Grits and caviar for breakfast? Yes, that’s what Connie Bull who is active with The South Carolina Maritime Museum told me that her husband often ate for breakfast! In Georgetown, South Carolina for a little over a century Atlantic sturgeon were caught and processed for their roe. Although other areas of the United States also produced caviar, Georgetown’s became well respected and was shipped throughout the United States.
The Atlantic sturgeon is a member of an ancient species that has been in existence for about 120 million years. It still maintains a prehistoric look and at lengths of up to 15’ can be a frightening sight. However, the sight of a sturgeon isn’t as likely as it once was. Overfishing and the damming of their spawning rivers affected their population until in 1985 it became illegal to catch or possess sturgeon in South Carolina.
Swedish immigrants introduced the idea of harvesting roe in the 1870s and with the development of the railroads in the 1880s Georgetown had both the resources for fish and the means for transportation. But Georgetown also had a strong milling industry booming and the local rivers were being damned for the mills. It didn’t take long for the population of sturgeon to decline. The SC Fish Commission which had been created in 1906 identified this decline and prohibited sturgeon fishing from 1917 to 1919. In 1921 a 6 month season starting each April 1st was established.
Sturgeon harvesting now continued for both the flesh and the roe of this fish. Since sturgeon reach maturity earlier in the south than in other areas of the US the industry was able to sustain a respectable harvest. At one time SC accounted for 55% of the sturgeons caught in the US and 90% of these catches were in the Georgetown area.
Due to importance of caviar and its place in Georgetown’s history The Georgetown County Museum has a prominent exhibit documenting some of the people and items associated with harvesting roe.
Some of the “old timers” have a place near and dear in the hearts those throughout Georgetown and the surrounding county. One such man was Rene Cathou, pictured above with smoked sturgeon. He and Boo Lachicotte were featured in a 1964 article by Charleston’s News and Courier.
According to the article Rene had sold 51,280 pounds of sturgeon the year before!
Roe was rubbed through sieves in a series and then jarred with a little salt to preserve it. This was usually done back at the fish houses.
Here are some of the types of sieves that were used by Rene, Cap’n Boo (both now deceased) and other known local fishermen: Glenny Tarbox, Gene Miller and members of the Jordan family. Some of these men still have fish houses and shrimp boats but no longer offer the Georgetown delicacy that was so loved far and wide.
Notice at the top left in the picture above the fish house in the background of Rene Cathou’s. This structure is over 100 years old and I was able to walk through it on a recent trip to Georgetown.
Much hadn’t changed inside the old building.
Inside the machinery that once aided the business is silent. The only noises were a small community of cats asking for attention. Daisy and Donald, the ducks out on the dock, didn’t seem bothered by them. The peacefulness that day is probably a stark contrast to the activity of bygone times. There were several faded black and white photographs in the old building, in the Museums and even in the restaurants in town. Clearly Georgetown loves its maritime history AND its contribution of seafood, especially its caviar, to many fine tables in years past.
Thank you to The Georgetown County Museum for allowing me to photograph their exhibits.