The “Scoop” – The Early Years of Shrimping on Ft. Myers Beach

AUTHORS NOTE: I wanted to apologize for the obvious lack of attention having been paid to this site during the last few months. I was going through a bit of personal drama, which has been resolved, so expect to see regular postings from this day forward : )

With the diverse population we have here on our island paradise, there are undoubtedly more stories than there are grains of sand on the beach and I’ve captured a lot of them at the Sand Paper. Such stories are important because they make up the fabric of who we are as a community. One tale is that of island historian Deacon “Scoop” Kiesel – who moved to Fort Myers Beach with his brothers shortly after World War II to cash in on a new kind of gold rush that had recently been discovered off our shores – pink gold that is – known as Florida Gulf Shrimp. Scoop, who throughout his long and storied existence has worn more hats than you can fit inside his 89 years of life, has agreed to tell me his tale, and the following is the first of several installments during which Scoop shared with our readers the his fascinating story. In this piece, Scoop shares with me the saga of how the shrimping industry came to Fort Myers Beach, and how his life would become forever linked to that pink gold.

 

“My brother Donald – who was three years younger than me, and my other brother Hilbert – three years older – we were all fishermen off the coast of Long Island,” Scoop began. “We were looking for a place we could spend 2 or 3 of the winter months and still make a living when we came here.” This was around 1949, according to Scoop, and happened to coincide with a new discovery in the shrimping industry – one that would radically alter the brothers’ plans.

 

“Now shrimp are everywhere – wherever there’s a reasonable bottom,” said Scoop. “But in 1949 and 1950, no one was fishing for them off the coast of southwest Florida. All the shrimping was being done in the Atlantic Ocean – off the northeast coast of Florida up to North Carolina. The boats were all wooden, and most made one to three day trips – hauling their nets through the daylight hours.”

 

Two of the most successful shrimpers of the day were Felix Salvadore and Bluff Peterson.

 

“These guys were names to be reckoned with,” said Scoop. “They had fleets of boats, and when the shrimping began to fall off, they went to Key West and started shrimping off the Dry Tortugas.” Scoop explained how they would drag their ‘tri-net’ – a replica of the bigger nets that work the same way – behind their boat.

 

“They would leave Key West in the morning, and pull until about 6pm,” Scoop told me. “Usually they’d drag for about a half hour and then pull the net in. They had a big winch that supplied the power to pull in the nets.” One fateful day, however, that winch broke, and the result would change the course of history.

 

“Once the winch was broke, they ended up dragging that net until it was fixed,” said Scoop. “Since they didn’t fix it until after the sun went down, that net was drug in about 40 minutes of darkness. When they pulled it up, they were in for a shock – not only was there a ton of shrimp, but they were a species that the men had never seen before – the pink Gulf shrimp they catch today.” The men quickly figured out that this species of shrimp could only be caught at night, and Scoop told me there were a couple of schools of thought as to why.

 

“They thought perhaps the shrimp stay buried in sand during the day, or went somewhere in the mid-range of water which would put them above the nets,” he said. It is now known that the former is the case. At any rate, the discovery led to a gold rush in the Gulf of Mexico when Salvadore and Peterson moved their entire fleets to Key West – basing their operations at Mallory Square before moving to Stock Island. It also created a whole new fishery for the three Kiesel brothers.

 

“Now the only shrimping done in the Gulf up until then was some day boats scattered around the Bayou country,” he told me. “My brother Donald – he was always thinking ahead – he knew what was coming.”

 

“Donald came here a year before Hilbert and I,” Scoop continued. “He bought our first shrimping boat – the ‘Princess Mary. That boat was only 50 feet long  - nobody used big boats for shrimping in those days because they only went out for a day or two at the most.”

 

In 1950, Scoop and Hilbert came to join their brother.

 

“Well, Donald had decided that the Princess Mary was too small, so when Hilbert and I got here, we went to see a boat that Felix Salvadore owned, which was tied up behind the old Exhibition Hall in downtown Ft. Myers,” he said. “That boat, named the ‘Coral Sands’, was only six months old, 60 feet long and all rigged up with all the electronics in place. It was also captained by a fisherman held in high regard whose name was Noel Barnes.”

 

Scoop told me that the brothers were told the price of the boat was $26,000.

 

“This was in 1951 – that amount wouldn’t even buy the electronics on a boat today!” he said, laughing. “But it seemed a lot back then – and the payment was steep – we had to give Felix $13,000 up front and pay the rest off in two years.” The brothers took the deal, and ended up making enough money to not only pay off the boat, but also buy another one.

