The longest stretch of undeveloped seashore in the U.S., little known outside its own neighborhood, is a noodle-narrow 117-mile sand bar called Padre Island. Sixty thousand acres of subtropical semiwilderness, the island lies a rough five miles off the Gulf Coast of Texas and extends from Corpus Christi in the north to Brownsville in the south. It was once the year-round playground of the Karankawan Indians. They were cannibals. Today, tastes on Padre Island run more to shrimp salad and Lone Star beer; but otherwise, except for the small civilized outposts at either end, the island is much as it has always been, primitive, desolate and hot as a branding iron.
There are some, of course, who like it this way just fine, including jack rabbits, curlews, sand crabs, rattlesnakes and one independent young Texan named Eugene Lee French. Gene French says this: "One man can walk all the way down that beach and maybe not see anything. I can walk down it and see nickels, dimes and dollars all over the place." Gene French is a beachcomber.
As French will tell you, Padre Island, because of its relative isolation and because of its long reach down the western rim of the Gulf of Mexico, offers a man some of the best beachcombings in the whole U.S. It is so rich in such seaside staples as shells, bottles and driftwood that French, after only 18 months on the job, has built up a business worth $20,000. And he sees even brighter prospects for the future because ocean currents and trade winds will doubtless continue to supply his wants, and people, especially touring people who come to the area, will continue to indulge their weakness for almost anything that has been picked up off a beach.
To encourage and develop this tourist weakness, French has naturally gone to some trouble. FRENCH THE BEACHCOMBER, YOUR HOST says a sign in front of his shop on the Corpus Christi end of Padre Island. And weathered driftwood planks and melancholy fish nets contribute to an intoxicating illusion of adventure and mystery. Once inside, the customer succumbs to the spell, it would seem, for French demands, and usually gets, such adventurous prices as these: $5 for a nice fat whelk shell, 5¢ for an ordinary, everyday scallop shell; $9 for a polished piece of ebony driftwood washed up from the faraway Amazon; 25¢ for a cork float lost from a shrimp boat net; $25 for a 1-inch, "perfect specimen" of a Mitchell's Wentletrap shell; $15 for an old bottle scuffed by the sand and blackened by time; and 35¢ for a pound of assorted little shells, just the thing for the aquarium back home and available to French by the ton on a patch of Padre Island known locally as Little Shell beach.
July 17, 1960
Yet, expedient and profitable as the practice is, running the shop is a burden somewhat alien to the nature of Gene French. "Ever since I was a little boy living in Corpus Christi," he says, "I've had a thing about this island. It was only a couple of years ago, though, that I realized I could spend a lot of time out here and still earn a living. Now that I know it's possible, I guess I've become a little spoiled. I'm just waiting for the day I can afford to pay somebody to run the shop for me so I can spend all my time on the beach." His feeling for Padre Island is shared by his wife, Evelyn, who says: "Without our trips down the beach, work in the shop would be plain, mean drudgery. When we're out beachcombing, that's our reward. We're on vacation."
On that fortunate basis, Gene, Evelyn and their two children, Kenneth, 7, and Carol Anne, 9, take 12 vacations each year (Padre Island merely simmers down in the winter). And the two-day expedition each month, about 180 miles round trip, is surrounded with the excitement of a holiday outing.
To get where the pickings are best, French drives an old army command car, a sort of outsize jeep, left over from World War II. It is painted a furious orange color and may well be visible in Mexico. His latest trip, a few weeks ago, began shortly after sunup. With his children perched on the groceries in the back and his wife on the running board, French shifted into four-wheel drive and the command car scratched off in the sand.
