain George, disagrees. He says that the guys still shrimping now are the ones who got through the hard times in the past. It’s not hard times now? “We just don’t make the money we used to make,” he says. “There’s a big difference.” He points a finger toward the nets and tells me he used to buy new ones every year at ten grand a piece. Now, he’s got to be thrifty. “Those nets right there are 14 years old,” he tells me. “I patch them up.”
When Leonard bought his first shrimp boat, the Mickey Mouse, shortly before leaving the railroad, there was only optimism. “It was a 40-foot boat with a 4-71,” Leonard says. (For those that don’t speak shrimper, a 4-71 is a GM motor.) The Mickey Mouse pulled 2, 30-foot nets. Some of the other captains helped Leonard get his feet wet, so to speak, and he caught just about as many shrimp as they did. Before long, fiberglass boats, became the rage. They were more durable then their wood and metal counterparts. In 1973, Leonard got a farm loan and purchased the Miss Denise, which he named after his daughter. Danny Lee, in Thunderbolt, was the builder, and word got around that he had taken a school bus from his junk yard, flipped it over, chopped it up, and used it as a mold for the boats he made – including Leonard’s. Leonard docked the Miss Denise down in Sunbury, Georgia, but that wasn’t to last.
Leonard says that shrimpers were docking all up and down the coast, and many of these places were run down or even closed. The University of Georgia had a suggestion. “They wanted to build one big facility in Brunswick, but that’s too far to run,” Leonard says. “It takes you nine or ten ours to run down there.” Richmond Hill was more suitable, and the goal was to make it a one-stop shop for fisherman.
The first step was to get Georgia’s co-op laws changed so that aquatic products would fall under the Department of Agriculture. This qualified the 20 or so local shrimpers for a $300,000 grant. They also took out a loan from the Bank for Cooperatives, part of the Federal Farm Credit System. The University of Georgia did a feasibility study, which included reviewing the income taxes of all members for three years. Based on their income, and the expenses they would incur, it all seemed possible – if they’d each contribute $18,000 of their personal money to the cause.
The shrimpers did just that with the idea that they’d receive dividends once they were up and running. The Bryan County Fisherman’s Co-op was built in 1979. They had 24 acres of land, a 1200-foot frontage on the water and a 900-foot stretch of dock with as many as 50 shrimp boats tied up at one time. There was room enough for office space, supply storage, an ice plant, fuel tanks and a 30-foot x 30-foot cooler for shrimp. “It was the best docking facility on the East Coast,” Leonard recalls.
Bill Hurst, now 84, was one of the owners, and he describes what he calls our region’s “flavor advantage.” “It’s what nature does, not what man does,” Bill says. He goes on to explain that the rivers from Charleston, South Carolina to Cape Canaveral, Florida affect the salt content in our waters. Shrimp caught off the West coast of the United States and South America are in saltier water which makes their flavor stronger, according to Bill. The texture, too, he says, is tougher. “If you don’t know the difference, their ain’t no difference,” he laughs. People in Richmond Hill and the surrounding areas pride themselves in recognizing the gold for which our shrimpers pan.
The co-op faced challenges though. The numbers in UGA’s feasibility study, the ones they had based their success on, were changing. The price of shrimp was falling and the cost of fuel was rising. The cost for worker’s compensation insurance was staggering. As if matters weren’t bad enough, some of the members that had signed contracts weren’t unloading at the co-op exclusively. They’d be put on probation, but that didn’t prevent the co-op from losing that packing revenue. “My personal opinion,” Bill says somewhat reluctantly, “is that management killed us. They didn’t have anybody who’d ever owned a business.”
Bill went to the University of Georgia for accounting, and he was called in, at one point, to try and make sense of the co-op’s finances. According to Bill, there were 2,400 pounds of shrimp unaccounted for. That amounted to a chunk of change, which the co-op couldn’t afford to lose. Bill maintains that it was never run better than when Leonard was in charge.
Leonard ran the co-op from 1981 to 1987. Shrimpers have to be skilled in all sorts of areas to keep their boats up, but keeping up with business records was new to Leonard. He credits UGA for helping him out with that. The co-op still wasn’t making enough money. “My boat sat for two years, because I couldn’t afford to fix it,” he says. There were no dividends, not in all the years they were open. In 2004, the land was sold to Kilkenny Properties, LLC.
Leonard recalls the co-op with great pride and opens an accounting ledger, which he began in 1981. You’d expect numbers but be surprised to find poems that Leonard wrote while out on the water. From cover to cover are his handwritten summations that he’d love to see published, and why not? There is the urge to scoop them up, along with his cartoons and paintings, and place them behind a museum’s glass where they belong. There were 1,500 licensed Georgia shrimpers during that time, Leonard explains. The nostalgia in the seventy-one year-old’s voice is tempered when I tell him about an article in the Savannah Morning News which stated the current number at just over 200. “They’ve regulated us slap out of business,” he says.
The Department of Natural Resources and Georgia shrimpers often butt elbows. Both groups understand the need to protect our waters and the creatures that live in them, but there are varied ideas about how to best do that. In 1987, the U.S. passed legislation requiring all shrimpers to use Turtle Excluder Devices, TEDs. Leonard says that they have their place, even though they allow for a 25 percent loss of shrimp. When there were a lot of boats, turtles would get caught in one net after another, and then they’d drown from exhaustion. There are fewer boats now, Leonard points out. He feels that using TEDs six months out of the year, when more turtles are present, would be sufficient.
Sinkey Boone, the Darien, Georgia shrimper who died in September of 2010, had experimented with different by-catch devices in the 70s. Sinkey’s 53-year-old son, Howell Boone, began his shrimping career, at the age of seven. He recalls his father’s various prototypes before the arrival of one called the Georgia Jumper. “This goes way beyond saving a turtle,” Howell says. Sinkey was originally trying to free his nets of Cannonball jellyfish, but other marine life like Horseshoe crabs get caught, Howell says. He is proud of his father’s legacy, but that doesn’t stop him from prickling at new regulations like Leonard.
“They’ve destroyed some shrimpers’ lives by the expense they’ve caused,” Howell says. “They cost me twelve thousand dollars one year,” he adds. He’s referring to the cost of re-outfitting boats when regulations changed for by-catch devices. That doesn’t happen all the time, but – for folks living paycheck to paycheck – it hurts.
Leonard’s son, Mustard, has been Captain of the Miss Denise for four years now. “It’s all he knows,” Leonard says. The Wild Georgia Shrimp campaign, beginning in 2004, re-branded the industry, but he still faces his father’s obstacles: high fuel prices, cheap imports, fewer locations to dock. A tore-up ice machine and broke-down boat engine are the bugaboos of late. Leonard continues to take shrimp orders, often 40lbs or more at a time, on his cell phone (right through our interview), which he jots down in a notebook he keeps in his pocket. Those who don’t call will be lucky to catch him before he sells out at the Richmond Hill Farmers Market.
The question is often posed: If it’s so bad, why don’t Georgia’s shrimpers just quit? Well, some have quit. For others, you can say it is the thrill of the catch. And still, for a rarer few, being able to quit is a choice they gave up long ago. While their industry grows weak, the idea of leaving it feels as antiquated as bloodletting to cure a broken heart. Anyway, even while in his garden picking butter beans, Leonard’s still got his white boots on.