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* This is the transcript of an interview with Joe Schonder, proprietor of Schonder's Oyster House.
The interview takes place in the Oyster House. The interviewer is Kimberly Gier. The other
voice on the tape is David Merkel, who came along to run the tape equipment, but also ended up
assisting with the interview.
Kim: This is Tape number four. This is Kim Gier, and I'm here with Joe Schonder.
He's been an oyster man for quite a while. Today is the fifteenth of November and
we're in St. Augustine. What we're looking for, Mr. Schonder is a kind of historical
point of view. How long have you lived here in St. Augustine?
Joe Schonder: All my life. I'm sixty-one years old.
* Kim: And you've been in the various seafood businesses how long?
Schonder: Twenty-five years in the oyster business.
Kim: You said that before that you did shrimping?
Schonder: Yes, I shrimped in Mexico, Campeche, Mexico. I built shrimp boats. I
worked for L.C. Ringhaver. Built the wooden shrimp boats. I was real young then.
I've been around seafood, though, most of my life.
Kim: Can you tell us what it's been like, working in St. Augustine all these years,
what's different now from the way it used to be?
Schonder: Well, the oyster business, when we first started, we had plenty of product.
You could go from bed to bed and just load your boat full of them. Of course, we
worked long hours, and of course you didn't get much money back in those days. But
you worked long hours and it was a good living. Now, this whole county is closed,
basically. What's happened is tourists have moved in here, people from the North,
and everywhere else has moved in here. They built more and more condos and boat
marinas. Runoff is your main problem. It's closed this whole county except maybe
five percent. There's nothing there, it's just raked clean. So we have to depend on, oh
85-90 percent of our stuff is shipped in. In other words, we're a middle man, for a
Kim: You said it's been a bad year for you, and you're thinking about getting out of
S the business?
Schonder: Yeah. Next year. I've been working at a loss all this year, real bad year.
Like I said, we're buying a product from the other coast right now, and by the time
you pay their price, and get it to the market, they can outsell you two to one, because
they can go straight to the market with their product. So it's just almost impossible to
make it now. I've been working at a loss since about the 15th of September, when I
opened up. I'm sure there's some others going to follow suit, what few's left in St.
Augustine. In fact, there's only five or six oyster houses now, in this county. And
when this year's over with, there'll probably be a couple more [out of business],
maybe myself, too. One day, when all the oysters are gone, from the Gulf states too,
then they'll be shipped in. Be flew in from Japan... Japan, I understand, is growing
oysters big time, on a string, a wire. And that'll be your next big time supplier. At a
lot more money, imported from Japan.
Kim:Your family has been in the oyster business a long time?
Schonder: Yes, yes. All my family on my mother's side, for generations, going back to
Kim: And they've always been here, in St. Augustine?
Schonder: All of them. Well, New Smyrna and St. Augustine. That's where the
Minorcans first came in, New Smyrna and here. They all lived on seafood. When they
first came here, the Spanish brought them in here and dropped them off. What they
ate was seafood. Seafood and gopher stew. And I guess we just followed suit. But it's
been a good life. Rough as far as your body and all, though. I'm already getting kind
of old for this oyster business.
Kim: Can you give us an idea of what you would do on a typical day working the
Schonder: I don't go anymore. This year I started going some, but last year and the
year before that I didn't go very little. I started going some this year. But you go out
on the oyster beds, what's left open. You go out there and you work three times as
long [as you used to]. You get five or six bushels of oysters, this is all day. Then you
come in, you bring your oysters in, and you wash them and bag them. You do that,
you wash and bag them in the river and then you bring them in here and they go
right to the cooler. You shuck some of them, and then you put some of them on the
shelf top, to be roasted oysters. It's a long day when you get through.
David: So, do you have to get up early in the morning to get a good start?
Schonder: We get started shucking, well, I'm buying oysters now from Appalachicola.
We use them for Thanksgiving orders. We get up around 5:30, and we start shucking
around 7:00. They just got through, let's see, it's ten after three, they just got through
about 2:00. We start every morning though, at the same time. We get up at 5:30, put
the oysters on, and a lot of that is cleaning up afterwards.
At this point, there is a discussion on tape in which we tried to arrange to go out oystering with
* someone who worked for Mr. Schonder. He offered to contact another oyster man, Phil Cochran,
and ask if he would take students with him. Mr. Cochran is Joe Schonder's cousin. As Mr.
Schonder pointed out, "We're all related in the oyster business." A discussion followed about
Mr. Cochran's schedule.
