Captain Kellers “Kelly” Thomas
Captain Kelly, as he was known in Calabash, was born in 1927 and is the son of Foster and Evie “Beck” Thomas. Kelly’s grandparents, Samuel and Georgianna Thomas came to Pea Landing, (present day Calabash), in 1890 and purchased Hickory Hall Plantation. With the arrival of Samuel, Calabash became a port of “local catch”. Samuel owned a 60 foot schooner and Captain Foster, “Foggie” would haul local caught salted mullets to Sam Bear’s warehouse in Wilmington. Around 1940, Foster built the first party boat at Calabash. The old “Gypsy” became the landmark and pride of Calabash. Kelly recalls that it was around this time that the seafood seed was planted, which was the start of Calabash becoming known as “the Seafood Capital of the World.” Kelly remembers Clinton Morse selling oyster roasts in an old wooden shed with sawdust floors. Right across the road, under an oak tree, Vester Beck was selling his locally caught oysters.
Originally, all oysters, shrimp and fish were caught by local fishermen. As demand for the local catch grew, many restaurants owners purchased their own boats and brought seafood in from neighboring local ports.
During the 40’s and 50’s, Kelly worked on various shrimp boats. In the 60’s, he purchased his first shrimp boat, the “Morning Star.” In the early 70’s, he went to work in Texas, operating his cousin’s shrimp boat, the “Theo.” In 1977, Kelly had a Desco shrimp boat built in St. Augustine. It was named “Capt. Kelly.”
Aside from shrimping, Kelly was known for setting gill nets to catch spots. Captain Kelly’s moniker became, “One More Drag,” due to the fact that even after the hardest day of fishing, he would always want to do just one more “DRAG.” (Drag being the term for pulling a shrimp net)
As the years passed, there were days that Kelly could hardly get going. However, just one mention of fishing and the years just melted away. He became that young fisherman with a twinkle in his eye. It seemed that Kelly had “marsh grass water” in his veins.
Captain Kelly was well known for his generosity and giving others a “mess of fish.” Just what constitutes a “mess of fish” varies from situation to situation, but it is a special token of friendship which transcends explanation.
At 86 years old, Captain Kelly’s fishing days came to an end. However, right up until the end, just one mention of fishing and instantly, his face would brighten, he was transported to an earlier time, and was ready for “One More Drag.”
Written by: Anthony Clemmons, Calabash
Photos by: Anthony Clemmons, Calabash