Tony the Peanut Man had just taken a break from boiling his trademark legumes when a loud knock sounded on the front door of his West Ashley home early Tuesday. “There’s a fire in your backyard,” a breathless neighbor told him.
Tony, also known as Anthony Wright, ran barefoot from his 5th Avenue home, ignoring the sting of gravel on his feet as he rounded the corner. “The flames were up to here,” he said, raising a hand above his head. “It was a burning inferno.”
Wright, 59, has made his living selling boiled goobers for the past 23 years and has become something of a Lowcountry icon in the process. But in the span of 30 minutes, he lost the tools of his trade, watching helplessly as steel pots and other gear were reduced to slag.
Wright estimates that he lost at least $10,000 in equipment — basically his entire rig. He’s got baseball games and other events to supply with his boiled delicacies over the weekend, and he’s not sure how he’s going to do that. But he has no intention of quitting now.
“This is my whole living,” he said. “This is my life. This is what I do.”
Wright got into the business in the early 1990s after he was laid off from Lockheed. His life took a slide and he landed in bankruptcy, not certain what to do. A boiled peanut master named Marion Heyward showed him the ropes, and Wright soon found he had talent for the craft.
Over the years, Tony the Peanut Man has become a local fixture, even getting his own comic book. He hawks his varieties of peanuts around town as he sings, dances and does whatever it takes for you to go for his parched, roasted and boiled goobers. He can be seen at all manner of public events, always wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a peanut and a sweetgrass hat that has no crown. He’s been a huge fan favorite at RiverDogs baseball games for years.
He won’t say just how many peanuts he boils and sells each week, “but I cook a lot of peanuts.”
Wright had just bought 18 50-pound bags of peanuts in preparation for the weekend. He cooks at all hours of the day — whenever he has time — and he had a big batch bubbling early Tuesday in his work area out in back of his Maryville home.
Around 12:30 a.m., he stepped inside to take a break while the batch cooked. The knock on his door came a half-hour later.
Wright said his first reaction was to grab a hose and try to put the fire out. But then he heard curious whooshing and whizzing sounds emanating from the various propane tanks that fuel his operation. He decided against playing fireman, worried that an explosion might occur.
“I decided I would rather be a live chicken than a dead hero,” he said.
Charleston firefighters quickly arrived on the scene and went to work. They extinguished the fire in short order, but it was too late for most of Wright’s equipment.
The tent over his cookery hangs in charred, gooey strips. The big metal pots underneath were heavily scorched or reduced to molten slag. Even the metal lattice that supported the pots was burned away. Peanuts, in various stages of incineration, were scattered everywhere in piles 3 to 4 inches deep.
“Peanuts are a lot like dry grass,” he said. “Once they ignite, they burn hot and it spreads.”
Charleston fire officials and police said they have not determined the cause of the blaze. Wright suspects one of his pots developed a hole, but he’s not sure.
The blaze was disheartening, for sure, but Wright said he’s just thankful no one was hurt and no homes were damaged. He’s confident that he will find a way to move forward; one way or another and he intends to keep a positive outlook.
“I’m not sure what the future holds, but I will take it one day at a time,” he said. “Things happen in this lifetime, and you have to remember you’re no different than anyone else. Things happen, and you can overcome it.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.