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Picture of John Ray Nelson with his father John A. Nelson
John Ray Nelson with his father John A. Nelson.



     In 1896, Mr. Frank E. Nelson, grandfather of John Ray Nelson, founded the Company that has become Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc.   Frank Nelson, coming from Denmark, settled in the community of Oyster Bay in the southeast corner of Mobile Bay.

     A 50' converted schooner named the MARY ETTA was acquired. This vessel whose keel was laid in 1860 was used as an oyster dredge boat.

Picture of MARY ETTA
     MARY ETTA was acquired by the Nelson's in 1896
and used as an oyster dredger, transporter, and shrimp boat. She was retired in 1969 to the shady banks of the Bon Secour River. Although battered by hurricanes and tropical storms, it rests there today (2004).

     Oyster Bay, or Bayou John as it is called on the old maps, together with adjacent Bon Secour River and Bay, produced succulent oyster known far and wide for its size and flavor. In those days, oysters were gathered from private plant beds as well as public reefs. They were kept alive in pens offshore from the growers' residences and transported by sailing vessel to Mobile, where they were sold to restaurateurs and seafood vendors who met the boat at the foot of Eslava Street. Production ran about 650 barrels per week and sales (at 75 cents per bushel) averaged $2,000.00 per week during the season, which ran from September through April, the traditional "R" months. The Company did not market shrimp and fish at this time.

     In 1920, John A. Nelson joined his father as partner in the business. A 16 horsepower engine was added to their boat, the MARY ETTA.

Picture of MARY ETTA
    Although the actual builder remains a mystery, what records exist indicate that the vessel's keel was laid in 1860. Launched as the CURLEW, she became property of the Nelson Family in 1896 and was renamed at that time. She is similar to the Biloxi schooners, but her cypress construction and original single mast are clues to researchers that she was likely a member of the New Orleans lugger fleet that plied the coastal shallows in the 1800's and heavily influenced the designers of the later schooners. MARY ETTA carried two masts for most of her active, commercial life. The second mast was added to make her more competitve with her contemporary oystering vessels.

     Frank Nelson, along with two other boatmen, were the first in the area to try to catch shrimp. They continued planting and growing oysters themselves as well as buying from other neighbor-growers to supply the market in Mobile. Some of the oystermen began experimenting with using a trawl to catch shrimp. As the sailing vessels became motorized, shrimping became more prevalent and this activity extended the fishing season by another month. The larger vessels such as those owned by Nelson and his son served as "buy" boats, buying shrimp from owners of smaller boats for transporting to Mobile. Whereas oysters could be kept fresh in the "pens", shrimp required ice for maintaining their quality. Therefore, the trips to Mobile - the only source of ice - were more frequent than during the oyster season. It is interesting to note that during the depression the price of oysters held up, although the relatively cheaper but newer product, shrimp, was difficult to sell. Many of the native sons who had migrated to the cities for easier jobs were laid off at this time and returned to their former homes where they could still make a living oystering.

     Construction of the Intracoastal Canal in the early 1930's brought about the demise of many of the oyster beds and planting grounds, either because it cut through their location or because the silt from the dredging covered them. In the mid-1930's, the WPA and CCC boys were brought in to the area to work on the roads and dig drainage ditches; and for the first time it became easier to go to Foley by road than to Mobile by water. The "buy" boats gave way to the dockside "shop", and delivery to the city was by motor truck.

     In 1935, Frank Nelson retired and in 1939, John Nelson moved his base of operation to its present site on Bon Secour River, nearer to the bank and ice plant in Foley and school for the children. The little extra distance down-river to the Bay did not matter now that the boats were all propelled by motor rather than by sail.

     In 1946, after World War II and his discharge from the Navy, John A. Nelson's son, John Ray Nelson joined his father as partner in the family business and the name, Bon Secour Fisheries, was adopted. This third generation owner was the first one not to produce part of the product he offered for sale. However, he introduced by-weekly deliveries by Company owned truck to restaurants and seafood markets in both Mobile and Pensacola. Shipments were also made by Railway Express to inland markets.