Kim: What was it like for you growing up in an oyster family? Did you always work
with your family?
Schonder: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We were not only oysters, we fished, when I was a kid.
We lived down there where Mr. Cochran is. In an old wood-frame house. You got off
the school bus and you went to work. You either went fishing or you went oystering
or you went clamming. It was a rough life. And money, we didn't know what money
was. But we always had our health. We felt good, we had to walk from [somewhere: I
can't understand what he says, it might be Komar's or something like that] in Crescent
Beach down to where we lived, which was about two or three miles. The school bus
didn't come any further. And one of us, well, everybody had to do their share. One
had to go clamming one day, and the other had to go fishing, or oystering or
something. Everybody pulled their part. But it was hard, but it was, well, we had our
health, so we were very fortunate. We never had no money, but we always had, you
know, plenty to eat and all. We ate some of the best fish in the world back in them
days. That was when the river was full of both fish and oysters and clams. People
would fight for [?] what we was eating, and we thought it was terrible. In fact there's
a boy here now, or a man, he works at Barnett Bank, and him and I went to school
together. I used to bring fish sandwiches and all, because we'd eat a lot of our
product, and pork chops and ham, or something like that, and him and I would trade.
He thought he was getting the best end of the deal, and I thought I was getting the
best end of the deal, because I never got to eat pork or ham, you know? It was just bad
times, and all. No money involved, nowhere, but we always had plenty to eat. It was
a good life, and it's been a good life to me. I hate to get out of it, but it's come to a
halt. It's come to where I'm forced out. No profit the way it is now, you're fighting a
losing battle. I don't think it will ever come back, never. What few oyster people's
left now, they'll eventually go out of business. But, like I said, it's been good to me.
And my knowledge of the water, I've always caught all my seafood too. Most people
have to buy it, the shrimp, flounder, and all that. I been real fortunate, I've been able
to catch my own. .
David: The only times you've been to the seafood store is to earn money, right?
S Schonder: That's right. It was always, well, what we got was always fresh. I've been
fortunate that way.
David: You don't get tired of eating fish every now and then?
Schonder: No, we eat oysters, too. We probably don't eat as many as most people.
And, you see that boat out there? (He points out the window to a small rowboat) I go
floundering, sometimes at night. We have fresh flounder, and I go to the beach and
catch mullet. I'm just fortunate to know all of it. I think anyone who knows the ocean
or the riverways are real fortunate people. They'll always eat good. I know I always
have. I've always eat good. My son is a civil engineer, and he has never cared about
it, the waterways. I mean, he's a fisherman, and he likes to go fishing, and all that, as
far as the oyster business, well, he turned around and hauled boogie. He just never
has been a person who wanted to work with seafood.
Kim: Are you disappointed that you're son's not into it?
Schonder: No, no. Anybody that's got a good job, and they know that weekly salary's
coming in, or monthly, or whatever... see, we could make a good week, and then the
next two weeks would be blanks. You add all that up, you're not making anything. At
times, well a lot of times, you'll make a good day, but then the next two weeks are
liable to be bad weather. Northeasters come in, you know, you can't even get to the
oyster beds, so there you set. And most people that's raised on the river, that's the
only knowledge they got. I know a lot of fishermen. And when they started this net
ban, they was going to retrain them. Well, here's a man that's fifty or sixty years old,
that's been out on a boat since he was old enough to walk, with his father. He ain't
never held nothing but a mullet or some kind of fish, and they're going to retrain
him? What would they retrain him as? That's all he knows, is the river. He's got no
education. Most fishermen, they were out with their dad, helping him pull the nets
and all. So their education level is low. They was broadcasting on T.V. that they were
going to retrain the people, when they pulled the nets. I just laughed about it, that
they was going to retrain them. I mean, it's a sad situation, but it's just the way of
fishermen. They always tried to help their daddy, you know, make a living.
Kim: Something else we are looking for is fish stories. Do you have any fish stories?
Or oyster stories?
S Schonder: Yeah, I'm going to tell you one just hit my mind. I had a crew was
oystering heavy down at Crescent Beach years ago.
David: Oystering heavy?
Schonder: That means every day, you know, every day. Six or seven days a week.