 

“We bought a 68 foot boat next,” said Scoop. “It was built by DESCO – Diesel Engine Sales Company – in St. Augustine. That yard has probably built more wooden fishing boats than anyone else.”

 

Scoop described the layout of the back bay harbor in those days.

 

“Now that was back when we had the swing bridge, and there were two functioning shrimp packing places on the outside of the bridge – on Estero Island, near where Snug Harbor is now, was Benny McDonald’s Shrimp Company. Directly across the way, in the area of the current Coast Guard station, was a packing house owned by Charlie Green and Al Shore,” he said. “Now, when you came through the bridge, there was Columbia Seafood on Estero Island – where Matanzas Restaurant is now; Dixie Fish Company and another one owned by Mr. Dodge alongside Dixie; and St. George Packing Company where Beach Seafood is now. Oh, there was another one, too, where Salty Sams is today – it was owned by Guy Amason, he lived in north Florida or Georgia and he used to drive home every weekend.”

 

Scoop told me that St. George was owned by three partners.

 

“There was Captain John Ferguson, Larry Schaefer – he was the fleet manager, a real gentleman but not a shrimper, and Bob Villas, the operating manager, who took care of the payroll and the books,” said Scoop. “They had a lot of docks, and they packed a lot of shrimp.”

 

It wasn’t long before the Kiesels decided to add to their fleet again.

 

“Donald had a boat built in Jacksonvillle by Bender Ship Builders that he named the ‘St. Cecelia’ after his wife,” Scoop told me. “This boat was designed to stay out longer – it had watertight bulkheads, extra heavy wiring and no gas on board.”

 

Donald also built a boatyard so he could start building his own boats.

 

“Where the present boatyard is, that’s where my brother built it,” said Scoop. “He bought the land all the way out to Main Street, and he built 26 heavy duty wooden shrimp boats there, with the assistance of a Greek shipbuilder – John Pertrudis – who used to work for Columbia Seafood.”

 

Scoop told me that his brother Hilbert bought the first of Donald’s boats – the “Coral Reef”. “That boat was captained by Rodney Hendry, and his wife, Barbara used to fish with him,” he said. “By the end of the ‘50’s, Hubert and I were partners in the boatyard because Donald went off to be his own man. He was, however, the first person to own an 80 foot steel boat – the first freezer boat on Fort Myers Beach. He also built the building where the Buddha Bar is now in Ft. Myers. It was an upscale restaurant called The Hideaway that was a little too fancy for the town for that age. He was always ahead of his time.” (Scoop’s brother Donald would live until the age of 90, passing away at the end of 2008).

 

Scoop explained how they were able to keep the shrimp fresh on the boats.

“At the foot of Mango Street there was a dock, and we used to get ice there,” he said. “The icehouse was downtown on the corner of Fowler and Martin Luther King Blvd (formerly Anderson Avenue) where the News-Press building is now. They would put the ice – in 300 pound blocks – on a flatbed truck and haul it to the beach, where we’d slide it down the dock to a grinder/mower where the ice would be ground up and blown into the boat via a four inch hose.” This was how ice was gotten onto shrimp boats until someone built a machine that ground the ice and would pump it onto the boats while they were fueling.

 

“If we made a run to the Dry Tortugas, we’d be gone anywhere from 10-12 days, and we’d take 8 tons of ice and 1500 gallons of fuel,” Scoop told me.

 

He recalled a ferryboat that was moored to in the area of Salty Sam’s.

 

“The shrimp fleet would all go to Texas to fish for the summer, and return around Halloween or Thanksgiving,” Scoop told us, laughing again at the memory of what they saw. “One year, when we all returned from Texas, there was this New York City ferryboat – all painted standard black and green. It was moored there permanently and the owners – Ray Simmons and Harvey Hudnell – used it to unload shrimp from the shrimp boats. The last time I saw that ferryboat, it was moored up in the creek by Deep Lagoon Marina.”

 

By the end of the 1950’s, the shrimping industry was booming on both Estero Island and San Carlos Island. The packing houses were busy, and sleepy Ft. Myers Beach was beginning to attract some serious attention. But the dawn of the 60’s would bring with it a blustery behemoth named Donna who threatened to change all of that.

 

Keri Hendry, originally published in the Island Sand Paper, Issue 418, February 13, 2009

 

In the next installment: The shrimping industry and Estero Island in the aftermath of the storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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