From the Office and Backyard to the Road, Boat, or Plane–Backstories and
Side Stories While on Assignment. Updates on Personal Projects, Too.

Archive for the ‘People’ Category

T-Model Ford 2008 Clarksdale (PFEPhoto)

The music never seems to stop in Clarksdale, Mississippi. One morning there earlier this year, the first person we met on Delta Avenue was bluesman T-Model Ford, who was sitting in a folding chair eating eggs and toast from a foam tray, waiting for the Cat Head Delta Blues store to open.  He told us he’d been hired to play a sidewalk concert, and would sing and play guitar again at a festival later that day.  Right then though, it was just T-Model Ford, his wife, Stella, a couple of grandkids, and us. “When they find out I’m here, they gonna fill this place up,” the 80-something bluesman said. “Everybody wants to play with T-Model.”  And he was right.  As soon as he lifted his black Peavey guitar from the case (he calls it “Black Nanny”), a crowd started to fill from the just-empty streets, walking up and waiting for the music, which came slow, with devilish smiles, rasp and soul… like a mix of mud and fire.

I’ve written a story about our three nights in Mississippi to be published in early 2009.  While there, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I also visited William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and spent part of a pleasant morning with William Griffith, the curator there. I wanted to see more of the Mississippi places that have inspired so much writing and music.

Rowan Oak, bottletree 2008 (PFE)

Last week I was finishing final edits on the story when somehow, old T-Model turned up to play in a bar five miles from our house in South Carolina.  Of course we went to see.  This time he had a back-up band, and it all didn’t start until near midnight with amplifiers loud. The vibe was completely different, the crowd completely white. And in the dim and whiskey all I kept thinking was of other times, other places… the morning sun on a Mississippi sidewalk.

– Sandy Lang, December 2008

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Art, Craft, Literary, People, Travel



New G&G is out


In the new issue of Garden & Gun I’ve got a nice little piece on Aaron Wells, who builds cypress strip boats in Live Oak, Florida.  (You can read the complete story online at G&G.)  The images of Aaron in Florida and the issue’s cornbread cover shot were taken by Peter Frank Edwards.  He shot the cornbread in Birmingham, AL back in July. I went with him to assist, getting to spend an afternoon with Frank Stitt at Highlands, and eat some very good roasted chicken at Niki’s West.  We also hit Full Moon BBQ… I wrote about that sweet-tang barbecue on an earlier post.  Good stuff.


In this issue, Peter Frank also has a gorgeous 10-page spread about Virginia Hunt Week.  You can see the hounds online here.

– October 2008, Sandy Lang



Fishing the Inlet

oyster sign, An

We just spent a couple days and nights along the road just inside the creeks of Murrells Inlet, SC where no less than 30 seafood restaurants are set in with houses and a few other businesses like hair salons, boat yards and bait shops.  The air smells like pluff mud and salt, and at night, of hushpuppies frying.  For me, memories are locked into that scenery, that air.  I grew up a few miles up the coast, and on prom night we’d all go out for seafood first in Murrells Inlet, already wearing our tuxedos, gowns and corsages.  In college we’d drive down to the boat landing and sit on car hoods, watching the marsh and moonlight.  (Is that what we were doing?)

It was good to get back, always is.  A curiosity and attraction of the Inlet is the longtime restaurants.  In a world where so much changes, it’s a comfort to see there’s still a Lee’s Inlet Kitchen (in the same family since 1948), and that the best bar is owned by a Vereen, one of the oldest families in Murrells Inlet.  That bar (also a restaurant) is Russell’s, and Russell Vereen is a fellow Socastee High graduate, a guy with a thousand stories.  No, more than that, and always changing.  He likes to buy up old signs from the Inlet, or save them from certain trash… pointed at one on the wall of the barn behind his restaurant that had been cracked into several pieces by a runaway car.  Russell salvaged that “Welcome to Murrells Inlet S.C. Seafood Capital” sign – put the planks back together – and says he often finds people sitting in the rocking chairs below the wall of signs, getting their picture taken.

