Joe Santos and John Mendes started Union Shrimp Co., a shrimp fishing operation that was part of the first Blessing of the Fleet in Brunswick.

Wild Georgia Shrimp had it pretty good around here until the likes of John Martin and Joe Santos arrived on our shores following World War I.

These two men were among the early wave of Portuguese refugees who crossed the Atlantic Ocean early in the 20th Century, only to chart a course right back into the sea to reap its bounty. Suddenly, our local shrimp began showing up in large numbers on menus and dinner tables from here to New York City.

By the 1930s, the public’s newfound taste for these crustaceans had filled the docks along Brunswick’s East River with shrimp boats, all of them captained and crewed by stout-hearted Old World mariners. Those vessels would include the seven trawlers Joe Santos and partner John Mendes owned jointly in the Union Shrimp Company. John Martin captained his own shrimp boat out of Brunswick, the Miss Martin. Manuel Rocha and his boat the Liberty also were there.

Afternoons and evenings were festive family affairs down in the south end of Brunswick back then, recalls Mary Theresa Martin. Families would gather in Hanover Square and Queens Square, with children playing and mothers preparing picnic dinners. Men like Mary Theresa’s Dad, John Martin, and her Uncle Joe Santos would occupy park benches or those in front of Old City Hall. There they would shoot the bull about the day’s catch, and the haul that awaited their nets the following morning.

“My Mamma used to say they caught more shrimp on those benches than out in the ocean,” said Mary Theresa, who is now 88 and still living in Brunswick’s south end. “If those trees could talk, they would all speak Portuguese. That’s all you heard down there. Hanover was like the hangout.”

Some folks, Mary Theresa among them, will tell you that these Portuguese immigrants created both supply and demand for shrimp in America. While that is not entirely accurate, these enterprising new arrivals certainly played a major role in transforming a menial occupation into a national industry.

Chalk it up to good timing. And family tradition.

Portugal is a small nation awash in salt air just above where the Atlantic Ocean meets the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These men came here from a long line of fisherman who were adept at wresting a living from wild open waters. Over there, this meant setting out in small dories from larger ships to catch cod with hand lines. (Think Spencer Tracy’s endearing Portuguese character in the movie “Captains Courageous.”)

The Portuguese who settled in Brunswick came first though Ellis Island in New York, beginning with the end of WWI in 1919. Mary Theresa’s mom (also Mary Theresa) was just 10 years old when she made the crossing with her brother, Joe Santos, himself just a teenager. They crossed in the steerage of a ship carrying American troops home from the war, Mary Theresa said.

But the other side of Ellis Island left them shivering. “They didn’t like it up north,” she said. “It was too cold.”

The early migration path from Ellis Island led these post-war Portuguese immigrants first to nearby Fernandina Beach, Fla. That is where modern shrimping really dawned, beginning in 1913 when Massachusetts transplant Billy Corkum invented the otter trawl net. The otter trawl features weighted wooden doors which open wide under throttle and drag along the bottom, greatly increasing the catch.

Also, air conditioning and ice machines had come along early in the 20th Century, making it possible to ship our local delicacy fresh to points north. (Brunswick’s David Davis Co. started in 1915, shipping boiled shrimp canned in brine as far away as Canada and England.)

But soon Fernandina Beach could not hold them all, and folks like Joe Santos were eager to test new waters. He and many other Portuguese immigrants would find a welcome port in Brunswick. Among them was John Martin, who later met and married a grownup Mary Theresa Santos in Brunswick. The daughter named for her mom was born in 1929.

Years later, Mary Theresa’s Uncle Joe and his business partner were honored by the Georgia State Chamber of Commerce, testament to the impact of these industrious immigrants. The “Accolade of Appreciation” thanked the “Union Shrimp Company for economic contributions, high standards of citizenship, and participation in Georgia’s progress since 1931.”

Indeed, America’s coastal shrimping industry that now stretches from Wilmington, N.C., to Corpus Christi, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico owes a debt of gratitude to Brunswick’s Portuguese immigrants.

“They really started a whole new industry that wasn’t there before they came,” Mary Theresa said.

Another Portuguese contribution to American shrimping is the annual blessing of the fleet, a tradition that takes place each spring in coastal hamlets throughout the South. The very first Blessing of the Fleet likely took place right here on the East River, says Manny Rocha, 78. It occurred in 1938, shortly after shrimper Manuel Boa had returned from a pilgrimage to his homeland.

Boa brought back a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which to this day resides at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Brunswick. As they have for the past 80 years, this weekend, members of the Knights of Columbus at St. Francis Xavier will take the Brazilian wood statue on a promenade through Hanover Square and back into the church.

This faithful procession would be immediately recognizable to Manual Rocha Sr., the Portuguese fisherman who came to America so long ago for a better life.

“My father would leave out of here at three in the morning, every day,” said Manny, a retired AT&T technician. “Rain or shine, hot or cold, that boat had to go.”

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