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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

The Old Lady
and the Sea

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Ernest Hemingway never got around to writing a novel called "The Old Lady and the Sea," but if had, he could have found no better model for a protagonist than Mary Louise Stapp Sharp.

Years before most women had much of a career choice beyond homemaker, teacher or nurse, Louise Sharp made her living as a shrimp boat captain in Calhoun County. By 1951, when she caught the eye of a writer for Texas Parade Magazine, she owned three shrimp boats and a commercial shrimp house in Port Lavaca. Eventually her Sharp Seafood Co., by then relocated at Port O'Connor, had a fleet of 15 boats.

"She has a reputation of being as tough as nails and as soft-hearted as an old maid over her hope-chest," the unnamed author wrote. "The average hard-boiled shrimper had rather be cussed out by the toughest trawler captain than dressed down by Louise Sharp. They say when Mrs. Sharp dresses 'em down, they stay dressed down."

While having sufficient command of profanity to belay the most hard-headed deck hand, she regularly gave 10 percent of her earnings to the local Baptist church and "dotes over her grandchildren like any old-fashioned grandmother."

Sharp's nautical heritage extended only a generation back. Her grandfather, a lawyer from Indiana named Howard Stapp, came to Galveston during the Civil War and never left. His son, William Howard, eventually settled in Matagorda County and began making his living as a commercial fisherman.

Born in that coastal county on Aug. 6, 1904, Louise had three brothers and two sisters. All learned the difference between port and starboard early in life. Louise started as a deckhand on her father's boat at 13.

After high school, she went to nursing school at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston but decided to trim her figurative sails for a new course and earned a teaching certificate at what is now Sul Ross State University in Alpine. She taught for a while in the Rio Grande Valley, where she got married, but in 1925 returned to the mid-coast to join the family seafood business.

Soon, keeping her hair short and wearing only shirts and pants at a time most women did not, she skippered her own boat.

"When I was in my courtin' days," she recalled, "I worked all day on the cold and sometimes rainy deck...in men's clothes because they kept me warm. One Saturday a blue norther was howling down from the Panhandle, and I got off the boat and into a flimsy party dress with all the frills and low neckline and went to a dance."

That, she believed, had been a big mistake.

"I took pneumonia a couple of days later, and if I hadn't been so mean I'd probably died...All because of that dress. I haven't had one on since."

By late 1932 or early 1933 when MGM was putting together the cast for an upcoming movie called "Tugboat Annie," Sharp was offered an expense-paid trip to Hollywood to be considered for the female lead. She declined.

In addition to being active in her church, she served on the board of directors of the Port Lavaca Chamber of Commerce, as president of the Port O'Connor chapter of the Bay Fisherman's Association and was a member of the Texas Fisherman's Association.

"I do all I can for my industry," she quipped, "except put on a danged dress." (Hard to believe that salty a soul would have bothered to say "danged," but that's how the magazine put it.)

A few years later Sharp got elected justice of the peace and was continually returned to office. But her greatest service to her community was yet to come.

On Sept. 11, 1961, Hurricane Carla-one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the state-virtually erased Port O'Connor and caused extensive damage all the way to Galveston.

Sharp had already weathered several hurricanes. She remembered the storms of 1915, 1919 (which heavily damaged Corpus Christi and killed scores), 1929, 1934, 1942 and 1945.

The June 1929 storm, she said, "washed the fish houses away [and] put all the boats upon the beach except my daddy's. He stayed with his boat and took care of it." During the 1934 hurricane, she said, "I rode [it] out on the Starling-a 50-foot schooner with my daddy...and my brother Bill."

However, none of those storms approached Carla in severity and damage wrought. "There has never been a storm on the coast with Carla's magnitude nor one that carried so many freak winds," Sharp said after the storm.

Now 46, she had lost everything to the wind and water except the hull-tough character and business savvy that had made her a successful shrimper.

Four days after Carla's landfall, a group of citizens meeting at an elementary school that had somehow survived elected her mayor of a town that had been blown away. She worked with five local men chosen as commissioners and along with local, state and federal officials to get Port O'Connor rebuilt.

Sharp died at 78 on Nov. 25, 1982 and was buried in Victoria's Memory Gardens. The last of her siblings joined her in death in 2010. All are buried either in Calhoun or Galveston counties, where the Gulf breeze prevails-at least until the next hurricane.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 25, 2019

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

  • Go Fishing Day 7-19-19
  • Little Mysteries 7-12-19
  • Dallas' Long-Haired Judge 7-1-19
  • Dust Storms 6-24-19
  • Horses as Transportation 6-18-19

    See more »

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    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

  • Go Fishing Day 7-19-19
  • Little Mysteries 7-12-19
  • Dallas' Long-Haired Judge 7-1-19
  • Dust Storms 6-24-19
  • Horses as Transportation 6-18-19

    See more »


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