Interview with Joseph "Gina" Spiller, November 28, 1995

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Interview with Joseph "Gina" Spiller, November 28, 1995
Spiller, Joseph "Gina" ( Interviewee )
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University of North Florida Fisherfolk Oral History Collection ( local )


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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This interview is part of the 'UNF Fisherfolk' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
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. This is the transcript of an interview with Mrs. Josephine "Gina" Spiller. Mrs. Spiller is the

daughter of Salvatore and Vincenzina Versaggi, and a local historian. The interview took place

in Mrs. Spiller's home in St. Augustine.

Kim: This is Kimberly Gier, and I'm in St. Augustine, with Mrs. Gina Spiller.

Gina Spiller: Salvatore Versaggi was my father, and Vincenzina Versaggi was my

mother. John was my oldest brother. I had five brothers and one sister. There were

seven of us, when my father died at the age of 49.

Kim: And your family started the shrimping business in St. Augustine?

Spiller: I would say that my father was one of the pioneers of the shrimping industry

in the whole United States. And it happened in Fernandina Beach, Florida, in the

Amelia River, or I guess it's called the Nassau River. And Sollecito Salvador was

actually the one who discovered the shrimp, in the river, there off of Fernandina, and

he sent for my father, who lived in Brooklyn at that time. And then when he came

down, they used to fish the sound with little rowboats. And they'd cast their nets, and

find shrimp, and they would bring the shrimp home, and we'd try to sell it. But there

was no market. Very few people knew about shrimp in those days. The fish that they

caught in their nets, they brought home to eat. That was sort of a way of sustaining

the family in the hard times that they had.

Kim: So, in the beginning, nobody knew what shrimp was?

6 Spiller: No, the truth of the matter is, they tried shipping them to New York, and the
people there didn't know what they were either. And so, shrimp at that time used to

sell for three pounds for a quarter. Even at that, they were hard to sell. It took the

war, and people living all throughout the United States, they discovered how good

shrimp was, particularly on the east coast and in the gulf states, out in Louisiana.

Even as far as Texas is concerned. But they, after the war, business seemed to just

blossom right out. And then, my brothers, after my father's death, they continued the

business, with my mother acting as supervisor, or whatever you want to call it. In

fact, we used to call her the B.B., the Big Brass. She always had an intuition that my

brothers didn't have. Of course, they were so young that they didn't have it. But,

anyway, it could be a long story. But things progressed fairly well, after my father

died in 1925. Then came the big Depression in '29, and my mother and my brothers,

they lost some money in the banks, and they lost a shrimp boat a year, to hurricanes.

Things were pretty bad. Then, of course, during the war, they weren't allowed to

shrimp, up the coast because of the blackouts. The German submarines, you know,

were found in the waters. So, lock, stock, and barrel, they moved to Patterson,

Louisiana. Where they flourished, to a degree in the business. From Patterson,

Louisiana, after they depleted those waters, they went to Brownsville, Texas. In

Brownsville, Texas, the supply seemed to be unlimited. They could get more shrimp

than they could cast for, so to speak. And then from Brownsville, Texas, I guess the

waters off of Mexico, Campeche, got depleted, but they found a source in British

Guyana, which seemed to be a real bonanza. They moved to British Guyana, and

operated their boats out of there. The boys had a very unique type of business. We

had one in Patterson, Louisiana, Dominic. My brother Virgil, was in Brownsville,

Texas. My brother Manuel was in Tampa, and then my brother Joe, he was in New


r York. He owned a stall in the Ocean Fish Market. They claimed that he had so much
shrimp that he could control the price of shrimp for that day. Of course, all the

restaurants, and hotels, and whatnot, would come to buy their seafoods. And my
brother Joe was a very prominent entrepreneur at that time in the shrimping industry.

Kim: So they caught the shrimp and shipped it up to him to sell?

Spiller: In carload lots, yes they did. When they were in Guyana, their shrimp boats
had deep freezes, so they'd catch the shrimp and then freeze it, when they'd get a big

supply. They'd ship it to the U.S. frozen, and then immediately, trucks, hauled it to
New York.

Kim: Could you give us an idea of what it was like growing up in a shrimping

4- family?

Spiller: Growing up? Well, I guess we had a rough time after my father died, because
as I said, my mother lost money in all the banks, and she, well, there were seven of us,
and we lived in Fernandina. She decided that after he passed away that one of the best

things she could give us was an education. That's one of the main reasons why we
moved to St. Augustine. There was a supply of shrimp off the east coast in St. Johns
county. But we moved up here so we could go to school. In Fernandina, I think there

were eight classes in one classroom. And that, of course, wasn't conducive to a good
education. We moved over here, and my mother kept us in private schools. Of
course, the tuition in those days was minimal, very inexpensive. And, so, there were
times when we didn't have much, but we always had plenty to eat, and we were


always bathed and dressed and all. We did the best we could. But anyway, God has
been good to us, and he gave the boys the intuition to move to Louisiana, and from

Louisiana to Guyana, and from Guyana, they went to French Guyana. Right now, the

boys, the third generation, is operating in Brazil. Just which town in Brazil, I don't

know. They've done real well there, too.

