Published on January 12, 2021
Memories are made of this
San Bernard River’s end was full of life, action, mystery, adventure in ‘40s, ‘50s
By Jan Edwards
Most of you know that Roy and I live on the San Bernard River, but with all the new people moving down here lately, the rich heritage of this river is beginning to fade over time.
I did some research about the history of this place a few years ago because my heart is here. With the river mouth set to be reopened in the first quarter of 2021, and another layer of her vibrant heritage being applied, I thought now would be an appropriate time to recall the fish camps of the 1940s and ‘50s and up to the beginning of the honky-tonk history.
I was lucky enough to write this piece from the memories of several people who lived the salt life back then.
The history takes up too much space for only one column – so I am splitting it into 3 parts. You may want to keep all three pieces along with any pictures that are printed so you can go back and review the different characters and how they interact.
Part 1 – Making the trek to the end of the river
The San Bernard River has long been the stuff of legend - pirate’s gold, fiddling ghosts, international intrigue and fish tales. But, the river’s promise of speckled trout, tarpon, shrimp, golden croaker and tailing redfish lured a hearty group of adventurers to the end of the river and gave rise to her fish camps.
The history of this area is only passed down from those who lived the salt life. Come take a walk back in time with John Barak, Alvin and Thomas Laird, Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh, Ronnie Franklin and Barbara Churchill Shindler, across a hand-operated swing bridge and down a long and winding dirt road shaped by cattle hoof prints to the end of the river.
That magical place created by angler and fish, where, as Barbara Shindler remembers, “There was no such thing as class structure. When we came down here, we were just kids playing on the riverbank.”
Visiting the fish camps on the west bank of the San Bernard in the early 1940s was a trek not for the faint of heart. Fishermen drove out of Brazoria, crossed over the swing bridge at Churchill and continued 10 miles down a dirt road, which turned to mud when it rained. Those staying past the rainstorms were stranded at the camps until the road dried out.
The first obligatory stop on the journey was at Elmer’s store to load up on groceries and supplies. It was the only store from there to the fish camps until Walter (and Ellen) Upton opened their store.
Across from Elmer’s store at the swing bridge, was Romain’s fish camp. Romain’s had some cabins, sold bait and rented small boats. Some people ended their journey there, but most of them went on to Ducroz at the Point.
Ducroz bait camp was doing business before any other bait camp. Fishing was good, and bait (mostly shrimp) was plentiful. Dr. Ducroz owned his camp but lived on his ranch upriver. Several families ran it for him.
Around 1944, Emma and Gus Franklin bought river-front land with a beautiful old house on it.
The Franklins and Sam and Nora Laird later went together and bought some additional acreage and moved down Aug. 11, 1946 to start Franklin’s Camp.
Both families lived in the existing house while building the camp.
The dirt road down to the camp was impassable after a rain.
Thomas Laird remembers that in that first fall and winter that his dad pulled vehicles out of the muck with his little tractor equipped with rice lugs, which made more money for him than anything else.
The school bus could not navigate the road to pick up children. Hinkle’s Ferry upriver was the end of the line.
In order to go to school that fall, the families rented and converted a chicken coop (which had originally been a house) back to a house.
Then on Friday afternoon, he would reverse the trip.
Emma Franklin and Nora Laird took turns housekeeping for the boys.
Top: Elmer’s store, taken 2014 by Janice R. Edwards.
Left: Giant sawfish from river is shown strung up in 1950. Photo provided by Thomas Laird. This is an endangered species now, and you don’t see them this big.
Bottom right: Gus Franklin and tractor, circa 1950, provided by Ronnie Franklin.
(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: email@example.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)