We met Sean English and Denny Springs over at Harrelson’s Seafood, a fresh fish counter where they also have a kitchen and are trying to be the very best at making a fried grouper sandwich.  With every order they cut a nice-sized hunk of fresh grouper and fry it just right.  And if you order the fish tacos with tuna, the big, meaty chunks of fresh tuna are blackened on the outside and still perfectly pink inside.  Denny’s another Socastee grad and his grandfather’s wife, An Mathis Springs, is one of the most amazing women in Murrells Inlet.  Born in Vietnam, she came to Murrells Inlet in the early 1970s and starting catching and selling minnows for bait, walking on the mud flats with minnow traps on her back.  She later turned to catching blue crabs, and still, at 70 years old, she goes out several times a week to set and pull up her traps, then makes fat crab cakes and delicate crab egg rolls to sell.

We also hung out with Gaston “Buddy” Locklear, an old friend who used to paint designs on Perfection surfboards for Village Surf Shoppe, which is still open, a legend in Garden City.  He now paints on canvas and wood, is one of the most prolific artists I’ve ever seen… sometimes covering his finished paintings in a coat of epoxy, just like with surfboards. He’s part of this very cool co-op gallery in Murrells Inlet called the Ebb & Flow. And that day, he showed us a just-finished painting of the marsh island in Murrells Inlet where Drunken Jack’s restaurant has been letting goats roam since the mid-1980s… to keep the brush down for better inlet views.

Buddy at the Ebb & Flow Inlet Crab House

With so many restaurants in Murrells Inlet (and some of them changing names and owners practically with the seasons), there’s certainly some mediocre food being served.  But if you want a perfectly fried softshell crab (and a nice Bloody Mary too) there’s the tiny pink-roofed restaurant on the north end, the Inlet Crab House & Raw Bar.  I’ve been there in winter too, for the oyster roasts and beer… just right with its wooden tables and booths, worn concrete floor and framed pictures of old fishing trips.

More about Murrells Inlet soon…

 – September 2008, Sandy Lang

Aaron on the Suwannee

In late June I drove to Florida to meet Aaron Wells, who lives near the Suwannee River; the sinkholes, shoals and springs of North Florida.

Clouds in the shape of fists and baseball mitts towered in the sky, matched by distant thunder and beams of an odd, clear-orange sunlight that angled across fields of cows and the egrets that follow them. And down a long sand lane of pines and oaks, Aaron Wells was at the far end of a farmhouse yard, working in his open-air barn. When I drove in, he looked up from the floating sawdust, the shelves of acetone and teak oil. A Neil Young song was ending, then something by Feist kicked in, and Aaron wiped his hands on his Carhartts, his green-eyed gaze earnest and steady. We talked a while as the summer sky rumbled, and he told me he’d just finished cutting some one hundred or so, 10-foot long strips of cypress, each an inch wide and 3/16 inch thick.

The 26-year-old from Live Oak is a boat builder, bending the thin wood strips into the lean shapes of kayaks and canoes. Where this idea came from, this watercraft pursuit, isn’t exactly clear. “Around here it’s cattle, pine, peanuts and corn,” Aaron said. He doesn’t know any other wooden boat makers nearby, and his parents were farmers and teachers, so it’s not a trade he learned by tradition. The best he can explain it is this… while at Suwannee High School and as a student at Florida State, Aaron started reading how to make a strip boat, finding photographs and plans online and in books. (He also said he spent a fair amount of time during those years “creek jumping,” because besides sports, there wasn’t much to do in Live Oak, not even a movie theater. “My friends and I would follow a creek for a while into the woods, jumping from side to side.”)

He got to know the rivers and creeks well, can show you the best spots on the Withlacoochee, the places on the Suwannee to watch out for jumping sturgeon. Then, while he officially studied geography and environmental science at FSU, Aaron couldn’t shake the strip boat idea, even when he was hired after graduation to map wetlands up near White Springs. He eventually left that “pretty good job” to start building boats full time, under the name Cypress Kayaks. Ever since, he has learned by cutting and sanding, ciphering and shaping – his hands-on training in fiberglass and epoxy, hand saws and power tools. He has considered renting warehouse space in Jacksonville, but for now, he does all of his work in the barn behind the house where he was raised.

