Arthur Bellanger and his wife Anna Lee are officially the longest-married couple on Grand Isle. Now 83 years old, Arthur first appeared on the island “as a kid, building camps with my daddy.”
When he turned 18, he got married and moved to Grand Isle permanently, and went to work for Louisiana Power & Light Company and then later for Conoco Oil Company.
But the perpetually good-natured man quickly admitted he will never be accepted as a local.
Daughter-in-law Pat said the same about herself.
“I wasn’t born here,” she said. “Jules (her husband and Arthur’s son) was born here. And maybe half of them don’t consider him local because his father wasn’t born here.”
But not being a local didn’t stop Arthur Bellanger from serving two terms as an interim alderman and one hitch as interim mayor. He is a shrewd observer of island life, has a good memory and when he was younger he listened to the stories of those on the island older than him.
Passing by boat off the bay side of Grand Isle prompted him to talk about Grand Isle’s diamondback terrapin fishery. Thousands upon thousands of the small, brackish marsh turtles were shipped to New Orleans — or more often to Atlantic Coast cities — where the consumption of turtle soup became almost a fetish.
By 1917, retail prices reached $5 per turtle.
Unlike their larger cousins, the sea turtles that live in the water, diamondback terrapins roam the marsh. Bellanger explained that fishermen would build plywood barriers to direct the roving creatures into barrels sunken in the marsh. Periodically, fishermen collected the hapless creatures from the barrels and sold them to a buyer, whose “turtle pens” were located near the present day site of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Marine Lab.
Bellanger remembers the wild life as well as the wildlife. He tells of Grand Isle’s gang of young men, or the “Cats” as they were usually called.
“You wouldn’t believe what they would do,” he said. “They were fighters! That’s all they would do — is fight.
“They were tough. Only two are still alive now. They would even fight the Coast Guardsmen on the Coast Guard’s property.”
Grand Isle runs deep in Arthur Bellanger’s blood.
“When I retired from Conoco in 1985, people asked me where I’m gonna go,” he said. “I told them, ‘Let me tell ya, I got sand between my toes, and I eat mullet. That mullet brings me right back to the island.’
“I eat it fried, but the old people used to eat it boiled. They didn’t have enough money for grease to fry it.’”
“They used to call fried mullet ‘Grand Isle ham,” added Pat helpfully. “Until not too long ago they had it on the menu at the Oleander, a restaurant and hotel on the corner of Ludwig Lane (and Highway 1).
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