There are thousands of sad Hurricane Katrina stories, and here at MissPres we’ve told at least a few dozen of them, but there are also thousands of more humorous Hurricane Katrina stories. Funny in that wry way sprinkled with a healthy dose of the ridiculousness of humanity that makes Southerners some of our nation’s best story-tellers. On this 11th anniversary of Katrina, let’s celebrate one of those stories for a change.
There once was a Golden Fisherman who lived in downtown Biloxi, Mississippi, which at the time he was born, 1977, was non-ironically called “The Vieux Marche” (pronounced “The View Mar-SHAY”). Created by Ocean Springs artist Harry Del Reeks (1920-1982), the Golden Fisherman stood 15-feet tall, weighed 4500 pounds, and was made of plates fashioned from bronze silica and a variety of metals that were donated from local schooners and trawlers. His friends called him The Golden Fisherman because he was painted gold. Or plated in 23 karat gold, that part of the story is a little vague, and the Golden Fisherman liked to keep it that way to keep people from scratching at his surface. The Golden Fisherman stood proudly in The Vieux Marche casting his 20-foot net for mullet (the king of Gulf Coast fish) in the midst of a large fountain that overlooked an amphitheater. This is how he looked in his (and The Vieux Marche’s) prime.
Notice the caption above and the metals it lists. This will be important for later.
The Golden Fisherman had a short prime. The Urban Renewal project that had created The Vieux Marche in downtown Biloxi never really was a success, and within just a few years, the Biloxi Regional Hospital was built right in the middle of the amphitheater, and as Sun Herald writer Kat Bergeron noted in 2000, the Golden Fisherman was consigned to “throwing a 20-foot net into the back of a hospital.” A hospital that didn’t have any mullet–certainly not fried filet mullet–to make matters worse.
In 2002, the good people of Biloxi, recognizing the Golden Fisherman’s plight, and deciding that Urban Renewal hadn’t been a good idea anyway, moved him to another plaza of his own and closer to the water on Point Cadet near the Maritime and Seafood Museum. Some still disparaged him as “gangly,” and one wag wondered if he was casting his net toward the slot machines in the Isle of Capri casino across the road. But still, he was Biloxi’s crazy uncle and while they could talk about him, outsiders better keep their mouths shut.
The Golden Fisherman was happy out on the Point, but sometimes he wondered whether it had been a good idea to move him right up on the waterfront, down at sea level, and him with lead feet. Like, literally lead feet. Nevertheless, the City of Biloxi was working to update the plaques with the names of the seafood families that had originally surrounded the Golden Fisherman, and he felt loved and appreciated. He ignored the little flings about his looks, which he felt was the mature approach, appropriate to his years and height and weight.
But on August 29, 2005, his worst nightmare came true when Hurricane Katrina came ashore pushing a storm surge that drowned the Golden Fisherman, breaking his foot off, sending him topsy-turvy, and washing away many many buildings on Point Cadet.
This is how the Golden Fisherman looked at this low moment in his life.
The Golden Fisherman lay here thinking until June 2006. He wasn’t upset–he knew that more pressing issues like search and rescue and the cleanup efforts had to take precedence. He kind of enjoyed his down time, which he spent reliving his glory years in the fountain and the second wind he had when they moved him to the waterfront. He tried hard not to dwell on the time when the water came up and kept coming and coming and washed away the Maritime and Seafood Museum, which had been housed in the historic Coast Guard Barracks.
But in all his musings, he couldn’t have imagined the terrifying adventure he was about to undergo. And because he hasn’t really spoken much about these events since, we have to turn to contemporary sources. The City of Biloxi issues a chilling press release on June 11, 2006:
Biloxi’s Golden Fisherman, a 16-foot statue that once stood on Point Cadet in tribute to the seafood industry, has apparently been stolen from the former site of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.
The city-owned statue, which weighed more than a ton, was last seen mid-afternoon Saturday near the museum site, where city workers had moved it a week ago.
