How Stepping on a Shrimp Revolutionized an Industry. The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, Biloxi, MS

Posted on March 21, 2017


imagesOriginally located in a Spanish-styled structure built in 1934 as part of a U. S. Coast Guard Station, the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum was established in 1986 to preserve and interpret the maritime history of the Gulf Coast and the seafood industry long-intertwined with Biloxi’s history.

Then along came Hurricane Katrina’s 30-foot tidal surge in 2005, totally destroying the building and presumably some of the artifacts in its holdings.

In 2014, the museum reopened its doors in a brand new, spectacular building designed to (hopefully) withstand anything Mother Nature has to offer in the future.images (4)

The $7 million, 19,580 square foot museum houses 10,000 square feet of exhibits and gallery space, but…most exhibits consist of photographs, with few actual artifacts of the early days to been seen.

However, one of those artifacts was reason enough to visit.

But first, a little history.

The Biloxi and Ocean Springs areas of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was founded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his French Canadian soldiers of fortune with the establishment of Fort Maurepas in April, 1699.

While d’Iberville didn’t make the long trip just for the seafood, plentiful supplies of fish, oysters and shrimp eventually encouraged people from all over the world to move to coastal Mississippi take advantage of economic opportunities associated with commercial fishing.

images (1)In an early day, all aspects of the seafood industry involved backbreaking work. While much of the shrimp harvest was sold to nearby markets in the shell, more far-flung markets depended on the canning process. And to can shrimp, they must be shelled.

images (3)Workers stood at tables loaded with piles of shrimp. Each worker had a cup with holes drilled in the bottom holding around 10 lbs. of shelled shrimp, which was required to be filled multiple times each workday.

Many seafood processors thought there had to be a better way, including the Lapeyre family of Houma, Louisiana.

James Lapeyre was working in his family’s seafood processing facility in 1943, when one day his father challenged sixteen year-old Jim to come up with a way to mechanize the slow, laborious job of peeling shrimp.

Sitting in church one Sunday, he had a idea. The next day at the plant he donned his rubber work boots, and gingerly stepped on the edge of a shrimp on the floor – and the meat squirted out!

This gave him the idea that perhaps pressure from a system of rollers could be used, so he hauled home a bucket of shrimp and convinced his mother to let him experience with the family’s wringer washing machine. After much experimenting with pressure settings on the wringer’s rollers, he finally found one setting that worked just fine.

Working on the project with his father and brother, a working prototype of a mechanized shrimp peeler was developed and finished and in operation in the family’s plant in 1949. Further development would span nearly a decade and produce several machine designs.  These years of work culminated in a final configuration that was patented in 1951 and is the same design which is in use today.

IMG_1539And it is one of those early machines dominating the few actual historical artifacts found at the museum.

This Model A sheller could peel 1,000 lbs. of shrimp per hour, doing the work of anywhere from 30 to 150 people peeling by hand, depending on the size of the shrimp.

Pretty impressive considering it all started with a boy and a boot.