By Gaige Davila
The old adage of locals and returning tourists is that Port Isabel never changes. It is always the town between land and sea, where the high school sports teams are named after fish caught five miles away from the fields and courts they play on.
Maybe that’s true for the last twenty years, but that estimate isn’t exactly honest either. Life is changing in Port Isabel, even before COVID-19 made it’s unwelcome presence in the Laguna Madre area. Chain restaurants and businesses are coming incrementally, the school district is bringing more academic and technical programs for Port Isabel students and with SpaceX and liquified natural gas (LNG) plants attempting to develop on sensitive, and protected, environments around the Laguna Madre, the eyes of the world are upon Port Isabel.
But this has not been the first time eyes from across seas and state lines have shifted to Port Isabel.
In 1944, Port Isabel was unquestionably the shrimping, and fishing, capital of the world, as locals then and into the late 70s proclaimed. Leonard King, then-pastor of the Port Isabel Baptist Church, documented this in “The Port of Drifting Men,” published in 1945. At the time, Port Isabel’s fishing vessel fleets alone brought in half of all seafood off the Texas coast.
During the shrimping season, all of Port Isabel’s populace worked inside nine commercial fish houses, cleaning and packing shrimp from the hundred or so vessels that brought in, King says, fifty to seventy-five thousand pounds of shrimp a day. All the shrimp were taken from waters five to fifteen miles away from Port Isabel, King said.
The work was perpetual: restaurants stayed open 24 hours and ice houses sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of ice a week to store shrimp.
It is hard to imagine Port Isabel having this level of energy now, save for when traffic rushes through Highway 48 and 100 heading to the Island.
Besides shrimping, King chronicles Port Isabel life in the early forties through those who lived there, years before South Padre Island was considered a tourist destination and long before Port Isabel’s city limits stretched towards Laguna Heights.
Port Isabel citizens would convey under a Hackberry Tree near the post office suspended on the edge of a fence after a storm blew the branches over. The shade provided Port Isabel citizens a space to relay the “latest reports on the bull shrimp run in the Gulf, or hear the latest, up-to-the-minute news on the hurricane that is sweeping up the Gulf of Mexico from Porto Rico (sic).”
The Hackberry tree was a stage and meeting ground, where, “the latest gossip (was) sifted, weighed, censored, given credence or branded with the ‘damn lie,’” King wrote.
The fraternal group who met there, the self-declared Hackberry Club, are a character of their own in “Port of Drifting Men,” but included are the trails and travels of Captain Robert DeWitt, a well-read seafarer who claimed to have saved the then-King of England from drowning when he was a boy; and Corpulent Sam, who came to Port Isabel from Wisconsin, living in a shack along the now long-gone sand dunes that used to be in Port Isabel, who came to Port Isabel because “it’s about as perfect as any place a feller can find,” saying “it ain’t Eden, but it’s just next door.”
King’s thesis of his book is probably best told by then-mayor Burney Burnell, who is featured in the chapter, “Three Men and the Sea.”
“Do you know of any other place in the world, besides Port Isabel, where one can achieve foregoing honors, live in an elegant home, rear a fine family, sit down to a meal consisting of wild duck, fish, oysters or fried chicken, all of which may be taken from the waters within a stone’s throw of one’s own home, or produced in his backyard?” Burnell told King.
Also profiled is, arguably, Port Isabel’s most historically known resident, Dr. James Addison Hockaday: physician, Cameron County Health Officer, owner of 200 turkeys, organizer of the Padre Coyote Hunt (see Steve Hathcock’s story on the Great Padre Island Coyote Hunt), taxidermist, journalist, politician and founder of the Texas International Fishing Tournament (TIFT).
Finding information outside of what is written in the book is difficult. This book was printed three times, in 1945, in San Antonio. Few copies are available today. As of this article’s printing, only one copy is available for sale online. When King wrote “Port of Drifting Men,” he had been a pastor in Port Isabel for three years. Outside of his authoring of the book, no information about him is available online.
If you can find a copy, King’s writing is worth the read alone. He’s funny, self-degrading, smart as hell, and told of Port Isabel’s populace and lifestyle with a biblical level of love and astonishment. If you are curious how Hickman Street and Ted Hunt Road got their names, those stories are in there, too.
King wrote of a Port Isabel that has little remnants to what it is today, but the soul of its former residents is still alive. People here still prepare for hurricanes, gloating of their skill in preventing damage or making fun of the people who boarded up windows when the storm heads north. There are dispatches from those who lived through Port Isabel’s worst hurricanes, barely surviving storms that flattened the town with nothing salvageable.
With that in mind, King says Port Isabel’s residents were not afraid of death, but it was forever on their subconscious, based on how fully they lived. Residents lived and worked communally, much as it does today, whether through fishing, the school district, its restaurants. All are labor and social spaces in this small, seaside town next to Eden.