Three of the little runabout boats that had launched the business were in the muck already. Then Hurricane Matthew tore the aging dock to shreds and pushed the big boat into the far marsh. Then Capt. Dave Richardson got the call.

Winds from the fierce thunderstorm that blew through the Lowcountry in January pushed the huge cooler across the deck planks and into the river grasses at Backman's Seafood on Sol Legare Island. On Jan. 28, Richardson was out in the marsh, with trash bags and few helpers, for another round cleaning up the debris.

"Not only are the dock and the packing house gone, now the cooler for the oysters is gone," Richardson said. "It's devastating."

The seafood company dock, the heart of the island's historic freedmen community near Folly Beach, has been wracked as the Backman family struggles to keep it going. Their predicament is the plight of the traditional community waterfronts up and down the coast.

As coastal and heritage advocates rally to save larger, high-profile docks, such as Mount Pleasant's Shem Creek, the traditional family docks are coming apart bolt by bolt, hammered by costs, pressured by high-dollar residential and recreational development.

Meanwhile, competition eats into the catch prices they need to stay in business, much less keep up the dock.

It's a heritage disappearing in front of the eyes of boaters and homeowners who were drawn to the coast because of that cachet and lore.

Fed a lot of folk

Richardson is a grizzled veteran waterman with a gray beard of curls, a hearty laugh and a gleam of mischief in his eye. He reminds you of nothing so much as a leprechaun, in dreadlocks. He's one of seven brothers who grew up in the Sol Legare community where their mother and father were born and lived.

The grandparents of his father, Thomas Backman, had been enslaved on adjacent James Island. The community, where nearly everyone is a cousin by birth or marriage, is a family.

Backman started fishing the Stono River with his wife Susie in 1944. By the 1950s, they’d purchased a trawler and opened the seafood company on Sol Legare Road. In pre-civil rights times, it took until 1961 to get the business licensed.

Richardson remembers the days when people he knew would be arrested for not having a license while picking oysters in the reefs at Sol Legare where their families traditionally had picked them, the days when families would carry a washtub into Backman's Seafood to buy what they could and take home what they were given.

"We fed a lot of folks on the island," he said. At its peak the company employed 60 people shucking, packing or working one of its six boats.

Richardson grew up on the dock and on the water, like the rest of his family, captaining his first shrimp boat on Folly River at 16 years old. His father died in 1964 and his mom gathered the children together, told them failing wasn't an option and ran the business with them until his brother Thomas Backman Jr. took over in 1990.

Thomas Backman Jr. died in 2015. Toward the end, he was sinking retirement money into the business to keep it going, with family chipping in. By then the cost of fuel and flat-lining of catch prices was making it impossible to make enough of a profit to maintain the boats and gear, much less the dock.

Richardson has piloted boats up and down the coast from Beaufort to Miami. He remembers captaining a boat that pulled into St. Augustine, Fla., three years ago and waiting as a recreational boater spent $2,000 filling up his craft.

The traditional fishing docks he used to stop at have turned one by one to condos and yacht slips. Meanwhile, the commercial fishermen couldn't find moorings.

"That's happening all up and down the coast," he said.

After Thomas Backman Jr.'s death, his family vowed again to keep Backman's Seafood going. They're looking at turning it into an historic site, as part of a larger effort to preserve the Gullah history of the island's Mosquito Beach and its lodge near the company. They want to re-open the storefront and get back in the seafood business.

It won't be easy. The rickety pier has to be shored up before people can tour it. The dock house leans in the sag of the planking, a huge shank torn from its wall. The surviving brothers each are in their 70s.

Richardson was mucking out in the marsh with a few family members and other volunteers, pulling debris from the storms. A diver friend will inspect the dock pilings to see if it can be repaired rather than rebuilt.

"If we can get a couple of pilings down..." he starts to say then stops. "But again we need cash."

'Certainly a place'

If the family waterfront has a future, it might be because of people like the man working beside Richardson in the marsh. Thomas Bierce is in his 30s. He hopes to help the family get the dock and store back in business so he can offload and sell product from an oyster farm he has underway in nearby Green Creek.

Bierce, 32, is a light-eyed entrepreneur, with a red beard in curls that resemble Richardson's. Bierce is part of a generational trend to aquaculture, like St. Jude Farms at Bennetts Point and Livingston's Bulls Bay Seafood in McClellanville, trying to raise crops alongside the wild catch to assure a steadier supply and income.

Supporting aquaculture operations like those might be the future of the smaller working waterfronts, said Julie Davis, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium marine resources specialist, who has been studying the waterfronts.

"There's certainly a place for them. The traditional (larger) markets might not be able to serve the farms," because of proximity and other needs, she said. "As these new ways of producing seafood come on line you're going to see the markets shift. We're seeing different models for how people are doing things than we did in the past."

Bierce is running into the same obstacles the traditional watermen did.

There are now 100 recreational fishing boats licensed for each commercial boat still in business, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources data. The backwater creeks now are dotted with getaway cottages and larger houses you get to only by boat.

Bierce can't run farm operations off a public boat landing because of Charleston County restrictions limiting commercial use, to provide for recreational use. His plans to expand the oyster farm are opposed by people who have houses on nearby islands within view of it.

They are fighting a permit to use a private dock on Goat Island there to clean the oysters before Bierce brings them back to Sol Legare. Commerce has no place there, they contend.

Green Creek "is used by recreational oyster harvesters, water skiers, swimmers, shrimpers, kayaks, hunters, nature cruisers" and boaters as a shortcut, wrote a nearby island owner in comments to the Army Corps of Engineers.

"The only commercial activity of which I'm aware is a bit of crabbing, which goes on in all such creeks," the comment says. The owner's name was redacted from copies provided to The Post and Courier after a Freedom of Information request.

Bierce said his operation already coexists with all of that and the expansion won't be anymore in the way. The irony here is that Green Creek has long been used by the Backmans and other commercial watermen.

"The fact is, before (the owners) put their houses out there, these were commercial creeks," he said.

The Backmans, on the other hand, welcome him — one more chance to keep the traditional black community dock in business.

"Absolutely," Richardson said. "It's part of the African tradition of the waterfront, especially in our family. We were helped in the beginning. You help somebody out because you never know when you'll need help yourself. Tom is part of the future."

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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