As you walk up the steps of the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, you might notice the front steps are wood, and the railings are threaded with narrow steel cable. It’s a subtle but intentional nod to the museum’s subject: the importance the seafood industry and water vessels have to Biloxi and the rest of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The museum was established in 1986, but Hurricane Katrina destroyed the original building — once the Mississippi Naval Coast Guard Base — on Point Cadet. The new building opened on Aug. 1, 2014, and was designed by architect Daria Pizzetta, a Coast native.
“She designed it to suggest a ship in a bottle,” said Museum Director Robin Krohn David. In fact, there was a specific boat in mind, the Nydia, a 30-foot gaff rigged cabin sloop built on Biloxi’s Back Bay in 1898 at the Johnson Shipyard. The Nydia’s owner, Baldwin Woods, had a summer home in Biloxi and was an enthusiastic sailor. To protect his seaworthy investment from potential pillagers, Woods built a small lighthouse where the Nydia was docked, near Bellman Street — a sort of 1890s security light system. In his will, Woods left the Nydia to Tulane University in New Orleans, but museum leaders were able to persuade Tulane to let the museum have the sloop. Today, the Nydia is permanently “docked” in the museum’s Grand Hall, where visitors can admire her wood, brass fixtures and impressive size.
“There are blue lights that shine on the boat at night, and when you’re coming back to Biloxi from Ocean Springs, you can look over the bridge and see her through the glass. It looks like she’s sailing in the evening light,” David said with a smile.
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Another impressive item on display is the Ship Island Lighthouse lens. This Fresnel lens was made in the late 1800s in Paris, David said, and was in the old museum when Katrina hit in 2005. The lens is made of several prisms, and the prisms scattered after the storm. Eventually, every prism was found and the lens was restored, keeping the scratches and chips that the hurricane left on the prisms as “battle scars.”
Biloxi artist Joe Moran (1915-1999) is well represented at the museum. A documentary on his life plays between two large oil paintings, and a display shows the tools of his two crafts, painting and, his lesser known talent, boat building. A racing boat he designed and built in the early 1960s, the Undefeated, can be seen on the museum’s first floor. For health reasons, Moran had to forgo boat building, and he turned to his love of painting as his new occupation.
“Many don’t realize he was a boat builder,” David said. “He had been painting the back of boats, by painting their names on them, and he was familiar with canvas because of the sails. He just put that knowledge to a related but different use.”
Lewis Hine photographs
The burgeoning seafood industry on the Coast depended on fishermen as well as workers at the seafood processing companies that thrived in the early 20th century. Photographer Lewis Hine documented the lives of the youngest workers in the canning companies, and canvas prints of several of those images are on display on the second floor. Nearby are pieces of machinery associated with the seafood processing industry, including a shrimp peeling machine, which could peel 1,000 pounds of shrimp in one hour, doing the work of 300 workers. There’s also a factory whistle.
“Some of the older ladies who have been here could still remember the different whistles for the different factories,” David said. Some of the women, who grew up on nearby Myrtle Street, were included in a short documentary that is shown at the museum, and they talk about the various factory whistles.
One item that’s a hit with children and adults is a wheel house from an old Kovacevich lugger.
“It’s off the Dolores Catherine,” David said. “It was named for two sisters; their father decided to name it for both of them. I got a call from Bayou La Batre (Ala.), where it was being worked on, and they said, ‘We’re taking the cabin off. Would you like it?’”
It was sent on a flatbed to Biloxi, where it stayed in storage for almost six years.
“They showed up for the grand opening of the museum and told stories about growing up,” David said, referring to Dolores Purchner Peralta and Catherine Purchner Young, who donated the cabin house in memory of their father, Richard.
Another sweet backstory revolves around the sporty and beautiful 1960 red Sport-craft Adventurer on display, complete with original water skis and Mercury outboard motor.
“It was donated several years ago by a couple from Long Beach,” David said. The boat was kept in storage and survived Hurricane Katrina; water reached only about midway up the trailer tires. After the storm, the couple’s son took his parents back to live with him in another state and contacted David to learn the fate of his parents’ beloved watercraft.
Overjoyed that it had survived, he and David arranged for his parents to visit the boat. The couple laughed, cried and gently touched their boat — it was all that was left of their belongings “except pretty much for the clothes on their backs,” David said. Today, the boat is prominently displayed in the museum.
The Coast’s waters
Ultimately, the museum tells the story of the waters that made the Coast what it is today as well as the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“I’m sometimes asked, what’s the most unique thing here? I can’t really say,” David said. “I think it’s the whole story combined, what it was like to be in the seafood industry from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. You get an idea of why it was and is such a melting pot of different cultures. It took such a community to make all these donations to the museum. The community has supported us so much with artifacts and photographs, and their support in general.”
About the museum
Where: 115 First St., Biloxi
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $10 adults, $8 seniors (60 and up), $6 students (ages 5 to 15), children under 5 admitted free. With advance notice and reservations, narrated group tours are available at $11 for adults, students (ages 5 to 12) $7, with one adult free for every 10 students. AAA and military with ID admitted for $8. Schedule group tours at least two weeks in advance.
Heritage Hall of Fame
The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum has established its Heritage Hall of Fame to honor and recognize contributions of people to the maritime and seafood industries on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Nominations are being accepted through Aug. 30 for 2016. There are four categories: boat owner/captain/commerical fisherman; commerical seafood processing companies; supporting industry tradesman and boat name. Consideration will be give to character, leadership and service to the community.
Winners will be recognized at the Hall of Fame ceremony Nov. 5.
For nomination forms, visit the museum or its website, https://maritimemuseum.org/new/.