The WPA’s Writers Project

Florida Memory has a number of Florida-based stories thanks to the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Florida in 1940. Called the WPA Stories, they cover a broad range of topics and areas in Florida. Details of the project and a list of the articles available at Florida Memory.

The story below is titled “St. Augustine Shrimp Fleet” and presents a fascinating look at St. Augustine’s shrimp industry in the 1940s. You’ll find a copy of the actual manuscript at Florida Memory

shrimp boat heading home
One of today’s shrimp boats passing through the Bridge of Lions and heading to the docks on the San Sebastian River. From the author’s collection at Flickr.

Getting Under Way.

At four in the morning of a cold and blustery day, I somewhat gloomily pulled on heavy shoes, dungarees, sweater, and prepared to join the shrimp fleet which was to sail with the early morning tide. The headquarters for the trawlers are on the San Sebastian River, just south of King Street, and lend a colorful, picturesque, and utilitarian touch to the Oldest City. Arriving at these docks, I was introduced to the burly Portuguese skipper, Capt. Domingo de Cruz, master of the shrimp boat Fortuna. After greeting me cordially, he stowed numerous packages in the wheel house, then invited me to come aboard. The Captain routed out two Negro deck hands asleep in the fo’c’stle and started to tinkering with the engines, leaving me to prowl the ship alone.

The shrimp boat is a trawler built for its particular style of fishing; high-bowed Diesel-powered craft 50 to 75 feet from stem to stern have replaced the little gas-driven launches of earlier days and improvements in net design have been in keeping with these innovations. More than 300 such trawlers operate in coastal waters as far south as Cape Canaveral, eight months out of the year.

The Fortuna was about 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and drew about four and a half feet when unloaded. Her stern was wide and long, the afterdeck measuring about 15 feet by 15 feet. This large space is necessary to a shrimp boat, as this part of the ship is the dumping area for the net, and the work table of the fishermen. Below decks, forward, were the quarters of the crew. This “V” shaped enclosure had two spring bunks suspended from the roof, and were so constructed that they could be folded out of the way when not in use. Under the bunks and on each side of the fo’c’sle were wide wooden benches which could be used as beds when a larger crew was carried. In the center of the room was a table containing a small oil stove, with kitchen utensils carefully hung to the wall. Joining the stove was another small table with sideboards to prevent dishes from sliding off in stormy weather. Oilskins (liberally drenched in fish oil), soiled dungarees, and the all-pervading odor of departed shrimp soon make the visitor avail himself of the small companionway ladder leading to the wheelhouse.

The wheelhouse was fitted up simply, with a three-foot wheel geared to the steering apparatus, a compass, a throttle, and a reversing lever completing its furnishings. Directing aft of the wheel a sliding door opened upon a neat little room with two bunks. This cubbyhole served as the cabin for captain and mate, chart-room, commissary locker, and chapel. Numerous religious paintings depicting the lives of the Saints spoke eloquently of the piety of Captain De Cruz, although at several times during the succeeding day he seemed hard-put to preserve his pious character.

But soon the banging noises and Portuguese ejaculations coming from the bowels of the ship, caused me to slip from the wheelhouse, down along the weather side of the ship, caused me to slip from the wheelhouse, down along the weather side of the ship, to the engine room hatch which opened upon the afterdeck. The grease-smeared Captain saw me peering down, and invited me to join him in a space almost entirely taken upon a huge Diesel. He had been filling the oil cups on the working parts and had dropped one in the engine well. At last it was fished out and the engine was ready to start. After the ignition was tested, the valve on the compressed air tank that cranked the motor was turned, and soon the Diesel was chugging along as smoothly as an auto.

“She like ole pipple. Go along but don’t look so good,” succinctly stated Captain De Cruz as his 45 H. P. servant began warming up to the job.

Crossing the Bar and Out to Sea.

Tramping on deck, simultaneous with the drum of the motor, showed that the deckhands were ready. The skipper went topside and ordered them to cast off. Usually Scandinavians, Portuguese, Italians, and Minorcans man the fleet, which, when occasion demands, may be at sea for a week at a time. Negroes, too, have their place in the small army of 2,000 workers identified with the industry that means millions of dollars to St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is the center of the Florida shrimp industry because of its excellent harbor and transportation facilities and its situation on the Atlantic Ocean. Over $1,200,000 is estimated to be the annual value of the cargo moving through the port, with a yearly payroll of $483,600 for the crews. Fuel, ice, and other maintenance purchases bring the total value of the business to around $1,906,800. One hundred and twenty- three documented boats with a gross (or combined) tonnage of 2,252 call St. Augustine their home port.