Beachcombers at work
A beachcomber, to be successful, must be selective. He does not want everything that litters the beach; he would not have room for it anyway. The four Frenches at work, therefore, function like four radar scanning antennas. Their eyes sweep over the beach in widening circles as the command car bears them along at a jiggling 15 miles per hour, and they shout out when a likely object comes into range. "Sea bean, sea bean!" cried Mrs. French, startlingly, after the first five minutes. Sure enough, 25 yards off to the right, lay a sea bean and, as French lifted his foot from the accelerator, the command car mushed to a stop in the puffy sand. A sea bean is a kind of seed the size of a half dollar and it closely resembles a burned butter bean. It is worth 10¢ on the beachcombing market any day of the week. Hardly a remarkable discovery for a trip that had already cost French $50 in gasoline and groceries, but a discovery all the same. Happily, the sea bean lay close beside a beer bottle barely visible in a drift. No ordinary beer bottle, this was one of 150,000 dumped into the Atlantic early last year by Ireland's Guinness Brewery as a promotion stunt. Sealed and bearing a note inside, it is worth a small ashtray to anyone troubling to write the brewery. It is worth, on the other hand, $1 to French, who has found more than 300 on the beach and has sold them for that. "I guess everybody has a little of the beachcomber in him," says French. "Owning a bottle with a note in it makes him feel authentic."
For the first 35 miles, the car described a zigzag course over the beach, and by 10 a.m. the Frenches had gathered in a harvest of Guinness bottles, wooden plugs from the sea cocks of shrimp boats (a shrimp-boat plug, the size of a coffee can, is fine as a lamp base, candlestick stand or doorstop and fetches 75¢ back at the shop), coconuts, a mahogany stump worth $50, cork and plastic net floats, whelk shells, sand dollars and wine bottles. Bottles abound on Padre Island and, says French, they are irresistible to his customers. "Any wine or rum bottle so long as it's green and sandy is worth a dollar. I find it hard to pass them up."
But commonplace green bottles, dollar or no, were not what French wanted most. The real money is in antique, or almost antique, bottles (a tourist sees visions of Blackbeard and the boys chucking them into the Spanish Main after a hanging party), and the few old bottles on Padre are to be found off the beach and behind the dunes that migrate along the island's spine. "The old bottles are nearly all buried," says French, "and to find them we have to keep going back to the same places to see if the wind has uncovered any." Accordingly, French turned the command car into the dunes (he has permission from a cattle ranch holding title to the dune land to do so), and everybody piled out and walked. Last year Evelyn French found a Belgian hand-pressed bottle, estimated by a glass expert to be 150 years old, and French has turned down an offer of $150 for it. This particular venture was less rewarding, although one bottle found by Kenneth now bears a $20 price tag.
Alternately nosing into the dunes and following a meandering course on the open beach, French had by sundown accumulated more than $175 worth of plunder, not counting an anchor found beside the beached, burned-out hull of a shrimp boat. Wrecked shrimpers are rare enough, but anchors are rarer still. That being so, Evelyn announced with some finality that it would not be for sale; it would serve instead, she said, to further the shop's seafaring atmosphere. (The $175 figure does not include, either, the possible value of a glass stopper picked up by Carol Anne. To all appearances, it had fallen out of the neck of an old Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce bottle.
Camp that night was pitched some 70 miles from Corpus Christi in a driftwood-plank shack French built for such occasions on an earlier trip. (A supporting column of the shack bears the name, in Japanese ideographs, of Sugi Masasumi, the significance of which remains cloaked in Oriental mystery.) The next morning, after a breakfast of eggs, scrambled because nine of the dozen brought along were broken en route, the Frenches pushed off to the south again, using the same exploratory patterns as before, until they reached the Port Mansfield channel, a man-made boat canal that cuts across the lower fourth of Padre Island. Here, beside concrete jetties marking the channel's mouth, French and his family waded into the Gulf to gather tiny, convoluted shark-eye shells inhabited by hermit crabs. Worth a dime apiece, they were clinging to the jetties by the thousands.
A major discovery
The return trip, begun after noon of the second day, was uneventful except for two occurrences. One, minor in French's view, was running out of gas 40 miles from home—a passing jeep with extra gas solved that problem. The other, major in French's view, was Evelyn's discovery of a glass-ball fishing-net float. The float, said French with some excitement, had made its way to Padre Island from Japan, you could believe it or not. An oceanographer said later it was hard to believe, noting that the float's almost necessary trip through the stormy Strait of Magellan would have been its undoing. Another man said it was easy to believe, considering he had seen such glass floats used in West Indies bars that affect an Oriental decor. Beachcomber French won't argue the point. He counts the floats so rare, which they certainly are on Padre Island, and so valuable that he doesn't even offer the few he has found for sale.
And that, of course, is what makes Eugene Lee French a beachcomber. It is also what distinguishes him from a shopkeeper.
GULF OF MEXICO