Any way you slice them, pudding them, bread them or foster them, bananas have piqued the Mississippi Gulf Coast economy's taste buds for a century. Did you know that once upon a time not that long ago, one out of every five bananas eaten in the United States first arrived at the Port of Gulfport?
On really good import days in the mid-1990s, for example, the odds of eating a Gulfport arrival were even better than five to one.
In this slippery local history, bananas have appeared, then disappeared, then reappeared, then disappeared. Why? Gulfport's love affair with this imported fruit is historically interrupted by other temptresses, mainly the ports of Wilmington in Delaware, Los Angeles in California and our close neighbor, New Orleans in Louisiana.
Through the decades the fruit has come here from Central and South America, Mexico and other warm climates amenable to banana cultivation.
When the Port of Gulfport opened in 1902 it was first fueled by exports of regional yellow pine lumber. After South Mississippi's ancient forests were harvested, the port needed another product to boost its existence. In stepped the banana, if only briefly the first time.
"Ever since the harbor was thrown open to the ships of the world, the belief has prevailed that Gulfport would make an ideal fruit port," this newspaper reported in December 1920. "The belief was based on the port's proximity to the sea which gave it advantage over ports less favorably located for saving time, and also in preventing loss from the over-ripening process which is said to occur when the fruit is brought in contact with fresh water."
The 1920 statement was a direct stab at New Orleans, which then flew the imaginary U.S. Banana Capital flag. Gulfport entrepreneurs who wanted some of the action formed the Gulfport Fruit & Steam Co., with five local businessmen raising $100,000 in capital ($1.2 million in today's money). The first banana shipment arrived December 1920.
"The coming of this first fruit to Gulfport is epochal," the newspaper crowed. "It signals the gradual transition taking place which shall make Gulfport a general port instead of merely a lumber port."
This first local experiment proved the viability of fruit imports but sadly lasted only two years. It became a victim of the powerful Standard Fruit Co. started at the turn of the century by Italian immigrants in Plaquemines Parish. Standard began shipping produce from Central America after a bitter freeze ruined the local fruit and vegetable crops.
The Italians favored Louisiana, of course. That port bustled and Gulfport faded.
Ten years later, the Coastwise Fruit & Steamship Co. ordered a shipment of bananas, 21,000 bunches, from Mexico. The New York-based corporation opened an office in Gulfport and the first shipment arrived March 1932. More fruit arrived every five to 10 days, and hundreds of local men found dock work in the hard times of the Great Depression.
The banana euphoria lasted less than two months. An unordered bananas foster was made when fire destroyed much of the dock, 13 refrigeration cars, sheds and scorched a steamer to the tune of $225,000 ($3.9 million in today's money). It was a whopping loss for such depressed times.
Resurface in 1960s
Whether the fire or strongarm New Orleans caused Coastwise to do the Gulfport banana slip was debated, but another three decades passed before the scent of the fruit wafted over the Mississippi port again. In June 1963, Gov. Ross Barnett dedicated a $2.5 million terminal ($19.5 in today's money), declaring "this is an investment which will pay for itself many times." A year later the German freighter Angelburg arrived with 80,000 boxes of bananas, the largest shipment to date.
The irony of this chapter is that it was a Standard boat, orchestrated by the Louisiana Italians. A terminal dedicated solely to bananas, a deep channel and easy access to the highway system had wooed Standard with its Dole brand. United Fruits with its Chiquita brand also left New Orleans and set up permanent shop in Gulfport.
"Permanent," however, is a fluid concept in the banana import world.
Disappear again in 2015
After four decades Chiquita left Gulfport and returned to New Orleans to unload banana shipments, at a time when other brands had mostly disappeared from the Mississippi Coast harbor. Again, Gulfport faced a dearth of bananas.
Ah, but this most recent New Orleans banana affair may be short lived, if Chiquita follows through on a mid-May announcement. After a year in the Crescent City, it is considering leaving for a port with more strategic shipping options.
Does that mean Gulfport? If history can repeat itself, it's a possibility.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.