Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Gulf Coast terrapin claimed national limelight- via Herp Digest

Published: February 16, 2013
HAROLD GATER/SUN HERALD/1987The early 20th century witnessed an unusual type of farming on the Mississippi Coast. Turtle farms were usually wooden pens half in the water and half on the land, and the "herds" of diamondback terrapins were gathered from across the region.

The counts dined luxuriously on chopped oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Sound. Then, in turn, they became the dinner.

"Counts" were the largest diamondback terrapins on Coast turtle farms, with the rest of the penned herd called bulls and heifers. They, too, were fed oysters, which were plentiful at the turn of the 20th century.

When turtle soup was all the rage in New York, Washington and among the wealthy along the Eastern Seaboard, coastal Mississippians happily and profitably provided the main ingredient. Terrapins were native to the Gulf region, as one Chicago reporter explained in a March 1912 story datelined Biloxi: "Diamondback terrapin, selling today on the market in New York and Chicago for $5 each ($113 equivalent today) are to be had practically for the asking along the Gulf Coast, if one has the hardihood to bare his arms and reach into a hole in the mud where the terrapin is enjoying his winter siesta."

E.F. Younger was writing about outdoors possibilities for Northerners who retreat to this Southern winter resort. One section of his piece was "Terrapin for the Asking":"Of course, there is always the chance that the terrapin will wake up and take a nip at the intruding hand, but that is one of the fortunes of war. If you beat him to it and drag him out of his retreat, you have the chief ingredient for the finest soup known to epicures."
Local history lovers will recognize a twist of Baltimore irony in this story. Earlier, Biloxi entrepreneurs had traveled to that Maryland city to learn the secrets of the so-called Seafood Capital of the World. They learned well and within a few decades Biloxi claimed to be the seafood capital.
Baltimore was also world famous for the diamondback terrapins they supplied for turtle soup, but the terrapin were over-fished and by the turn of the century they were scarce. When Baltimore could no longer supply the national demand, the Gulf region, particularly Louisiana and Mississippi, stepped forward and people such as Chicago's Younger sang the praises of the local turtles.

Several sizable farms, with 4,000 to 14,000 turtles, sprang up on Biloxi Back Bay, Deer Island and Bay St. Louis. Those were not like the turtle farms of today that create new stock through breeding. Most of the "herd" was rounded up by entrepreneurial fishermen and others who scoured the marshland, islands and elsewhere for turtle stock. They sold them to farmers, who kept them fed and in pens until it was time to fill orders.

"The trapper or boatman catching the turtle was paid $1 for counts, 25 cents for heifers and 5 cents for bulls," the late Capt. Ernest Desporte of Biloxi recalled in his memoirs. "The terrapin in his natural habitat while in the water would bury and was caught by oystermen looking for large oysters in the bays and shallow waters of Louisiana marsh."

One Back Bay farm between Lameuse and Reynoir streets was a curiosity to visitors and locals. Reported The Daily Herald in 1909: "The acreage is mostly under water surrounded by piling and timbers that prevent the live crop to diamond turtle bucks from leaving their happy salt sea home. They have a sunning place on the beach."

Most farmers shipped their stock out of the region, but one enterprising Hancock County man, H.J. Thurston, canned turtle soup. His company outlasted the farms, likely because he used assorted turtle varieties, as he announced in a November 1917 Herald: "To Fishermen, I will buy all kinds, green turtle, loggerheads, Mobilians and terrapin."

Aiken, Moran and Anderson also join the names of Coast turtle fame. Hurricanes, a depleted stock and federal laws to keep the terrapin from extinction, brought this local history chapter to a close within two decades. Turtle soup was replaced with mock turtle soup, in which muskrats were deemed a suitable substitute.

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