Content in their own little world on a patch of high ground within the vast marsh, Shirley Bennett and Sandy Marsh barely take notice of the 21st Century as it whizzes by in such a darn hurry on the F. J. Torras Causeway.
It is all most folks out there can do to keep it under the 50 mph speed limit, rushing back and forth between St. Simons Island and the mainland. Just a few hundred yards off of that well-beaten path, however, Bennett and her daughter Marsh lead a tranquil life, paced by soothing salt-air breezes and a steadfast tidal cadence.
Sticklers for geographical detail would probably call the land where Marsh’s childhood home rests a hammock. It is maybe 150 feet across and pretty much surrounded by water, connected to the nearby Little River by a long walk down a narrow wooden dock.
Besides, the loyal folks who regularly turn in at 1 F.J. Torras Causeway have been calling this little place the same thing for years.
“I call it a little island, myself,” Marsh said Thursday, sitting with Bennett at their cozy kitchen table. “But it’s just George’s Bait to most people.”
George Bennett died 32 years ago, but the stalwart family business still bears the patriarch’s name. Golden Isles salt water runs through the veins of this Bennett family line, highly-regarded members of the local shrimping fraternity for generations now.
Marsh’s younger brother, Bill Bennett, was out on the inland waters this very day. In his 22-foot Scandia, Bennett trawls for the bait shrimp that keep dedicated anglers turning off the causeway and down that dirt road no matter the obstacles presented. Progress and expansion along the causeway have presented obstacles galore over the decades, but the Bennetts have been selling bait to anglers continuously since 1953.
“I love it,” said family matriarch Shirley Bennett, 83. “The breeze, the marsh, the river ... everything about it. I don’t even like to leave that much.”
And she does not leave often, except for groceries and bingo in Brunswick a few nights a week. As Let’s Make a Deal plays on the television in the background, cool salt breezes flow through the kitchen windows and out the front screen door.
It is so comfortable inside on this warm morning, Marsh has to point out the obvious.
“We don’t have no air conditioner — never have,” said Marsh, referring to the small but spacious wood frame home. “Don’t need one. Out here it’s always cool. When everybody over in Brunswick’s heating up, we’re always cool.”
The marsh life is all she and her brothers knew growing up. It is an observation that begs the question of her surname by marriage.
“That’s right,” she said. “I lived on the marsh and all my life, and then I married one.”
That would be Joe Marsh. Joe passed away long ago, but their two sons proudly carry on the family tradition. David Marsh is a shrimp boat captain and Jeffery Marsh works as a shrimp boat striker, both out of the City Market docks on the Brunswick River.
“I have loved it,” said Marsh, 57. “Whenever we was little we didn’t have no one to play with. All we had was fiddlers (crabs) and turtles to play with.”
Marsh’s soft laughter at the memory was muffled by the sounds of Labradors barking at an approaching pickup. The black lab Little River and his chocolate lab father Skipper are this family bait store’s official greeters. Two wagging tails and a pair of happy dog faces welcomed fisherman Michael Hitt.
Marsh stepped out on the the porch, the two chihuahuas Minner and Trixie and the dachshund Bruiser (“Fatso”) yipping under foot.
“How’re you today?” she said to Hitt, a familiar face around here. “Want live?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Hitt, a St. Simons Island resident since 1975. “$10 worth.”
Marsh made the short trip from the front steps to the live bait wells in the open-air bait shack. As she scooped out his order of jumping, flipping and twitching live shrimp, Hitt explained his plans to put in at the nearby Morningstar Marina and fish for triple tail off of Jekyll Island.
“I go out of my way to get here,” said Hitt. “These people have been here for so long, always dependable. And they always have live shrimp when no one else does.”
Brunswick native Harry Spaulding pulled up a moment later. The retired paper mill employee had caught four hefty drum at the St. Simons Island Pier the day before. He was hoping some of George’s frozen shrimp would bring him more of the same. It is not merely nostalgia that keeps Spaulding coming back.
“I’ve been dealing with them ... oh, gosh, over 40 years,” he said. “They were on the other side of the road then. And George was still around. But the bait is excellent and any place else I pay more than I do here.”
Lord knows convenience is not a selling point for George’s Bait. Coming from Brunswick, Spaulding had to drive onto the island, then turn around and come back. To reach the marina that is barely half a mile away on the other side of the causeway, Hitt would have to drive at least all the way to the mainland side of the Back River Bridge just to turn around.
George’s Bait started out on the south side of the causeway, the house plopped on a raised platform in the marsh. But they had to move the entire family business, house and all, to the present location when the causeway was four-laned in the 1970s.
Things became really difficult for the family business around 2011, when the state Department of Transportation installed a concrete barrier dividing the eastbound and westbound lanes for safety reasons.
But still they come. Waycross angler Chester Jacobs and wife Sharon pulled up hauling a boat behind their pickup. Jacobs needed live shrimp to fish for redfish and trout on the inland Turtle River. This was not their first trip to George’s Bait. It would not be their last.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Sharon Jacobs called to Marsh. “We’ll be back to see you again.”
And Marsh will be here to carry on the family tradition. Just as long as people keep coming back, she said.
“Once they find out about us, they always come back,” Marsh said.