Escargot A Go-Go

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

"She said, 'I thought the sun was always shining for an entrepreneur,' " Weaver remembers, "and it just hit me then. I thought, she's right. The sun's always shining when you're making things happen. I got off the phone and told my mama I'm going to do snails."

Out in Snyder, midway between Abilene and Lubbock, people generally don't know what escargot is, "unless you go in some high-dollar cafeteria," says Earl Clinkinbeard.

He found out one day while he was minding the bait stand in his house and reading the Thrifty Nickel. The ad said one farmer with a few gatherers could make $100,000 a year. Call today, it said, and Clinkinbeard did.

In the brochure that followed, the promised profit was $50,000 -- still a lot of money, so Clinkinbeard kept reading. "Snail farming is unique and prestigious," he learned. It's easy. It's reliable. With a free advisory service, it's "virtually no-risk."

"There's nothing more satisfying and gratifying," the brochure guaranteed, "than making money at home -- watching your bank account grow steadily each week, and having that secure and confidence-boosting feeling of knowing that you are actually 'making it' in life."

There was also a section on "The ABC's of Success," but how was Clinkinbeard to know the man who wrote it was a twice-convicted felon? Bring on the escargot, he said.

"I thought, boy, I'll be all right," Clinkinbeard remembers. "I'll build me a 20-by-100-foot greenhouse, and I'll be all right."

In the bare Dallas office of Snail Farms International, the phone began to ring. The people called from places like Big Springs and Double Oak, Sunset and Rising Star. The farmers thought they had the space for snail farming. A mechanical engineer hoped maybe he could switch careers. A geologist considered snails a hobby less expensive than emus.

You could choose Opportunity A or Opportunity B. The price of A was $1,490. Choice B was double the value at less than double the price: a load of manure, some peat moss, 100 pounds of calcium carbonate for strong shells, 50 pounds of special snail food, four breeding beds and 10,000 fertile earthworms to eat the waste of 1,000 fertile snails. All this could be yours for $2,790.

In the old van from the furniture store, Gene Weaver sometimes made the deliveries with Gene the Second and the son he named John Wayne. The boys were young and cocky and clean-cut, one customer recalls, but in his jeans and boots, even with his hair dyed jet black, Weaver looked "kind of haggard, like he's been down the road awhile."

He told the nice people he was going to find a cannery and can their snails and eventually sell them across the country and maybe up into Canada and over to Europe, too. They didn't think much about it, because the important thing was that Mr. Weaver was going to buy their snails at $4 a pound, and after that, as one snailer said, "he could throw them off a bridge, for all I cared."

Clinkinbeard bred the snails in his bedroom until he got his greenhouse built. "Spent $15,000 on that whole sum'bitch," he says. His place became a snail showcase, and Weaver would bring prospects over to show them he was running a bigtime, legitimate operation. The day after John and Nancy Hill drove up from Menard, they gave Weaver a check for Opportunity B. They were very excited. Snails looked like something they could grow with their pecans.

"We started looking for a greenhouse," Nancy Hill says, "and Johnny got to reading about snails, see, and he got to thinking about the sun on a greenhouse, and so we decided maybe we better go ahead and build a barn."

So they built the barn and waited for Gene Weaver to return. A retired preacher from Plains, Ray Goodman had also given Weaver his money and was hoping snails would save him from poverty. Meanwhile, other snail farmers had grown nearly delirious, for it had happened just as Weaver promised. There had been a snail baby boom. The walls were just crawling with money. Clinkinbeard guesses he had about 1,300,000 "of them rascals." At 100 to a pound, $4 a pound, he was sure enough going to make $52,000.

But when the ants came or when the rain fell or when they were just in the mood, the snails suffered greatly, and so in turn did their people. The farmers called snail headquarters with their snail emergencies. They rang and they rang, left message after message. Rarely was there any reply.

Where was Gene Weaver? He never did give the Hills their snails, never did give them to the preacher. Sooner or later, more or less, everyone reached the same conclusion about Gene Weaver. As Goodman says, "He's quite some distance from Christ, isn't he?"

In the spring of 1994, Weaver came to Houston for the climate -- not the heat, he says, but the humidity. Snails like that.

But the reason he left Dallas was that his snail farmers had gotten out of hand. They say they began selling breeder snails because he disappeared. He says he disappeared because they began selling breeder snails. He swears he didn't know the Hills and Goodman were without any snails at all.

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