About 50 of this vast fleet were moored near the Fortuna and soon the night was broken by lighted cabins and running lights. As the Fortuna swung into the channel, the other boats followed in her wake, curtsying in the manner of baby ducks following the mother. Ruby and emerald running lights bobbing in our wake cast a colorful glow upon the ripples of the dark river. Brilliant masthead lights, swinging in long arcs, marked the presence of the fleet drawn out in perfect formation. Acrid salt breezes wafted from miles of pungent marshes beat through the open windows of the wheelhouse. Gulls wheeled and screamed their protest at being awakened, while over all was the flush of dawn peeking through the fleecy cirrus clouds high above the Atlantic.

In and out among the mud flats and marshes, the shrimp fleet followed the course of the sluggish San Sebastian, at last entering the Intracoastal Waterway at the Mantanzas River, and heading north to the bar of St. Augustine. The Matanzas (Spanish for slaughter) was so named for the massacre of the Huguenots here by Menendez in 1565. Although day was rapidly approaching, the great candy-striped light-house on Anastasia Island still flashed its warning, and across the marshes still probed the reddened fingers of the aviation beacons. On the port side appeared the spires and balconies of St. Augustine as the flotilla drew near the clanging bell of the Bridge of Lions. Blending with it were the notes of the bells in the old Cathedral calling the communicants to early Mass. These same church bells have aroused St. Augustine since 1793.

Through the bridge, named for the lions of the escutcheon of Ponce de Leon, and almost opposite the mist-enshrouded bastions of Castillo de San Marcos (Fort Marion), the helm was spun “hard-starboard” and the Fortuna became alert to run the treacherous bar so famous in the history of the ancient city. Each following ship swung at the same place, seemingly as if centered on a pivot, and soon the entire column was heading for the breakers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called St. Augustine “little city of the deep” and it seems indeed to belong to the sea. East, south and west are the boundary waters – Matanzas and North Rivers (links of the Inland waterway), and the San Sebastian. “Rivers’ they are called; in reality they are salt water lagoons behind Anastasia Island and North Beach, these narrow land barriers aloft by a tortuous channel to the ocean. Separating the Matanzas River from the Atlantic is an ever-shifting sand bar, making entrance to the river impossible for deep-draught boats. Many losses of rudder or propeller have been sustained by the shrimpers in attempting to run the bar.

The Fortuna was now closing with this hazard, and the sun now above the horizon, picked out the waves of the shoals in a myriad of colors. After a few minutes of cautious navigation the ship was over the bar in safety and the relaxed skipper bawled for coffee. It was brought on the run by the Negro cook, Arnold. One thing only could be said for the coffee-it was strong and scalding. De Cruz downed his in a single gulp. Again be bawled for a “mugup” and again the black fluid vanished. I toyed with my cup awhile, finding its warmth grateful to my hands, and made the timid remark that the wind was chilly.

“Not cold,” De Cruz said, “You should been wit me an odder ship. Every time they put by bunk over ice locker for to keep ice for shrimp. It took two pints to make the trip. One to go and one to get back. Dis trip we got enough pints to fish on iceberg.”

The column of boats are now breaking formation and scattering out upon the swells of the Atlantic. The bright paint on many of the hulls was badly weathered, but with the net-festooned booms, the fleet offered a pictorial inspiration to the most jaded artist. As full day made objects more discernible, names of the craft became readable. Old Glory, Betsey Ross, El Duce, Liberty, and Mass Portugal indicated the patriotic sentiments of their owners. The little trawler Peace expressed the hope of nations, while a Fernandina boat Stormy Weather defied the sea-gods. Nearby the shining Sol rode side by side with the Pioneer, while another boat rolling in the trough, coyly confessed the love of its skipper for the virtuous Hermaline. About a quarter of a mile away the laden Natal came about to speak the Pinta and narrowly missed colliding with a saucy miss named Diddy-Wa-Ditty.

Trawling for Shrimp.

Soon all the trawlers began to make ready for the catch and Captain De Cruz ordered Arnold and Sam to prepare the trial net for heaving over the side. This small funnel is dragged along the sea bottom and raised to the deck frequently to enable the fishermen to see if there are any shrimp in the area which they are dragging. Use of this small not eliminates the laborious and expensive process of raising and lowering the large net so often. The trial net was dragged, the speed of the ship reduced to one knot, and all hands sat down to wait for developments.

