by Charles S. Miley, Ft. Pierce News Tribune Editor Emeritus
Experiences of an old-timer who had spent 75 years on Indian River were interestingly recounted in The News Tribune June 20, 1958, on the occasion of his “retirement.”
He was Mose Metzger, who the old-timers will well remember.
Here is the story as it appeared in the papers, written by Scotty Campbell:
A man who remembers, clearly and vividly, commercial fishing on the Indian River long before most of the readers of this article were born will call it quits– sort of hang up his net for the last time– today.
Mose Metzger, who was born in Titusville on July 20, 1883, which is just about as close to 75 on the dot as you can get, has spent that three-quarters of a century directly connected with the river and what comes out of it.
He retires today from his current job as attendant at Quality Sea Foods, 600 Orange Ave., but in the years that have rolled past, like waters under a bridge, he has compiled a record of longevity on the river surpassed by few men.
Mose moved to Can Town (we call it Fort Pierce now) in his early youth, took up residence at a local boarding house at the cost of $2.50 per week–three meals included—and launched himself upon a commercial fishing career. (He later moved; the management of the boarding house had the all to raise the room-and-board rent to $3 a week.)
These were the days when men, literally and not poetically, went down to the sea in ships–powered by broad backs and lofting sails, and a man might row a heavy skiff a hundred miles ina weeks time to make a mullet catch of 600. (Not pounds, Fish Mullet sold in the long ago for a penny each, and due to the size of the nets used, seldom went under three pounds each.)
Mose, brown as parched seaweed, straight as an oar, and hard as a catfish head, has lost none of the memories of the past. He may occasionally cup a hand to his ear and say: “Eh?”, but he can tell you every shoal and shallow, rock and reef, island and inlet that decorated the Indian River from the Volusia county line south to Stuart.
“You should have seen it,” he chuckled recently, “when we’d come in and sell our catch. Wasn’t no such thing as paper money around here then. We got our pay-off in gold and silver, and the bad thing about a hearty catch was our bagging pants.”
When asked by this novice what the catches consisted of in the days before the 20th century, the old salt said: “Same’s today. Fish don’t change. Maybe the quantity, but not the breed. There’s always ups and downs in markets and prices and catches—but there’s always the trout and snapper and mullet and the rest.”
Oysters and Clams
“But I’ll tell you one thing,” he stated deliberately, stretching his long legs, “Fort Pierce will never again see the time of oysters and clams like it did in the late 80’s. Man! you couldn’t step out of a boat anywhere without cutting your boot on a bed of oysters.
“We used to get a bushel of oysters and as many clams in any section of the river “tween Stuart and Titusville in an hours time.”
A Way of Life
But the river was more than a means of making a living for commercial fisherman in the early days. It was a way of life for and a life’s-blood artery for many.
“The Indian River was the only highway in these parts when I was a kid and young fellow,” Mose explained. “Mail, sometimes six months late, came in by old sternwheeler steamers. Likewise, every essential needed by residents of this area came the same way. But, shucks, we didn’t need too many outside essentials in those days. A little salt now and then.”
“Our fish needed ice, of course, and that was shipped in. We’d sell our catches to the Can Town dealer (Can Town went as far north as Moore’s Creek, and then it became Edgar Town) and he’d pack the catch down. Later, a river steamer would pick the fish up, headed toward Jacksonville.”
“But if we wanted fresh meat, we went out about where the Negro cemetery is now and shoot a deer. We’d usually leave our guns propped against a tree, handy for the next time we needed them for deer meat. Nobody’d think of bothering another man’s property in those days. We even recognized each others guns stacked against a tree.”
In the period before the turn of the century, Mose recalls, the inlet now known as St. Lucie got a good play from two and three- masted schooners during northeaster. Skippers plying the coast would often duck in this inlet during bad weather, and Mose recalls seeing the river inside filled with masts for three-four days during a blow.
Things Began to Change
Things slowly began to change about 1899, Mose remembers. That year, the steadily-stretching railroad reached Titusville. This was the beginning of the end, the first paragraph in the obituary of an old way of life. It primarily ended the reign of the steamer, on the Indian River, as citizens’ life-line.
Sighed Mose: “It also ended the good old days.”
One thing, he explains, about this time the large, bulky, open sea-skiff, motor powered, made its appearance. Sails drooped, Fisherman– including Mose– started outside fishing a great deal more. Mose followed the outside business about seven years.
Ever have any close calls?
“Naw!” he laughs, “Oh, I was turned over more times than I can remember, but nothing really close.”
Originally, outside catches were extremely good. Mainly mackerel. However, then as now, was a gamble. The more fish a man caught, the less he got for them, and when prices were at their highest it was because catches were at their lowest.
For a short span of his 75 years along the river, Mose turned to a new interesting matter: he spent six years with the new-fangled railroad here. Then of course, he took down his net and went back to work.
The lady who shared much of Mose’s river life was a native of Melrose–almost a landlubber. After many years of darning nets along with her husband, Mrs. Metzger died in 1945.
And What Now?
“Mose, we asked, “what do you plan to do now?” He scratched his ear.
“One thing, I’d like to get in contact with as many old-time river residents as I can. They can reach me through General Delivery, Fort Pierce.
“Then, too, I’m moving out today with my daughter on Okeechobee Road, and I’ll spend a lot of time with my 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, who are scattered around.”
He thought a long time, still pulling his ear. Then, as an after-thought, he added:
“Course I’ll get in a little fishin’ now and then.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Metzger died July 18, 1960, at the age of 77.)
From “Miley’s Memos.” This article first Published 5/7/1978. Reprinted by permission of the Ft. Pierce News Tribune. “Miley’s Memos” is the property of the Ft. Pierce News Tribune and reproduction of this material is expressly forbidden without the prior written permission of the Ft. Pierce News Tribune © 2002.