2017-05-04 / Island Focus

Fishing with the president

Roosevelt visited Port Aransas 80 years ago this month
Dan Parker
News editor


Port Aransas fishing guide Barney Farley Sr., right, holds a 77-pound tarpon that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seated, caught on May 8, 1937, in Port Aransas waters. Standing behind Farley is Roosevelt’s son, Elliot. At the helm is Ted Mathews, also a Port Aransas fishing guide. News of Roosevelt’s visit circulated all over the country. Port Aransas fishing guide Barney Farley Sr., right, holds a 77-pound tarpon that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seated, caught on May 8, 1937, in Port Aransas waters. Standing behind Farley is Roosevelt’s son, Elliot. At the helm is Ted Mathews, also a Port Aransas fishing guide. News of Roosevelt’s visit circulated all over the country. This week marks the 80th anniversary of the visit that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made to Port Aransas waters. It was a landmark event for the tiny town of Port Aransas, and copies of photos shot at the event still hang on many residents’ walls.

FDR’s son, Elliot, visited first. That was in 1936. He may have been checking out Port Aransas for his father, since the town was nationally known as a tarpon hotspot, according to “Port Aransas,” a photographic history book. FDR was an avid fisherman.

Elliot caught tarpon, and he was photographed with his catch on the docks in Port Aransas. Then, on April 29, 1937, the commander in chief followed up.


Above: President Franklin Roosevelt is seated in a boat with fishing guide Ted Mathews at dock in Port Aransas in 1937. Right: A scale from a tarpon that Roosevelt caught bears his signature and is displayed today in a frame on a wall at the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas. Below: The presidential yacht, Potomac, is anchored in Corpus Christi waters in 1937. Above: President Franklin Roosevelt is seated in a boat with fishing guide Ted Mathews at dock in Port Aransas in 1937. Right: A scale from a tarpon that Roosevelt caught bears his signature and is displayed today in a frame on a wall at the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas. Below: The presidential yacht, Potomac, is anchored in Corpus Christi waters in 1937. FDR was aboard the destroyer USS Moffett, which sailed from New Orleans with an escort, the USS Decatur, a World War I-era destroyer, arriving in the Coastal Bend two days later, the book says.

The president and his party immediately began fishing outside the jetties, according to historian Dr. John Guthrie Ford, co-author of the book and a charter member of the Port Aransas Preservation and Historical Association.

“Aware that the president was coming, town folks kept an eye on the horizon,” states the “Port Aransas” book, which also was authored by Mark Creighton of Port Aransas.

“When the Decatur and the Moffett arrived and were riding at anchor, binoculars were trained on them to see the action. What fishing guide Barney Farley saw distressed him,” the book says. “Moffett launched a motorboat, and the occupants began fishing around the jetties. People panicked that the president had decided not to use Port Aransas guides on his fishing trip.”

Soon, FDR was on the presidential yacht Potomac, anchored in the mouth of the Lydia Ann Channel, Ford wrote in a history column for the South Jetty in 2011.

Roosevelt didn’t fish the next day, May 2, but he did the following day. By then, several Port Aransas guides had been brought in to help, Ford wrote.

Early on May 4, the Potomac cruised to Port Isabel. FDR fished for trout there, but caught none. The yacht headed back to Port Aransas, and the president caught kingfish along the way.

The Potomac was anchored again in Lydia Ann Channel on May 6. Dealing with affairs of state, he didn’t fish that day, according to Ford. The next day, he toured a game preserve on San Jose Island, owned at the time by millionaire businessman Sid Richardson.

“Still hoping to catch a decent-size tarpon, which he had not yet done, Mr. Roosevelt fished May 8, his very last fishing day, with local guides Ted Mathews and Barney Farley (Sr.),” Ford wrote. “Things finally clicked, and at 3:27 p.m. the president boated a nice five-footer, and the paparazzi (in a nearby boat) immortalized the moment. It was a grand way for FDR to end his Port Aransas fishing trip.”

A photo that’s been printed and reprinted all over Port Aransas for decades shows Farley with Elliott Roosevelt behind him, holding up the 77-pound tarpon. FDR and Mathews also are in the shot.

Many photos from that trip appeared in Life magazine.

On May 9, Potomac left Port Aransas, heading into the Gulf, beginning the first leg of Roosevelt’s trip back to Washington D.C. He never came back.

But a tangible symbol of Roosevelt’s trip remains in Port Aransas.

The president signed a scale plucked from the tarpon he caught, and that scale for decades has remained framed, on the wall of the office of the Tarpon Inn. It remains today at the historic inn, where the office wall is festooned also with hundreds of other tarpon scales signed over the years by visiting anglers.

Roosevelt’s fishing trip created myths, according to the “Port Aransas” book.

For instance, it’s not true that he stayed at the Tarpon Inn, according to the book, which also says that the president never even really stepped foot on land in Port Aransas. He stayed aboard the Potomac, but he did go in the smaller fishing boat to dock at a wharf in Port Aransas. There, he sat in the boat and visited with Port Aransans for a spell.

Descendants of the two Port Aransas fishing guides who took FDR fishing still live in Port Aransas today. One of them is Barney Farley III, grandson of Barney Farley Sr.

For Barney Farley Sr., taking the president fishing “was obviously a point of pride,” his grandson said.

“He enjoyed the president’s company,” Barney Farley III said. “He was just an average guy in a situation like that. … But, to hear gramps talk about it, they (became) kind of buddies. He had the president’s ear. They got along real well. So, I think the president liked him.”

Macky Ward of Por t Aransas is the grandson of Ted Mathews, who piloted the boat Roosevelt was in.

When learned he’d be taking the president fishing, Mathews at first worried that he’d be expected to do it for free, Ward said. The Great Depression was on, and times were tough. Soon, however, he learned that Sid Richardson would pay for Mathews’ services, Ward said. Richardson owned San Jose Island.

“Even if he did it for free, it would have been good for him, because people would have seen him in photos and said, ‘I want to go fishing with that big, handsome guy with the aviator sunglasses on.’ It probably brought him a lot of business,” Ward said.

Mathews “probably didn’t realize it would get the kind of attention it did,” Ward said.

The event became worldwide news, with a photo of FDR on the boat with Mathews and Farley running prominently in the New York Times, among many other publications.

Ward said it’s his understanding that one of Mathews’ relatives saw newsreel footage of the fishing trip while sitting in a movie theater in Kansas not long after the president’s vacation. He said that the relative, a little girl, stood up in the theater and shouted, “That’s my Uncle Teddy!”

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