Published on January 19, 2021
Memories are made of this
How it used to be along the San Bernard River
By Jan Edwards
We’ll continue this week our trekking down to the old fish camps on the west bank at the end of the San Bernard River.
We touched base last week with the first camp – the Ducroz Bait Camp at the Point and the beginning of Franklin’s Camp in 1944 upriver, where Ernie’s Acres is today.
Part of Franklin’s cabins are still standing today. The 2J’s restaurant, which was lost during Hurricane Harvey, was built on the base of Franklin’s oyster barge.
In the fall of 1946, Walter Upton and his wife, Ellen, started their camp at the end of the river. He bought Army-surplus Quonset huts from Camp Hulen for his cabins. To get the huts to the camp, the road there had to be improved. The shell for the improvement came from Dr. Ducroz’s ranch, just above Franklin’s Camp.
Brazoria County provided the equipment and manpower to dig and spread the shell from Churchill down to the Point. Gus Franklin and Sam Laird were the spotters for the dump trucks spreading the shell. In return, the road to their camp off the main road was also shelled. Once the trucks started running, the operation lasted 24/7 until it was complete.
Franklin and Laird built some things for the camp, but they ran out of funds. So, in early 1947, the Franklin family moved to Houston to manage a tourist court and save money to finish the camp. They returned to finish Franklin’s Camp in 1950.
The Laird family moved to Ducroz at the Point, managing it for Dr. Ducroz from 1947 to 1952. Sam Laird sold his portion of the Franklin’s Camp, which eventually became Ernie’s Acres subdivision.
Gus Franklin, a master carpenter by trade, built the camp’s cabins and shrimp boats. Once back, he continually improved the camp until the early 1960s, which is when Mary Ruth Rhodenbaugh and her children moved there.
Rhodenbaugh fondly recalls her life there. In addition to teaching and driving a school bus, she started one of the only cafes on the river, The Gumbo House, to supplement her income. She finished out the downstairs under one of Franklin’s cabins for her café.
At first, she served only gumbo on the weekends, but added hamburgers, steaks, fried shrimp, red snapper, etc. It was open every day during the summer. She ran The Gumbo House from 1966 to 1975, when she moved back to her family’s Holly Farms.
When the Lairds moved to Ducroz Camp, cattle still roamed the prairie and the camps. Tarpon and giant sawfish were caught in the river. The only water supply was a natural artesian well at the edge of the river that also supplied a cattle watering trough.
There were five rental cabins – two on the hill for $3 a day and three closer to the water for $2 a day. All the cabins had a screened porch and kitchen/bedroom. The ones on the hill were more expensive because they were cooler.
People could fish and camp at the river’s edge free of charge. There were no fishing lights at night. They had outdoor toilets. Baths were taken in the water trough. The Lairds rented fishing poles, and 10 wooden boats with oars – no motors. Live shrimp was 50 cents a quart.
Sometimes, it has been claimed, there were so many mosquitoes that the cattle grazing in the nearby salt marsh would choke to death from breathing them in. By 1952, a water well was dug by the artesian well, and faucets were installed to the outside of each cabin. Bath houses with toilets and showers – one for women, one for men, were built.
In 1952 or ’53, the Lairds had a falling out with Ducroz and began managing Upton’s Camp. Bob and Dutch Truitt with their 9 children then managed Ducroz Camp. In 4-5 years, they had their camp upriver.
S. Walter Upton, a rancher from Sealy, built the largest of the old bait camps. This camp included 20 Quonset huts, a “convenience” store and a two-story house with the manager’s home upstairs and the bait house downstairs, and his home.
John Barak remembers staying in the Quonset huts. “The cabins were very hot in the summer – no air conditioning, no ceiling fan,” he said.
Upton fashioned shrimp boats from Army surplus landing craft boats. His camp was the first in the area to rent aluminum boats. Capt. Bailey, a Texas Ranger, was his silent partner. Upton used a drag line to dredge a canal and “basin” for his bait boxes. Later he dredged other canals and sold lots on them.
(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)