One of the boys took out a sailor’s palm-needle and began to reknit torn places in the large net. Those nets are under almost continuous repair, for seldom is a haul made without some of the network being torn. Sharks, starfish, and coral all combine to tear large rents in the netting as it drags the ocean floor. After supervising the repairs for a while, Captain De Cruz went to the wheelhouse and began to discourse upon surgery and medicine. What got him off on this subject was the discovery of a fish bone in his hand. The
fisherman not only has to contend with wind and weather, but also is liable to pick up fishbones in almost any portion of his anatomy; the bones working through the body like needles. The De Cruz remedy was to fill the punctures with hot butter and vinegar. This, De Cruz stated, would cause the bone fragment to come out in 24 hours without leaving any soreness.

De Cruz became suddenly talkative on the subject of sea-going remedies. He explained that when a seaman is pricked by a nail or other sharp object he rubs the nail, or other object, with an onion. The onion is then clapped on the wound. This treatment is reminiscent of the “sympathy powders” of the Middle Ages which were applied to the injuring weapon itself. Expanding with his subject, the Captain next told of a sure remedy to stop bleeding at the mouth. The injured part must be rubbed with a ripe fig soaked in condensed milk! Figs are at a premium while the crews are celebrating good catches in “jock” or “ale-houses,” for at this time many brawls occur, and bleeding mouths, noses, and even bleeding knuckles are not at all uncommon.

After about fifteen minutes of lecturing on medicine, De Cruz looped a basket over the wheel, lashing it in place, and went aft to see if any shrimp had been caught in the trial net. The pilotless ship surging among other ships with wheel in basket might well be a matter for
concern, but apparently none of the skippers gave the danger a thought. The windlass on the afterdeck was started, two turns were taken around the revolving capstan, or windlass, and the net began reeling in.

I found myself impatient and eager to see what manner of wriggling sea life would be dragged from the Atlantic. I had never seen a shrimp caught, although the small, slender, long tailed crustacean had long been one of my favorite foods. Found only in salt-water, the shrimp is from two to five inches long. It is a greenish-gray color, which turns pink when cooked. The body, tail, and head are encased in a thin, transparent armor. On the fleshy tail, the only edible part of the shrimp the covering is flexible and jointed, and is tipped by a fan-like rudder. Long feelers extend from the shrimp’s puffed out, beady eyes, and slender, delicate whiskers grow from the sides of its head. Unlike the crab, the shrimp has short, harmless claws.

Soon the net was swung over the side and dumped on deck. Never had a surprise package more interest. Starfish by the hundreds fell on deck, some an electric blue with prim borders of white, some a vivid orange, and others resembling small five-tentacled octopi. The crab collection was also extensive. There were numerous oval crabs in vivid oranges dotted with blood red spots, grotesquely stilted sand-crabs, and pugnacious little hermit crabs who seemed to occupy every empty shell brought to the surface. Sand dollars, sea urchins, and oddly shaped coral also appeared by the buckets full. Sea anemones, Portuguese men o’war, jelly-fish, and other weird specimens of marine life clogged the deck scuppers. Here and there a sea-horse appeared.

Although the living cargo presented a most attractive picture, Captain De Cruz seemed interested only in the four shrimp brought up with the several hundred other non-edible specimens. He seemed pleased with the shrimp alone, and nodded to the two Negroes who were wrestling with the large shrimp net.

The Shrimp net is a funnel-shaped affair rigged with two boards at the mouth to keep it open while trawling. These boards are as large as ordinary house doors but are much heavier and more substantial. They are so adjusted that the pressure of the water, caused by the movement of the ship, allows the boards to swing, forming a wide entrance to the net. Lead weights or sinkers are attached to the bottom of the forward part of the net to keep it on the floor of the sea, while long stringers of hemp, looking like the hair of a drowned man, are attached to the netting as protection against the sharp rocks and coral on the sea bottom.

While trawling the mouth of the net is open, resembling an inverted “U”. It tapers to an open tip, or entrance, that is netted all the way around. This tip is the cul-de-sac for unwary shrimp. To a medical student is would resemble nothing so much as a huge vermiform appendix equipped with a draw-string at the point. This string or small rope spills the contents of the net at one yank and eliminates the labor of taking the entire net out of water. The sack part is much stronger than the forward sections as a greater force is exerted against it when the net is full of struggling fish. The sack’s mesh is also larger, being about two inches between cords as against one inch at the entrance of the net. This larger mesh insures drainage of water and is strong enough to withstand attacks of larger fish picked up while the net is dragging. A smaller mesh aft is impractical as it would become quickly clogged with sea life and would break under the pressure of the imprisoned water.

