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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Hershell Slimmer and The Three Cossaboons
Passing Along a River of Experience

"We're probably going to be the last fishermen at the Yawp Shore," said Allen Cossaboon, Sr.
"The river is changing its course. It's bringing all the mud up and it's laying it right in front of the Yawp Shore. You can barely fish there now."

Cossaboon was at the kitchen table at the home of his cousins, Hershell (Huck) and Luz Clara Slimmer. Sitting with him as he made his case was his father, Allen (Ike) Cossaboon, and his son, Allen Cossaboon, Jr. .  The Cossaboons and Hershell Slimmer represented generations of watermen who counted on the bounty of the Maurice River to make their livings.
Like many other local residents, they supported their families by working in other occupations. But the river provided additional income, recreational opportunities for their families, and a common bond.

"Ike" Cossaboon, the elder at this gathering, reminisced about the successful seasons of fishing at the Yawp Shore. His recollections verified at least three generations of good fishing. The proof was in the numbers: "Every time you made a haul, you got 35 or 40 of them (fish)."

And Slimmer’s great-grandfather Owens and his grandfather George were the local fish peddlers. Owens Slimmer sold house-to-house from the back of his horse-drawn wagon. George Slimmer sold from the back of his truck. They'd go to the shore points to pick up their wares. "I remember riding in his old panel pick up, driving 30 miles an hour," Slimmer said. "I remember sitting in the back on the fishing box. Grandmom would sit up front with their little dog."

"We’ve been doing this all our lives,” the rivermen said. Today, however, the men around the table voiced concerns about future prospects. They lamented about how the mud had gotten deeper in recent years. "You can't get your net in," they said, dismally. But they weren’t ready to give up. Last year, they had eight fishermen out with them to “make the first haul,” just like they had for generations. "We took a hit. It's probably over…," they said, matter-of-fact.

They had grown up fishing and trapping in and along the Maurice River. "Muskrat and shad - that was the big thing around here," Slimmer said. Slimmer lived at the Yawp Shore for three years when he was a teen. "I loved it. I ran a trapline of 125 traps - for three years," he said explaining that this involved tending to the muskrat traps every day. "We used the box cages or the leg hold traps at the time, depending on where they were set up.” Slimmer sold the skins and the meat.  “I'd skin them out and put them on the stretcher," he said. When Slimmer went into the Navy, he gave his trapping equipment to another one of his cousins. "He still traps," Slimmer said. 

The Yawp Shore was a good fish hauling spot, too. The experienced fishermen explained the process: There'd be a lineup of 5 or more boats. Everybody worked together to get the net out. When it was time to haul the net back in, the next guy in line would get ready. He’d wait until half of the first net was pulled back into the boat, then he would begin to lay out his net until it curved into a horseshoe over the river. All of the fishermen would work together to pull the net back into the boat, “cleaning the fish out of the net” as they did. When the half of the haul was collected, the fishermen would wave to the next in line, signaling that he could begin the process with his net.

"Everybody would fight to get that first and last, haul," Slimmer said. "That took some maneuvering on the river to get there first. Since I lived at the Yawp Shore, I had a bit of an advantage.” Slimmer talked about the conditions for fishing during what he called the “flood haul.” The flood haul used to be the best. You could fill your boat up sometimes - with rockfish, perch, catfish, carp…"

The men described what happened when barges traveled up and down the Maurice River, headed for or returning from Cargill's Granary. That was in the early 1950's. When they heard three blasts from the ship's horn, they knew that the nets had to be pulled in. They related one story about the time a barge, heavy with its load of grain, ran aground right on the bend of the Yawp Shore. The vessel was going to make the turn coming up near the Burcham's. The pilot missed the mark and it went aground, drawing a lot of water. "It left a big hole,” they recalled. “We put a wooden catfish trap there just to see how deep it went. The line wasn't long enough. We had to let it go until low tide. That was a good spot after that."

The men competed to tell some of their Maurice River experiences. When someone suggested that an old-timer like Ike  must have some real good river stories, Ike shot them an ornery look. Grinning from ear to ear - and with a twinkle in his eyes, he started in on his tale about the big fish that didn't get away.

Ike Cossaboon was born in 1911. When asked, he'll proudly spout out that he worked at Whitall Tatum – “on a 36-section double glob machine.” He started at the glass plant when he was 14, and worked there for nearly 40 years. He fished longer than that. He knew some of the places like the back of his hand. "Jawbone! Good God!” he said, slapping that hand on the table. “That's where to catch those stripers!" Mud Haul and at the horseshoe bend on Menantico were the sites of Ike’s other fish tales. He made a living from the water and the shore. Ike proudly proclaimed that his muskrat, caught with stake and snood, brought him $4 a piece. Hard to beat that…in those good old days.

Ike passed his skills and knowledge about these kinds of river things down through the generations. But he seemed especially delighted that he taught all the kids and grandkids how to use a slingshot. Although, he noted, with a grin, he doubted whether anyone had the knack for it the way he did. “One day, I slapped my sling shot out, put a marble in and knocked the pigeon off the roof,” he laughed. “My mother never got over it."

Some of the other things that have passed down the generations aren't as obvious. There's definitely a local Maurice River dialect. For example, the pronunciation of the word "herring" is more akin to the name of the graceful marsh bird, the heron. And there’s a tendency to abbreviate the regional destinations, like "Port to Cumberland Road."

The family of cousins referred to names that have faded or have been long forgotten. They pinpointed places like Carp's Stream (across the river from the old cotton mill) and Red Hill (where their friend, Bucky Lynch, used to live) and Apron Gut (perhaps a corruption - or maybe even the correct name of the gut above Spring Garden that some refer to as Acorn Gut.)

The circle of friends and acquaintances, and their legacies widen with each generation. Stories about some of these characters, like rivermen Joe Touser and Toots Peterson, have become the stuff of Maurice River lore. Slimmer and his cousins have first-hand knowledge and a few good tales about Toser and Peterson. (And there are at least one or two tales that they're willing to share in mixed company.)

“Toots Peterson and his partner Joe hauled that river,” one of them explained.

“Toots was a great catfish man,” said another. “He could skin a catfish and fillet it out quicker than you could blink your eye. That's where he made most of his money."

More information about Peterson: "He had a shack there at the Burcham's; they let him stay there in the cabin and fish."

And a story about Joe Touser: "Toser had his back all chewed up - from those snappers. He'd put them in a bag and throw 'em over his back. His back would be all chewed up."

"I used to fish with them all the time."

"What a character, I loved that man."

"They knew the river. If they were alive, they could tell you a lot."

This family of cousins, uncles, and a grandfather shared the fish tales and the tall tales. They also shared the experiences of river living. They talked about: swinging from the tree on the banks of the Menantico into the cold waters of the creek; smoking carp and eel; repairing nets; and teaching the young ones how to do all of it.

Today, even with the odds stacked against those who’d like to make a living from the river, the family thinks it’s important to pass along what they have learned. They continue to tell the stories, and laugh about the anecdotes. They even pass along the skills that have been part of the Maurice River tradition. Slimmer has taught his son Michael a few of these, including how to "knit together a fishing net." From the stretch of net produced at the kitchen table that night, it looked like Michael was a good student.

When a family of rivermen like Huck Slimmer and the Cossaboons gather around a table, there's no predicting which way the tide will run. Careful listeners may get a hefty haul of fish stories - and a real sense of place.