A Sun-Herald article on June 13 indicated that the boot that had remained on the pedestal when the Fisherman fell had been stolen previously, as had his famous net. The article by Anita Lee went on to note:
The other mystery is why anyone would want the fisherman. He was composed of alloy rather than any single precious metal and therefore worthless to the looters who have been stripping copper from damaged property up and down the Coast.
Investigators do not believe the fisherman was cut up before he was moved because they could find no telltale traces of a welder’s torch.
Hmm, a couple of decades ago, the Golden Fisherman was made of bronze and 23 karat gold plate (see above). Now he’s just worthless alloy?
The newspapers began to publish information about a tempting $15,000 reward. This consisted of $2,500 from the City Council, $12,000 from Mayor Holloway, $500 from Councilman Tom Wall, and $500 from Biloxi resident Paul Kettering, who suggested he might give another $500 if he could be allowed to be locked in the room with the suspects. That right there would be enough to frighten me, if I were a nefarious salvager, which I am not.
Sure enough, word spread down the Coast, and the next day, June 14, the Sun Herald announced the good news that the Golden Fisherman had been found!
The much maligned but still cherished Golden Fisherman statue was found Tuesday afternoon in a creek in Mobile County, [Alabama], where it was thrown after the thieves realized Biloxians were aiming to hunt them down and bring the fisherman home.
. . .
Biloxi Police Capt. Darrin Peterson said someone saw the sculpture in a neighbor’s yard and recognized what it was because of news reports. Once the people who had the statue realized people were on the lookout for it, they ditched the fisherman in the creek.
Late Tuesday, investigators arrested 37-year-old Herman Allen Hicks of Semmes, Ala., on a charge of grand larceny, and said other arrests were pending.
Turns out, Hicks, like most self-respecting Southern men, had a trailer with a 3-ton boom, which allowed him to grab the Fisherman so efficiently. Still, just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it, you know what I’m saying, Herman Allen? Or do you go by Billy Bobby for short?
An article in the Gadsden (AL) Times gave a little more detail about what had transpired:
Herman Allen Hicks, 37, was charged in Mobile Wednesday with receiving stolen property and was being held without bail Friday at the Mobile County Metro Jail pending extradition to Biloxi.
Authorities said the statue was taken last weekend from the former site of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum and cut into pieces. Capt. Bruce Lee of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office said the torso was found Tuesday afternoon in an overgrown area of weeds and bushes, with the legs and arms found about seven miles away in a creek.
Kidnapping is bad enough, but being cut up into multiple pieces? Really distressing! (I can’t find any record online of what happened to Hicks. Did he “disappear” after being locked in a room with Mr. Kettering?)
The Golden Fisherman’s return was hardly triumphant. His face would have clearly said that he was glad to be home and relieved that his terrifying ordeal was over, if he still had had his head, which unfortunately he didn’t. The City of Biloxi told the story of the return in a press release of June 14, 2006.
A flatbed truck carrying the statue’s torso, legs and arms arrived mid-afternoon and a city Public Works crew temporarily stored the pieces in a downtown warehouse, where it had been too large to house.
“The Fisherman is sort of like the city itself,” Holloway said. “It’s bruised and beaten up, but it’s not destroyed. We’ve lost so many landmarks, so many pieces of our history, that it’s important that we now have it back. This is not about a statue, per se. This is a tribute to the thousands of people who made Biloxi the seafood capital of the world, and to those who work in this important industry today. It’s about Biloxi — past, present and future.”
With words like that, it seems like the Golden Fisherman would have been put back together pretty quickly, but like many things on the Coast after Katrina, it hasn’t been that easy. However, I like to think this sometimes absurd Katrina story has a perfect ending that is just taking a while to play out. So far, the Golden Fisherman is still in pieces awaiting his return to Point Cadet. The Maritime and Seafood Museum has a website for its “Golden Fisherman Project” but I don’t see a way to donate. If you’d like to give Biloxi’s Golden Fisherman a third life, maybe give the museum a call and see how you can help him get his grand re-opening ceremony and make this a really perfect Katrina comeback story.
For the first Katrina post ever here on MissPres, see “Roll Call of Landmarks Lost to Katrina”