Soon the net of the Fontuna was ready, the windlass was again set turning, and the net was swung out on a boom and lowered away. After a space of a minute nothing but two diverging cables of steel extending into the gray waters, marked the drag. Where the two cables were joined onto the boom, relieving rope was attached and made fast to the deck to take the strain off the mast.

“When de cables get close togedder, we knew we got somethin, but we don’t know what. Maybe shrimp, maybe feesh, maybe junk” said De Cruz with a shrug.

Again the trawler settled down to monotonous tugging along the coast at one knot. Through a cloud of screaming sea gulls some ships could be seen putting out nets while others cruised about in search of better grounds. Paralleling the dazzling sand dunes first trod by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the Fontuna ran northward toward Mayport and the entrance to the St. Johns River. Although not 200 yards from the beach, it was surprising to find from four to five fathoms were under the keel most of the time. Several times it seemed as if the ship were headed for the beach and disaster, but each time the apparently preoccupied Skipper would give the helm a few deft touches and put the wheel in the basket again.

The Fortuna passed the wreck of a shrimp boat that had piled up on the beach during one of the hard northeasters so prevalent on this coast. During the blew [sic] the boat had been taking water badly, so the master ordered the crew to abandon ship for a cold half-mile swim to the nearest craft. The crew got off safely and was rescued by another trawler of the fleet. The engine of the trawler was salvaged under tremendous difficulties, but the hull lay bleaching on the sand, a constant reminder of the fury of the storm and the hazards of the sea.

After a period of about a half-hour, the windlass was again set in motion and the deckhands stood by to raise the net. Soon it was alongside. A loop was thrown around its middle, block and tackles were brought into play, and the dripping not rose above the after-deck. A pull of the draw rope at the tip released a deluge of creatures of the sea. A four-foot hammerhead shark flopped among a tub full of flounder, trout, and whiting, while hideous stingrays and skates slithered about. Little crabs scuttled to safety of the scuppers, and one large barnacle-encrusted veteran waved his claws viciously and made his last stand. Here and there among the mass of jelly-fish, squid, starfish, and seaweed, a demure little shrimp could be seen tripping over its own whiskers.

Around, above, and all over the deck and cabin in the sea gulls were rapidly becoming a nuisance. They fought each other for fish at the very feet of the Captain, undeterred by the heavy boots that often kicked them over the side. Their screaming was deafening as they fought for food, yet the bright show they made, winging and wheeling in the morning sunlight, gave the haul-in an almost festive appearance.

Arnold and Sam sorted out the shrimp and the larger edible fish. “Off with their heads” was the slogan so far as the shrimp was concerned, and each one went headless into the wire basket. It is quite a trick to decapitate a shrimp in the proper manner, and no novice should keep at it long; as the carapace or shell of the shrimp is filled with a liquid most irritating to the skin. Workers in the shrimp canneries harden their hands in brine months before engaging in the work somewhat as prize fighters used to do in training for a bout.

When the shrimp were stowed away in the iced depths of the after holds, the fishermen began to pick up the larger fish. For these they get a cent a pound. The smaller fish and miscellaneous debris were shoveled over the side and the deck washed down. This caused more joyful comment from the gulls but as soon as the last scrap was gulped down the faithless ones promptly left for another ship that was beginning to heist its net. The eyesight of the gull must be very keen, for at a range of vision impossible to humans without binoculars, they can spot a not being hoisted.

“Gulls read feeshermn’s mind. Can’t see that far,” argued the swarthy Captain.

The Cook Takes Over.

After the net was again lowered into the sea and the gear made fast, Sam went into the galley-forecastle and began to prepare the meal while De Cruz went into his cabin to get a “tonic” against fatigue. He said that he was so disappointed with this haul that he “had to take something for his head.”

If the first haul had warranted it, he explained, they would have dropped a market buoy at the area and would have trawled back and forth until not a shrimp “was on de bottom.” The modern shrimp nets are very efficient-the captain boasted that if he saw a knife drop he could pick it up in his net.

Now the course was changed, and the Fortuna swung about for a run to the open sea. Looking down from the vantage of the wheel house De Cruz directed Sam to his culinary activities. First the shrimp were put to boil in a small quantity of salt water. Then in another pan bacon was fried, to which was added, from time to time, garlic, chopped onions, bell and datil peppers, and tomato paste. These were allowed to simmer slowly, forming a thick sauce. In the meantime the shrimp were blushing a rosy red, so Sam relieved them of their embarrassment by taking them out and shucking them from their jackets. Putting the shrimp back into the kettle, Sam next poured the sauce in and allowed the whole to cook about ten minutes more. This dish with black beans, French bread, and coffee (well laced with Palm Valley “shine”) comprised the meal.

