Escargot A Go-Go

Gene Weaver always had a big idea. Selling snail dreams was to have been his last hurrah.

He claims to have been one of the first wholesalers of wigs and hairpieces. Hairdressers wondered why they should sell hair that doesn't grow, and Weaver coolly explained that each wig-buyer would then have two heads of hair to style. With this approach, he was making $4,000 a week in 1965, he said, driving a new car, playing a lot of golf. Then Monsanto came along with synthetic hair, and his wig market went bust.

After that, Weaver learned the United States eats a lot of cashews but doesn't grow any. He tried to sell investors on the idea of cashew groves in Belize. He thought maybe he'd get rich on cashews, but something happened, and he didn't.

Then he learned tequila is made from cactus, and he hatched the idea of a 100,000-acre cactus farm in Mexico. This was before Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" made tequila famous. Weaver thought maybe he'd get rich on cactuses, but something happened, and he didn't.

By the 1970s, Weaver was living in Phoenix, selling real estate. Not the pedestrian split-level-home-with-the-sign-in-the-yard stuff. Weaver craved challenge: he would invite pleasant strangers to dinner, sip wine with them, make friends with them, and by the time dessert came around, he would have made them a fabulous deal on a piece of land 1,000 miles away. All this he would do for people he hardly knew.

"I sold this one guy some real estate down in Florida," he says, "and he went down there and found some land on it -- that's a joke!"

It was during this time that Gene Weaver met the love of his life. If you think his dad can sell, you should have met his mother, said their son. Eventually, she became a renowned seller of encyclopedias, but at the time, as Gene the Second explains, "she was really good at selling real estate, and he was, too, and so it was inevitable, I guess, that they meet."

Maybe they motivated people to do what they might not otherwise have done, Weaver admits, but that's what sales is all about, and it was all legal and ethical. He lived well for a time, but then the people who would buy faraway land gradually turned their interest to time-sharing condos, and about then, Weaver got out of real estate.

Turbeville, the current prosecutor, notes that until 20 years ago, when consumer crime divisions were created across the country, bad business deals were usually resolved in the civil courts. Nonetheless, as though in testimony to his fundamental good nature, Weaver likes to point out that he never went to prison until he was 40 years old. That was about the time he stumbled on the earthworm.

An actual worm industry exists in the United States now, and out in Oregon, a fellow named Red McClaren claims to be the largest worm farmer in the world. But worm people and snail people are like cats and dogs to each other, and McClaren wouldn't discuss any worm-snail connection.

"The worm is a legitimate animal," he declared. "I've worked a lifetime to clean up the worm industry, and now you come along and want to dig up dirt. Why? Why?"

If it has never exactly been a clean business, the worm trade certainly reached a level of prominence back in the '70s, after word got out that the president of the United States, a peanut farmer, had an uncle who was a worm farmer. There was a lot to read about worms after that, and Weaver was enchanted. "Everyone was hotter than hell about the environment," he says, and people had begun growing worms for purposes other than catching fish. Weaver saw an opportunity and came to Houston as proprietor of Worm Enterprises.

Selling worms would seem a daunting prospect, even to someone of Gene Weaver's talents, but it turned out to be the biggest deal he was ever involved in. People, it seemed, would buy anything.

He dealt in the Little Red Wiggler. In organic-farming magazines, he advertised worm-growing kits and said that if people would grow these wigglers, he would buy them back at $2.50 a pound.

Most of the records from the worm case have been destroyed by now, and the people involved have only vague recollections of it, but Weaver says he did in fact buy the worms back. He packed them in boxes and sold them to organic nurseries, where they would be displayed between the praying mantis eggs and the ladybugs. On the top of the box was a picture of an earthworm with a hat on and a straw in its mouth, and the words, "Digger Dan the Earthworm Man -- Makes Your Garden Grow Organically."

The business took in $3 million over three years, he said, and there were 16 offices around the country. Weaver began dreaming of subsidiaries, and as a result of these dreams, he opened Can of Worms Inc.

"This was going to be like the Pet Rock," he remembers. "It was a funny, ha-ha deal."

He was going to sell the cans of worms with worm jokes, worm recipes (Harvey Wormbangers) and worm T-shirts ("I got worms"). There would even be a worm racetrack. He got his worm growers to invest in the enterprise and promised them handsome returns. When the money didn't come, when Weaver didn't return, they filed charges.

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