Kim: Do you still have a lot of family in the business?

Spiller: Not now, only the third generation, my brother Joe's children. My brother Joe

now lives in London, and his children migrated primarily from Tampa, Florida. They

go around from Tampa to Texas, and follow the shrimp around, and they're doing

very well. It takes so much to produce a pound of shrimp today, that actually, with

the expense of the boat, the oil, gas, and whatnot, they're just a little bit better than

breaking even. I think. I haven't really talked to them much about it. But I know

they're still in the business, and doing as well as can be expected.

Kim: So you moved to St. Augustine when you were younger?

Spiller: Yes, I was nine years old when my father died. In fact, when he passed away,

my mother and father were in the process of moving to St. Augustine, looking for a

home. They couldn't find exactly what they wanted, but they found this lot on

Valencia Street. They built a three bedroom, one bath home, with a living room,

dining room and kitchen, which was ample for all of us. I was close to ten years old

when we moved here, and my youngest brother, Dominic, he was five or five and a


Kim: Can you tell me what St. Augustine was like when you moved here?

Spiller: It was a beautiful little laid back city, full of historic points of view and

antiquity. It really was a beautiful pleasure to be living here, after we left Fernandina.
In Fernandina, the population was about 1500. Not too many paved streets, or

anything. So we felt like we were uptown, when we came to St. Augustine. We went

to school here, and after I graduated from high school, my mother and my brothers

couldn't afford to send me to college. So I took a business course. I was about 19
years old. I had to go to work for experience. I worked at the YMCA for nothing, I
worked for Judge Calhoun for nothing, and Judge Matthas. And then after that, Mr.

Upchurch and Colonel. McWilliams spotted me, and I went to work for them. (Mrs.

Spiller goes on to relate her experiences working for various law firms. She then

& 1 speaks of her current volunteer involvement.)

Kim: You never worked with your brothers?

Spiller: No, I never worked with my brothers. The fish houses weren't really a place

for a girl. Besides that, they didn't want me, I guess. If things had been bad, and they
needed me, I'd have been there, believe you me.

Kim: You were also telling me before about how your father was the first to use a
gasoline powered shrimp boat?

Spiller: Yes, a gasoline powered shrimp boat, and he called it the Mt. Etna, from his


G home town in Sicily. Then, it took off, and in those days, a shrimp boat may have
cost, and I don't know if I'm giving you this right, but five or eight thousand dollars.

But a shrimp boat today is over five hundred thousand, because they have to have
these depth finders, and equipment to secure them to safety. But anyway, getting back
now to the pioneering of the shrimp industry, it was Mr. Salvador, Sollecito Salvador,
who was the pioneer. I think I told you that, that my father was next, and then Mr.
Poli. But there's been an awful lot of other Italian people and Portuguese, who came
along, through the ages, and through the years. And they helped develop the
shrimping industry to what it is today. Another thing that my brothers did was one
of the fist fiberglass boats that was built by Diesel Engine Sales. L.C. Ringhaver had
the foresight to build fiberglass boats, and the first one that he built, he let my
brothers have it. They called it the TICA. T I C A. This I.Can't Afford. And it proved
to be a bonanza. And from then on, people could build steel boats, they could build
S fiberglass boats, they could build any kind of boats that they wanted to.

Kim: We went and talked to Harry and Nick Xynides, who were wooden ship

Spiller: Yes, they built the wooden boats. Mr. Ringhaver and Diesel Engine Sales also
built wooden ones. In fact, my mother christened one of his big shrimp boats, and I
christened one too. Mr. Driskell from New York City, he wrote columns for the New
York Times, I think, he came down and christened one.

Kim: So you have a history of having different family members christen your
brothers' boats?



Spiller: We named them after each other, and all that. But then finally, they got away
from that. They started building them and giving them timely names, you know
what I mean?

Kim: It looks like your family was real important in St. Augustine.

