Finding Oystermen

I'd planned to be very efficient during my last reporting trip to the coast, fitting in a number of interviews, driving stretches and plenty of photos into a four day span. And my plans started off well. I spent my first day watching two of my subjects, oyster extension agent Justin Manley and farmer Rafe Rivers, set up an oyster farm on a mud flat on a stretch of river between Doboy and Sapelo Sounds. It was a long but beautiful day, a warm wind kept the gnats to a minimum, but our boat not returning to dock until well after dark. 

The real goal, the highlight I'd hope to capture during this trip, was to hang out with the McIntosh family of Harris Neck. I met Earnest McIntosh, Sr. and his son, Jr., at a shellfish growers association meeting last May, but our conversation was short, and I'm sure I made little impression on the pair of busy watermen. 

I called Earnest the week before I headed down to the coast to let him know I was coming and wanted, nay needed, to talk with him. He remembered me, barely, and vaguely remembered that I was writing a book about men like him, so he sounded interested about letting me tag along, or at least ask a few questions. 

I'd be down at the coast, at various locations, from Tuesday through Saturday. On Monday, I started calling Earnest, Sr. No answer. I did the same Tuesday. No answer. I did the same Wednesday. No answer. Manley, my connection to most of these guys, intervened, called McIntosh, and found out he'd been meaning to call me, but just hadn't found the time. 

As I drove up from Camden County to Savannah Wednesday night, I stopped in Harris Neck to at least find out where the McIntoshes might be found. 

Side note: The story of Harris Neck is incredibly interesting and an important civil rights struggle. I'll be including it in my book, and there are news stories about it you can find, but for the briefest background go here.

I found the dock where they park their boats, and by matching the cell number I had in my phone for Earnest to a sign that read "oysters for sale" in the front yard of a house, I found out where he lived (later confirming it with public records once I had a computer in front of me). I saw work trucks in the yard, but no sign of people. They would've been inside, tired after an early morning harvesting oysters, but I wasn't going to be a dick and knock on the door. Well, if I didn't find them by Friday I would've! 

On Thursday I finally got Earnest, Sr. on the phone. "Can I come see you right now?"

 "I don't know," he said. "We're just so busy." I kept pushing. I desperately wanted to feature the McIntoshes as voices in the oyster story I was writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Otherwise, I would've been fine with waiting until my next trip. "Just let me stop by for 15 minutes," I pleaded. "I promise I won't be a pain in the ass." 

It took another 10 minutes, but he finally gave in. His son, he said, had a few questions for me.

"Who was getting rich off this?" He asked. Nobody was the honest answer. He thought I was going to put him on TV, and make a mint by telling his family's story. I said, yes, I wanted to tell their story, but nobody would be getting rich. If anything, the press alone would drive people to seek out his product, make the McIntoshes the face of Georgia oystering. I think I wore him down with positivity, because by the end he just said, "Alright," over and again.  

I hung up saying I'd see them both between 11-12 the next day, which I estimated was about five hours after low tide for that morning, enough time for the crew to harvest and get back to dock. Even with a date set, I was still nervous I'd miss them. I showed up at the dock early and waited. 

I'll save the interaction for the story, both the AJC and the book, but I got my pictures. I found my oystermen. This is Earnest, Sr.