What food-related businesses did early entrepreneurs create in Aransas County?
By Friends of the History Center
Successive waves of hard-working and inventive small business men and women have settled in Aransas County over the years, building a vibrant community around the bounty of nature. Ranchers, truck farmers, boat builders, net makers, packery workers, shrimpers, oyster and fisher men, hotel cooks and waiters, café and diner staff, dairy workers, dry goods and grocery store workers all built a hard-working, food-loving, neighbor-helping-neighbor culture that we still enjoy today.
Early explorers discovered the Karankawa Indians, who had been living off the land and sea since 7000-4000 BC, taking advantage of native plants and wildlife, seafood and a good climate for growing.
Many early settlers were lured to the area in the 1900s by extravagant land promotions that promised them riches from farming and agriculture. After the Civil War, ranchers rounded up the wild longhorns on the coastal plains and built processing plants and ports to ship them. Before mechanical refrigeration, beef had to be salted or pickled before being shipped out by steamship. In 1865, the first Texas packery opened north of Rockport, slaughtering some 400,000 head of cattle in its eight years of operation. And in 1866, a large wharf with cattle pens was built at Rocky Point out into Aransas Bay. The “Finish Saloon” was open to cattlemen who’d just “finished up” a cattle drive. Rockport had a dozen packeries including the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company, the largest, begun in 1871. Also in 1871, an ice plant was built. Cattle hides, tallow, bones and horn were worth more than the beef. Decaying beef was often thrown into the bays or left to decay around the plants. The cattle packeries declined as the expansion of the railroad made it easier to ship live cattle.
Before the 1890s, Aransas Bay had one of the largest concentrations of green sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. So the canneries switched from cattle to sea turtles. The Fulton Turtle Cannery of Rockport contracted with Joel Rickel in 1885 to catch sea turtles weighing 200 or more pounds and ship them to New Orleans. By 1900 nearly all the turtles were gone and the packeries closed. The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway arrived after George Fulton and others worked to advance their cattle markets. Tourists arrived by train to stay at large hotels with impressive dining rooms, which served elaborate meals in the Victorian tradition with fancy chandeliers, white tablecloths and, no doubt, turtle soup. Small businesses were also opened by enterprising families – ship chandlers, meat markets, truck farms, dairies, dry good and grocery stores.
Rockport’s commercial seafood companies began early. In 1903, David Rockport Scrivner opened a fish house. Other fish companies began with most having their own fleet of boats to catch fish in nets, as well as buying from local fishermen. Rockport’s fishing companies shipped barrels of fish out by rail. The State of Texas established regulations in 1907 to stop overfishing, and the local industry declined. “Rockport Oysters” also began to appear on San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans and Chicago menus, after being packed in ice and shipped inland in barrels.
One of the families involved over many years in the seafood industry was the Jackson family. In 1906, Roy Jackson acquired a portion of the Rockport waterfront along Water Street, north of Rocky Point, and named his company, Jackson Fish Company. In 1907, Scrivner sold his fish house to Roy Jackson. In 1919 the company began operating as Jackson Seafood Company.
John Jackson, a fifth-generation Rockport native, will talk about the history of his family’s three-generation seafood business at the History Center for Aransas County at 2 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 13.
Jackson wrote “Taking The Tide” in 2011, working with Sue Hastings, author of “Aransas: The Life of a Texas Coastal County,” the definitive history of the area. The book is a personal narrative of the trials and tribulations of his family’s seafood business and their deep ties to the rich history of Rockport. The book contains many evocative images of his family’s seafood business from the late 1800s through the early 1990s, many of which will be shown during his presentation. Copies of the book will be available for sale, with proceeds donated by Jackson to the History Center. Jackson is the founding partner of The Rockport Group at Morgan Stanley and has been active in leadership positions with numerous community organizations.
His presentation is part of a culinary lecture series part of the current exhibit, “Foodways: The Culinary Heritage of Aransas County” which will be on display until October 1. This exhibit showcases the area’s unique heritage of Native Americans foraging and hunting, turtle canneries, cattle packeries, shrimping, fishing, hunting and oystering, truck farming, diners, drive-ins and cafes, and community cook-books used as fund-raisers to help non-profit groups. It highlights historic signs, giveaways and memorabilia from local businesses; vintage collectibles like coastal-themed restaurant china, hand-painted French and German oyster plates, and food-themed work from members of the Rockport-Fulton Art Colony. Multi-cultural aspects of local cuisine, including Mexican, African-American and Vietnamese culinary traditions, are also featured.