Spiller: Well, I don't know how important, but I know we were an addition, let's put
it that way. (She picks up a newspaper article and reads the headline) Florida's First
Lady christens boat named in her honor. That was the Mary Call Collins. He, Governor
Collins, was governor at the time, and she christened the boat. It was built for my
brothers by Diesel Engine Sales.
(Mrs. Spiller rummages through a stack of articles, naming pictures of boats and

S people.) The Crimson Tide, that was ours, and The Stranger. The Two Sisters, and the
Sassy Gal. That was after my mother. (Reading from an article) The beginning of the
Versaggi Shrimp Company was in 1912, but nobody ate shrimp then. They didn't
even know what they were. (She points to a picture of her mother, and reads part of
the photo caption) Looking up from her ever increasing tablecloth. Mama crocheted
like crazy. She made tablecloths, seven, for all of us. One for each one. (She picks up
another photo) The women behind the Versaggi men. That's Jessie Versaggi, Jo Jo
Versaggi, Hon Versaggi, and Pat Versaggi, and Rosalie Versaggi. (She reads) The five
brothers in the partnership ran Versaggi Shrimp Company with obvious harmony,
and to many, the fact that they are not all bachelors made it amazing. Surely one of
the company's most valuable assets is that each of the five wives respects, rather than
directs her husband's career. (She puts the magazine down) We played an important


S part in the shrimping industry in the United States as well as in this part of the

S country. We were more prominent here, because we were here. (She looks through

more articles.)

Kim: I know another big thing they do here is the Blessing of the Fleet.

Spiller: Yes, that's a big thing. We don't have as many shrimp boats here now,

though. Because the grounds have been depleted. What did you want to know

about the Blessing of the Fleet? I can tell you what I remember. During the War, they

had to discontinue the Blessing of the Fleet, because there were no boats. They

couldn't shrimp here, because of the blackouts. But they would choose a documented

family of the shrimp industry, [and one of their daughters would be chosen] to be

Queen, and she would pick her ladies in waiting, and her entourage. Oftentimes, it

would be the children of the pioneers of the shrimping industry. And they would

have a big gala ball at the Ponce De Leon Hotel, and then they would have the

Blessing of the Fleet the next day. Either the priest in charge of the cathedral here, or

sometimes even the Bishop would come and bless these boats. Any type of boat could

go through and receive this blessing. It was a big thing because we'd all get on

shrimp boats, and we'd party. We'd amble down to the boating club, and eat oysters

and shrimp and fish. They still do it. It's a beautiful affair and thousands and

thousands of people come to St. Augustine to see it. (She went on to talk about the

new development in St. Augustine, and showed me a picture book about the history

of St. Augustine. We also talked about tourism and various sights of St. Augustine.)

Kim: After your father and Mr. Salvador and Mr. Poli started shrimping in St.

)> o

Augustine, were there a lot of shrimpers here?

Spiller: Yes, there were quite a few. It was the DiGrandis, and the Fazios, and I think
John Hardee, who came up from Fernandina, John Santas-Corinas, Mr. Poli, Darryl's

father. He was one of the pioneers in St. Augustine, and he certainly contributed quite
a bit to the industry. And then he and Darryl, well Mr. Poli died of a heart attack very
suddenly. Then Darryl and Fred Felici started a marine supply business. I think they
started it. That grew by leaps and bounds too, and they were so prosperous that they

went, I think, to Panama, and had a big business down there. I've been told now that
it's been sold. I don't know for sure.

Kim: Now there's hardly anyone here who's fishing.

Spiller: I would say there's very few boats. There might be half a dozen. Maybe
more, but I don't think so. Mr. Carmelo Tringali was one of the pioneers here in St.
Augustine, too. And there were others that right now escape my mind.

Kim: Did all of the fishing and shrimping people know each other and work together?

Spiller: Oh, yes. They all worked together. You're right. They couldn't cut each

other's throats, because then, they'd have all been out of it, you know? Cooperation is
the root of success. They did real well, and they certainly set a name for themselves.
Now, going back to Fernandina again, they have a big obelisk near the water
dedicated to the pioneers of the shrimping industry in the United States. A nice little
standing obelisk. Fernandina has grown by leaps and bounds, too, with the pulp


. mills now. (Mrs. Spiller went on to talk about historical restorations, and the design
of her house.)

Kim: A lot of these articles you have here are about your mother.

Spiller: She was the matriarch of the family. We had a big party for her when she was
ninety years old. We didn't send invitations, we just asked that anybody who wanted

to send cards or drop by my house here. We thought maybe we'd have 25, 30, maybe
50 people. We had about 250. But it was a gala affair for us. We enjoyed it, and she
did too. She was just as proud as a peacock. She lived to be 96, almost 97 years of age,
and her mind was sharp. When my brother John went to Israel, they went to the Holy

Land, to Jerusalem, and they went to the Jordan River. And Hon baptized John and
John baptized Hon. Albert and I did the same thing when we were over there. But

S John came back, and mother was in a nursing home at that time. He said, 'Mother, I
wished you could have gone with us, you would have loved it. We went to the River
Jordan, and Hon baptized me, and I baptized her. It was just beautiful.' And she
thought a minute, and she said 'Do they catch any shrimp in that river?'. Can you
imagine, 96 years of age, and asking a question like that? We've had more fun telling
that. She was remarkable, I'll tell you. I hope I got her genes, but I don't know if I did
or not, because I'll tell you, there are times I don't remember my name! But that's not
here nor there.