Published on January 26, 2021

Memories are made of this

Part 3

When the lower San Bernard switched from bait to beer joints

By Jan Edwards
The Bulletin

This week we will follow the changing camps until the beginning of the fish and shrimp houses and the rise of the honky-tonks on the lower San Bernard River. I’ll also touch on some historical events, without which, the camps would never have begun.

S. Walter Upton, a rancher from Sealy, built the largest of the old bait camps. In addition to his family home, his camp included 20 Quonset huts, a “convenience” store and a two-story house with the manager’s home upstairs and a bait house downstairs.

John Barak remembers staying in the Quonset huts. “The cabins were very hot in the summer – no air conditioning, no ceiling fan.”
Upton fashioned shrimp boats from Army surplus landing craft boats. His camp was the first in the area to rent aluminum boats. Capt. Bailey, 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.

Bullington’s Camp was across the canal from Upton’s Camp. It was a smaller camp, boasting a boat lift, small store and bait. It was run by the Dietz family in the 1970s.

After a time, Upton bought the land near Fiddler’s Isle and helped the Laird family start Laird’s Camp. Upton retained the land, and the Laird’s built the camp. It had 10 to 12 small cabins, a bait camp and 10 aluminum boats – no motors.

Truitt’s Camp, which sold bait and rented boats, but not cabins, was operational at the same time.

The Laird and Truitt boys took turns catching bait for both camps. The two families even shared the milking chores for the Laird’s two cows that roamed loose. Truitt’s Camp closed, and they moved upriver to Shady Acres. After Hurricane Carla in 1961, Laird’s Camp closed. Later, it reopened as a beer joint operated by the Pruitt family.

Shorty Crawford’s only sold bait in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He also managed Ducroz bait camp at one point. In the ‘60s, Mr. Crawford discovered he could make more money selling beer than bait, so the bait camp became a beer joint that sold bait. He stacked the beer cases two deep around the walls of the entire establishment.

On Sept. 1, 1961, Hurricane Carla changed the landscape of the fish camps. Bait camps gave way to individually owned weekender cabins. The fish- and shrimp-processing houses came in the ‘70s. Laird’s Camp and Upton’s Camp closed when selling beer became more profitable than selling bait - the era of beer joints had arrived.

Barbara Shindler remembers those days. “River’s End was the best-kept secret in the state of Texas until the beer joints came. No one wanted to tell where their fishing hole was.”

Thomas Laird recalls one night in the 1970s when he and his wife and two other couples went to the Red Barn to hear the singer of the popular song, “On the Road Again.” Mr. Laird wrote a check for the cover charge for all three couples to Willie Nelson. Laird still has the countersigned canceled check today.

The beer joints ushered in a wild and hospitable time on the river, but then, that’s another story.

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)