Aaron sanding the canoeAaron and Isabella

Images by Peter Frank Edwards. My full story is to appear in an upcoming issue of Garden & Gun.

– Sandy Lang, July 2008

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Art, Craft, People



Bees’ life

Robert Biggerstaff, 72, looks in complete ease in his wide-billed cap as he leans against his garage wall and points out a cedar bee box a few yards away. A few honeybees buzz in and out, stopping at a plastic jar attached to the box. “See how that looks like a chicken feeder?… we fill that with Dixie Crystals and water to feed the bees while the hive gets going.”

We’ve been talking for awhile this morning at the center of his sideyard beekeeping and honey making operation, under the oak trees that edge a tidal creek off the Stono River on Johns Island, SC. I ask Mr. Biggerstaff if he has an apprentice, someone that he’s teaching these tricks of the trade. “No. I’m afraid beekeeping has become an old man’s game,” he says, particularly in recent decades as smaller farms have disappeared, and as mites, beetles and other pests have disrupted hives in the U.S., making beekeeping ever more challenging. In the 1960s, Mr. Biggerstaff recalls losing maybe 5% of his hives in a year, but these days a 50% annual loss is more common. He’s constantly having to manage for that reality – to bring in new queens, establish new hives. Then he tells me that while his home-based bee operation isn’t officially open for tours, as a former teacher he does enjoy making school presentations from time to time. “Children, when they see bees and learn about them, they get very excited,” he says.

And although he doesn’t put it in words, you get the feeling that he’s hoping that some young people will find the passion for beekeeping like he did, in spite of the challenges. “For years coaching was my life. Now it’s bees.”

R. Biggerstaff

I’m working on a story about Mr. Biggerstaff and his 40-year honey “hobby.” The former high school football coach tends 100-150 hives in 15 or so locations on the Sea Islands south of Charleston, and he and his wife, Jane, sell jars and squeeze bottles of the honey through produce vendors in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, and on Johns and Edisto islands.

– Sandy Lang, May 2008



This is an excerpt of a piece I just published about Marvin Grant, who I first met several years ago at the Pawleys Island Hammock Shops. He’s one of two hammock makers there for daily demonstrations. And while he guides the rope in a knitting-like technique, he gets to talking.

Raised in New York City, Marvin Grant says he first became interested in working with twine and rope when he served in the military in Charleston, South Carolina. There on the coast, the lanky soldier met a man who taught him the intricate craft of making and repairing cast nets. And later, a cousin from Plantersville (near Georgetown, S.C.) showed him what she knew about hammock-making. She’d been knitting the knot-free Pawleys Island hammocks for decades. “Making hammocks is definitely much easier than tying up a cast nest,” Marvin says. “There’s about 2,400 feet of twine in a cast net… it takes a long, long time. With hammocks, you’re working with just 800-1,400 feet.”

To watch and hear Marvin’s stories while he works, visitors become captivated. He describes what he’s doing, and when someone asks, he’ll tell stories about the hammock he made for his own yard in Georgetown, the one with nine colors of rope. The artisan’s favorite guests in the Weaver’s Shed are children. Whenever Marvin has scrap rope – shorter pieces that would usually be thrown away – he keeps them. And when he meets a child who looks interested, he’ll take a few feet of rope and show him or her how to make a hammock end-piece. “I take my time and show them exactly what to do,” he says. “Most tell me straight up that they won’t be able to do it… then about five minutes later, they’ve made it. And they can’t believe that they did.”

He says he always suggests to children that they use the crocheted rope as a souvenir of their trip to Pawleys Island by decorating it with seashells, beads or sharks teeth… or by attaching bells to create a wind chime. “I want them to have something you can’t buy in any store.”

– Sandy Lang, Jan. 2008

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