Although there are at least ten different methods of preparing shrimp, the Minorcan or Spanish pilau or “perlow” is the most popular in St. Augustine. The recipe for this dish is as follows: Ingredients; two pounds headed shrimp, one-third pound salt bacon, two cups best rice, one small can tomatoes, four medium sized onions, one small green or red sweet pepper, one small detail pepper (very hot). Method; remove sand vein, wash shrimp, cut in two; medium size given best flavor. Cut bacon and onion in small pieces. Cook tomatoes and onion in bacon fat. Add pepper cut fine. Cook until a nice brown, and raw shrimp and cook a few moments. Add enough water to tomatoes and onion to equal 3 1/2 cups. Put in heavy pot. When it boils add two cups of rice. Cook slowly until finished. Thyme and other spice may be added. Rice grains should be distinct. Salt to taste. It should be added that rice, properly prepared, is a culinary accomplishment very essential in serving shrimp. When the song says, “Shrimp and rice, they’re very nice,” everyone on the shrimp fleet will agree and will add, “Be sure the shrimps are fresh!”

Filling the Hold and Heading Home.

After lunch the net was again raised, shrimp and fish taken, and the dragging resumed. This went on with dreary regularity through the day and continued through the night. Floodlights above the deck lighted the operation during darkness, and the crew worked unremittingly save for a few cat naps while the net was dragging. The cool air through the portholes, the soothing hum of the rigging, and the gentle pitch and roll of the Fortuna all combined to drive the weary men into dreamless sleep.

At a somewhat ungodly hour, coffee was served again and the captain, who had been from wheel to stern about fifty times that night, was relieved from the wheel. Captain De Cruz earned the five cents a pound that he received for the catch. On duty for as long as thirty-six hours exposed to the possible dangers of storm, fire, and collision, he is at all times responsible for ship and crew. Deckhands look to the captain for their wages and food, and get even less than he does. At the mercy of poor catches and manipulated markets, they still hopefully talk of the “two hundred dollar haul” they made perhaps ten years ago. The rewards are not great for the shrimper although the toil is.

“You don’t see shrimp boaters driving now [sic] cars or having good lookin’ houses,” remarked Captain De Cruz.

Going to Market.

The grayness of early dawn silhouetted the welcome tower of Anastasia lighthouse above the horizon. Still followed by the gulls, the Fortuna rounded the point near the sunken Old Spanish Lighthouse (where today fishermen sometimes snag their lines), and was again on the bosom of the swift Matanzas River. The homeward bound ship followed the intricate channel of the San Sebastian, arriving at its deck before the city had awakened. The Fortuna was moored, the deck hands throwing the hemp loops about the bitts on the dock. Then the hatch covers were thrown back and Sam and Arnold busied themselves passing up the brine dripping baskets. Once off the dock and into the wholesale market, the shrimp are moved to consumers by fast freight in refrigerated cars, or by trucks colorfully painted with scenes from Old St. Augustine. Soon the bulk of the catch is speeding northward to the sea-food hungry of the great cities along the Atlantic seaboard and westward through the Blue Ridge and over the Alleghenies.

Shrimp fishing, as we knew it today, originated about 1913 in Fernandina, Florida, when old Captain Billy Corkum, New England fisherman, coasted the peninsula in a vain hunt for bluefish. At that time, shrimp fishing was confined to seining inland waterways with a small mesh net. Today this practice is unlawful. Captain Billy reasoned that the small crustacea would be even more plentiful in ocean waters so he designed a crude net for trawling. His catch numbered more shrimp than he could load in his hold; naturally it was net long before his secret became public property and the shrimp industry grew by leaps and bounds. Fernandina became a harbor for shrimp boats, and shrimping became one of the city’s leading industries.

St. Augustine harbor is well protected and easily entered by small boats. It was not long after 1921 that the Salvadores, the Fodales, Versaggis, Polis, and others became well known names in the St. Augustine fishing business. Aside from the packing plants which heralded the advent of the commercial shrimp fisherman, there soon sprang up canning and freezing plants; these establishments supply not only local and northern markets but ship their produce abroad and even to the Far East.

Today shrimping is the leading industry of St. Augustine.