     In 1951, the first shrimp boats large enough to work offshore in the Gulf of Mexico began to appear in the area. After the river channel was deepened to accommodate these vessels, two Gulf trawlers began operation out of Bon Secour Fisheries. Others soon joined these two boats. There was an explosion in the seafood industry! As the fleet grew, so did the need for more wharf footage and expanded supply facilities for these boats. The Nelsons gradually added dock space, bought mechanized unloading equipment and graders, and expanded their fueling facilities. The shrimp boats brought in quality fish along with their shrimp and later a snapper schooner joined the fleet. More ice was needed and in 1971 the Company was able to build an ice plant.

Picture of Bon Secour Fisheries
Bon Secour Fisheries prior to their expansion of 1977.

     In contrast to the 1 ˝ ton truck used in 1950, the Company owns a fleet of 7 refrigerated tractor-trailers for delivering the product. Presently the fuel storage capacity is 753,000 gallons for boats and trucks. The Company maintains a 1500 square foot building out of which on independently owned hardware and marine supply business is operated for the convenience of the boatmen.

Picture of Original Truck Fleet
After the Railway Express shut down,
Bon Secour Fisheries' land-based fleet of tractor trailers
transported the catch to its final destination.

     Until recently the Company utilized freezing and cold storage facilities at the Alabama State Docks in Mobile. As the result of action by the Industrial Development Board of the City of Foley a 30,000 sq. ft. plant was built in 1977 to provide freezing and cold storage facilities as well as consolidation of the processing areas.

     Bon Secour Fisheries was incorporated in 1959 with John Ray Nelson as president, John A. Nelson as vice-president and Jane B. Nelson as secretary. Following John A. Nelson's death, Albert J. Rea was elected vice-president.

     (In 2006, John Ray Nelson, along with his three sons, John Andrew, David, and Chris, continue the family run business. John Ray Nelson is the C.E.O. John Andrew Nelson is the President in charge of Shrimp Boats, and Production. David Nelson is a Vice President in charge of Shrimp Procurement, and Sales. Chris Nelson is a Vice President in charge of Oyster Procurement, R&D, and Governmental Affairs.)

Picture of Bon Secour Fisheries
Bon Secour Fisheries after the addition of the 30,000 square foot plant.

     Presently (1983), Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc. is a processor and distributor of shrimp, oysters and fish - 75% frozen, 25% fresh, located on 9 acres fronting Bon Secour River in the community of Bon Secour, Baldwin County, Alabama. The Company employs approximately 110 local residents in the plant. In addition, approximately 225 more persons find work aboard the boats operating from this site.

Picture of Bon Secour Fisheries
Bon Secour Shrimp Boats.

     The primary source of fresh seafood is the fleet of 75 boats. Other fresh product comes by truck from the East Coast and various Gulf ports. Purchases are also made from frozen seafood processors along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. The Company markets its products to over 525 customers, wholesale distributors, restaurants, "fast food", cafeteria chains, and grocery chains. The majority of the product is distributed by Company owned refrigerated tractor-trailer units in a 1,000-mile radius. Produce is also sold throughout the United States, Canada, and Hawaii.


     Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc. is the principal industry in the community in which it is located, Bon Secour, Alabama. Bon Secour is a small, unincorporated, scattered community located in the southwest part of Baldwin County. It is contiguous to Bon Secour River as it meanders through the area.

Picture of Bon Secour Fisheries
Bon Secour Fisheries Shrimp House.

     A large percentage of the working residents of the community are employed in the seafood industry, either as an employee of one of the seafood processors in the area or as a commercial fisherman.

Picture of Bon Secour Fisheries
Bon Secour Fisheries Oyster Packing Room.

     Because of its size and volume (the largest single seafood processor in Alabama) Bon Secour Fisheries, Inc. has a great impact on the economics of surrounding communities. Many people residing in south Baldwin County are employed in Bon Secour. Also, Bon Secour Fisheries' purchases of material, labor, and services in the area is a significant factor in the entire economy of the County.

     Also, a fairly large number of satellite businesses have developed in Bon Secour and surrounding area to service the fishing fleet. These are marine supply dealers, boat yard and repair facilities, electronic repair shops, and net shops.

     Written 1983 for the Gulf Telephone Company 100th Anniversary publication of “Baldwin Vignettes”.

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