Back in them days, we had six or eight man crew for oystering. There was one
particular boy, and we got to know him, and his family. He moved in with us. So, he
was working with me, oystering. We got out there one day, oystering, and we were
full of stories. So I.told him, I said, 'Russell, you got to watch out for one thing out
here.' and he said 'What's that, Mr. Schonder?'. I said 'The Loch Ness Monster.' He
says'Well, where's he at?. I said, 'Well, that's just it, you don't know.' I said,'When
you go around a big mound of marsh grass, you look around there first, don't just run
around there, because we done lost three men.' He's taking all this in. So the next
day, we went oystering, and I watched him. I was in back of him. And he'd walk a
little ways, then he'd oyster for a few minutes, then he'd look all around. Then he got
way down to a clump of marsh grass, and instead of going around it like most people,
just walk right on around it, he'd lean way over, and look way around the back there.
So he did this all day, and when we come in in the afternoon, he said, 'I think you're
pulling my leg.' He said, 'I think this is a bunch of baloney. I'm going to ask my
Uncle Johnny.' Well, this Uncle Johnny he was talking about had an oyster house too.
So it just so happened, when we came in that night, I seen his Uncle Johnny at the gas
station. And I said, 'Russell's going to be asking you about the Loch Ness Monster.
Just go along with him, you know, and keep the story going.' So sure enough, Russell
went over to his house that night. And he said, 'Uncle Johnny, what is all this about a
Loch Ness Monster?'. He [Uncle Johnny] said, 'Where did you hear that?'. And then
he said, 'Yeah, we done lost three men, and we ain't never found them!' So the next
day, Russell was really looking around them bushes! We had this thing going for
about three or four days, then I finally told him it was just a make-up story we got on
him. But he really thought there was a Loch Ness Monster that could get you.
Kim: [laughing] I think that's about the best story we got so far.
David: Do you have anything out there to really worry about, like alligators and stuff
Schonder: There's alligators out there, but they don't mess with you in salt water.
They're too full of fish. Where you got to worry about alligators is in a ditch or a
pond or somewhere they can't eat good. We see them all the time out there, but
mostly they run. The only one that will stand up to you is a female that's got eggs. So
you coming along the banks, the salt water alligators will get up in that marsh grasss,
where they got eggs. If you get up there around those eggs, now, she'll come after
you. Best thing to do if you hear her grunting is just to get away from her, because
she can be dangerous.
David: Did you ever have any problems with that?
Schonder: No, well, me and my brother, almost 15 years ago, we were up in north
river, up there, and we was clamming. We was digging clams with a clam rake. And I
had a wire basket with me, and my brother had a wire basket. And he come running
b past me about thirty miles an hour. We both had hip boots on. So I figured
something was bad wrong, so I chimed in and run with him. And I'm dragging a rake
and a basket, and I asked him along the way, I said, 'Man, what we running from?'.
He said 'Man, the biggest gator I ever seen, and he's up on all four legs.' So I looked
back and here come that gator, coming around the corer. And that thing was moving
about twenty miles an hour. I said 'Oh my goodness'. And we both had hip boots on,
all the way up to our waists. We run and jumped in the boat, went all the way across
the creek. That gator must have stopped up on a sandbar or something. But you don't
hardly see that. That must have been a female, with eggs. I don't know, but it finally
slid back in the water. It would have been dangerous if we'd have stayed there with
him, but that's very seldom that that happens. Where it's real dangerous is in the
ponds and canals, where they can't get something to eat. And kids and dogs, are most
David: Because they're bite-sized.
Schonder: Because they splash their feet off the bank, you know, and they'll come up
to that. But they're real dangerous in fresh water. In salt water, though, I never heard
of anybody getting bit by one.
David: So what's the main problem now, making you guys go out of business? Is it
this Vibro or the beds dying down, or what?
Schonder: Well, the Vibro is a big problem, at times, in the hot weather. Over on the
Gulf Coast. It still is right now, but it's mainly high during the hot months. During
the cold months, it's real low. Yeah, the development here has just ruined us.
Everything's closed. See, that boy there (he points to a young man unloading oysters
in burlap sacks off the back of a truck), he works for me. He's been all the way down
to Turtle Mound, in Volusia County today. That's 105 miles. He left at daylight, and
he just got back. He's working down at Turtle Mound, that's a federal park.
David: You don't think that giving the oyster beds a few years to come back will help
Schonder: No, because people are still coming in. The water's just going to get worse.
More people means more development, and more runoff. I don't think it will ever
come back, not here. It's past stopping now. We done got too big. It's not going to
get any better. More people coming in, making more pollution. The water's going to
get worse, not better. And we're eventually going to lose it all. And the Gulf Coast,
too. With all the people who build condos on the Gulf Coast, they'll be out of
business eventually, too. We're just biding time. Well, is there anything else? I got to
go check my man in.
Kim: I guess that's all. Thank you for talking to us.