The following is an excerpt from the Pensacola Daily News, Feb. 14, 1890. Over the next several weeks, Chasing Shadows will publish this piece in its entirety. Seafood was also important in Franklin County during the 19th century although distribution was severely limited by shipping. In addition to edible seafood, for a time there was a healthy sponge industry here. Read on! Thanks to Mark Curenton, Apalachicola’s premiere local historian, for unearthing this gem.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES.
Lovely, Prosperous, Thriving Apalachicola.
ITS BIRTH, GROWTH, FALL AND RISE.
From Poverty to Affluence. From Wealth to Indigence, From Penury to Prosperity, the Place has Run the Gamut.
ITS PEOPLE AND THEIR BUSINESS.
The Story of Carrabelle Briefly Related, Etc., Etc., Etc.
If Apalachicola is noted for one thing more than another, it is the excellent flavor of the bivalves which abound in superabundance in her bay, growing naturally.
Until 1883 the oyster industry of the city was confined to catching the shellfish for shipment in the shell to the interior of Georgia and Alabama. In the year mentioned, the packing of the fish was begun and at this time the industry is in a most flourishing condition. The packing trade is now in the hands exclusively of the Ruge Bros’. Packing Company. Their plant is located at the lower end of the city and they have paid to the oystermen as much as $150 to $200 per day, and to other employees $75 to $100 per day. Their goods are well known to the jobbing trade of the southern and western states, the largest market being Kansas City, Mo., and they are distributed thence by the McCord & Ware Mercantile Company, who are outspoken in commendation of the article. Shipments of these goods have also been made to points as far west as San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Denver, Colo.
The resources and facilities here obtaining in this connection would warrant the operation of many additional packing houses. The Ruge Bros’. Packing Company, during the season, covering a period of six months, give employment to about 80 women and children in the packing house, and about 70 fishermen in the bay.
Another important industry of Apalachicola is the fish packing and pickling business. Mr. A. J. Murat is the leading dealer of the place. John Dobson and D. Harris, representing a New Orleans house, are in the same business.
There are several varieties of fish to be had – all of them of a fine flavor. The supply is practically inexhaustible. It consists of mullet, red snapper, Spanish mackerel, sea trout, pompano, sheepshead, etc.
These fish abound here as nowhere else under the sun, and are to be had in any quantities by the cast of a net of a fly from the rod of a sportsman. As many as two hundred barrels of mullet have been taken in one haul of the seine, for the fishery operated by Mr. Murat. The average catch of these fish per annum is about five thousand barrels, but this had just as well be fifty thousand or one hundred thousand barrels, if capital sufficient to utilize the facilities were employed in the industry. Mr. Murat says he will guarantee an interest of fifteen per cent on an investment in this business. The fish are shipped to points in the Southern states, going as far east as Virginia and as far west as Texas. About $10,000 annually is invested in this industry at present. Their roe, which is very delectable, is cured by salting or natural evaporation. It is packed in kits and shipped to all parts of the South, being a favorite dish for the breakfast table. The fish industry gives employment to quite a number of men and boys for about six months of the year.
The Sponge Trade
The catching, curing and drying of sponge for the Apalachicola market is an industry inaugurated in 1870. The trade was quite small until 1874, when the number of vessels employed in it were increased, and it is now of a very respectable size.
Regarding this industry, the following, prepared by Mr. John G. Ruge for the United States Fish Commission in 1887, will prove of interest:
“These fisheries give employment to the owners and crews of over three hundred vessels, from five to fifty tons burden. They are carried on with some risk from the weather, at times with much hardship. Each vessel is fitted out for a trip of about four to eight weeks, carrying from two to five dinghies and a crew of five to twelve men; and makes two trips a year, usually in spring and winter, the latter being the best catch. The position of the sponge as it grows on the bottom is ascertained by means of a water-glass, which is a simple bucket with a glass bottom in it, through which when placed in the water, one can readily make out articles at the depth of several fathoms.
