MORGAN CITY, La.--
The first time I came through Morgan City was in the rainy spring of '91 on a pontoon trip from Chicago to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with my friend Bill FitzGerald and a few other really hearty boaters.
It was my first exposure to the warmth of river people. At almost every levee south of Memphis we encountered a local in a pick up truck with a hunting dog who was willing to take us into town for gas or tell us about a forbidden restaurant.
It was also the first time I heard about the Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, held every Labor Day weekend along the banks of the Atchafalaya River (Atchafalaya is Indian for "long river") in Morgan City. The river is a living, breathing delta and the main distributary of the Mississippi River. The Atachafalya Basin is the largest river swamp in North America (173,00 acres of cypress swamps and 64,000 acres of aquatic habitat).
So I put the Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival on my bucket list. I finally made it.....
.........Its ironic I chose this Labor Day weekend to go with the oil spills in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Even though the oil industry feeds Morgan City's soul (pop. 20,000) more than the shrimp industry, things are fine here.
I've consumed buckets of shrimp and I'm still standing.
According to the Louisiana Office of Tourism, 27,000 tests from scores of agencies have been conducted on Gulf seafood and all food has been deemed safe. The April 20 rig explosion was 45 miles off shore in water a mile deep--an area where shrimping is not done.
But don't get the locals started on the federal moratorium President Obama has imposed on oil drilling through Nov. 30. "He's trying to starve us," one long time local told me at breakfast. Morgan City would dry up with an extended moratorium. Oil companies would flee to the waters of Brazil and Cuba.
The ol' Kingfish and Louisiana Governor Huey Long once said, "A state willing to let others exploit its resources is also a state with leverage." In November, 1947 Morgan City received national attention when Kerr-McGee produced the first offshore oil well out of sight of land, 43 miles south of Morgan City. Oil taxes were used to better the state's educational system. Mom and Pop fisheries and processors flourished.
Home became a better place.
This is the 75th anniversary of the festival.
It began when God's good graces were bestowed upon fishermen and their craft in a "Blessing of the Fleet" that continues today. In 1967 petroleum was added to the mix, allowing the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival to remain as the oldest state chartered harvest festival in Louisiana.
It's all pretty mind boggling.
This festival has the best logo ever: a big shrimp wrapped around an oil rig like a wedding ring.
Just today I saw a Shrimp & Petroleum Festival parade featuring a log cabin float with country singer Sammy Kershaw. He is running for Lt. Governor of Louisiana. Who knew? He was in Morgan City and he was once married to country singer Lorrie Morgan.
The first Tarzan movie was filmed in Morgan City in 1917. It starred Elmo Lincoln.
I met a band called Boat Trash who played a very loud version of Neil Young's "Rockin' In the Free World" along the banks of the Atchafalaya. The band consisted of three tugboat captains and a truck driver who hauls big rigs from area oil fields. They also play Ted Nugent, Z.Z. Top and do not touch Jimmy Buffett.
True to the giving spirit of river people, a couple of boaters near Boat Trash brought me freshly cooked frog legs, fried catfish and a can of Bud Light. It was a wonderful way to take in a steamy sunset over the Atchafalaya.
The tugboat rockers weren't sure what has slowed the shrimp industry. Some area workers found better money in oil than in fishing. Tattooed guitarist Ronnie Wiggins said, "Once they put the Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) devices on their nets (in the mid-1970s) they felt they were losing their profit. It releases turtles, but it also releases shrimp and other stuff. In the 1960s and '70s my grandfather (Clayton Wiggins) owned six shrimp boats and he'd park them right here. In the late 1980's he sold them all and retired."
Of course there is a Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Queen and of course I tracked her down. [These are the scoops you don't get in the print version of the Sun-Times.].
Queen Lani Bergeron lives in Berwick, across the river from Morgan City. Her father Damon owns a petroleum oil related business in Morgan City.
She was picked out of a field of "five to 10" girls after being interviewed by festival board members.
"Its more about promoting the festival than the industries," she said while keeping an eye at a Mardi-Gras colored past queen's hat box. The new queen is allowed to borrow it until she gets her own hat box. Bergeron continued, "They ask what we like most about the festival, our favorite memory."
And what is her favorite memory?
"My brother was actually chosen to be king when he was 8," she answered. "They also have children's royalty. We're twins. I was going around with him and now I'm queen when we're 20."
Bergeron is a junior majoring in business at Louisiana State University. "When I get out I want to go to culinary school," she said. Bergeron glanced at the sleepy main drag known as Front Street. "I want to open a restaurant on that street. I have my eye on the corner building."
This is home.