The Florida sponges are chiefly of four sorts: Sheepswool, velvet, reef and glove. The sheepswool is the most valuable. It requires about five to six years for a sponge to grow eight inches in diameter, and about three years to make six inches. The warmer the winter (which makes the water warmer) the faster they grow. The fishermen soon learn by experience to distinguish the grades before taking them. Owing to the clearness of the water they are able to do this, but rarely beyond the depth of thirty-five feet, as that is about the limit that can be reached by the naked eye; and, besides, the weight of the poles of this length (which weigh about thirty pounds, with an iron four-prong stick on the end) is as much as a man can handle. The deeper the fishing the greater is the skill required, and it is a rare thing to find a fisherman so active and muscular as to handle successfully a 40-foot pole.
“The sponges when first caught resemble heads of decayed cabbage. When taken from the water they are thrown on the deck of the vessel and left long enough for the animal matter, or sarcode which they contain, to decompose. They are next placed in pens or ‘crawls’ on the beach, where the ebb and flow of the tide water washes out the dead matter. After several days they are thoroughly cleaned by the fishermen, by beating and scraping, and are then placed on strings and allowed to remain on the shore away from the water, where they are more or less bleached by the action of the sun and dew. They are then ready for market, when the vessels take their catch on board and proceed to town to sell them.
“The sponges are graded in the markets by the different buyers as their judgment and wants require, in order to make a value. The buyers make sealed bids for the sponges, which are not sold by the pound but by the lot, and this to the uninitiated is ‘buying a cat in the bag.’ If the catch is a fair one, each man will receive as his share from $60 to $125, while the vessel gets one-third of the total net earnings. After the buyers procure their lots they assort the sponges in different sizes and grades, after removing therefrom bits of rock, shell, or any other foreign substances that may be present. This is done by beating the root of the sponges with mallets on a wooden block. The only impurities of sand and other substances are in the root or base of the sponges, as sand is as foreign to the body of a natural living sponge as it would be in the flesh of a fish or animal. Sponges are packed in bales of from twenty-five to sixty pounds in weight.
“A pure sponge is free from all rock, sand, or any material used as loading or bleaching. Some few years ago sponges were much lower in price, when the Florida sheepswool was not appreciated as it is now. Prices have continued to advance slowly, and owing to the extreme cold of last winter all the sponges inside the depth of 20 feet were killed, thus making the stock scarcer. This caused another advance, but there is a limit in prices, which is now attained, as the Cuban and Bahama sponges are used as a substitute for many purposes by reason of their lower price.
“The present wholesale price is high enough to stimulate the adulteration of the goods, for which purpose several substances are used, such as glycerin, sand, lime, marble dust, and litharge. The glycerin and sand are not in the least injurious and add the least weight, while the lime bleaches and adds a greater weight than the sand. Marble dust is heavier and is retained in the pores better than either sand or lime, while litharge is the heaviest and more like the natural color of the sponge than either of the other articles used. It fills the pores better and there is less chance of detecting its use than that of the other substances, but it is highly injurious. It is frequently used in increasing the weight of the sponge to such an extent as to reduce the price by fifty cents to one dollar per pound. It will thus be seen that dealers and consumers need to be constantly on their guard in purchasing sponges, or to by only of the most reputable houses. Whenever sponges purporting to be pure or natural are offered below the ruling market price or reputable houses, there is good cause for suspecting them to be adulterated.”
The catch continued to increase until 1884, and the prices were then remunerative to the fishermen, and with a fair market to the packer.
The fishing grounds are about forty miles from the town. Mr. A. J. Murat started the enterprise, in connection with R. Brash, in an experimental manner in 1870. Mr. Brash conducted the business with an occasional outside buyer, until 1875.
Then H. Ruge & Sons became actively engaged in the business, and pushed the trade more extensively. From time to time there have been New York houses represented here by local agents. Mr. Brash discontinued in 1880. Ruge & Sons are buying chiefly for McKesson & Robbins, of New York. A St. Louis pharmacy is represented by Frank Messina. Another buyer is A. Flatauer.