Escargot A Go-Go

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

Anyway, Weaver rented an office on Voss and started over in Houston. Escargot of Texas was registered in a friend's name, but it was Weaver's operation. It included himself, his namesake, two secretaries and a shadowy "snailsman" who went alternately by the names Bill McCarty and Bill Gorham, according to the son. Weaver himself borrowed the name Pat Ryan from a dead friend. All this they did to keep the Dallas group out of their business, he said, and he knows it looks suspicious, but what difference does it make?

"People do that all the time," he says. "John Wayne wasn't John Wayne. You are who you say you are." And whoever they were, they were all dedicated to the cause -- not to rip off the people of Texas, but to establish a new Texas industry.

A retired air traffic controller in Splendora, Ralph Lewis chose breeding snails over selling Amway. Charles and Betty Ghormley in Pasadena bought into snails to supplement income from their construction business. Like Clinkinbeard and others, they both built barns for their snails and grew them just as they were told, and when the snails began to die, they had the same problems finding Gene Weaver. Where was he now?

Well, he had been roaming the state for the sake of the snail, he says. He had found a farm in Crosby, and he was going to grow vegetables there hydroponically and feed them to the snails. And the snails were going to a cannery; he thought he'd found just the one. That's what brought him to Betty Ghormley's door last March, acting, she says, "like a man on the run." She was the single lucky snail farmer to sell any snails to Gene Weaver ("No one else called me," he says), and he keeps a copy of the check now among the evidence of his honest intentions. He hauled her mollusks down to a cannery in Donna, where they canned an experimental batch while Weaver snapped a lot of pictures. Now why, he asks, would he go to all this trouble if he was not sincere about snails?

He was arrested a week later.

As it turned out, there is, in fact, a fortune to be made in snails, but in the United States, perhaps only one man is poised to do it, and his name is not Gene Weaver.

Like so many others, Richard Fullington is a retired man who said he's "really bet the farm on these things." His distinction, if it is one, is that he's the country's leading snail expert. The United States spends about $80 million a year importing canned snails, he says. In Addison, Fullington's Escargot International is the only snail firm in the country growing, processing and selling fresh snails on a large scale. Only a year old, the company is struggling to keep up with demand, but Fullington hesitates to say this because it "just gives fuel to the damn breeder people."

"It's not a get-rich-quick business," he explains. "It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of time and it takes money."

He claims he helped the state put Gene Weaver's "ass in jail." He told them Weaver's snail plan was doomed from the beginning: too many snails and too much waste in too little space. Fullington had seen the same setup many times before, except for the worms. The worms were supposed to eat the snail shit, Fullington observes, "but who's going to eat the worm shit? Somewhere or another, you'll end up with a pile of shit from something."

And so it came to pass that there was a great snail holocaust. The rains came one night and washed over Ralph Lewis' snails, and he felt sick in the morning when he found a swath of upturned shells 250,000 strong. It was fire ants who slew the Ghormleys' mollusks, and after that it was the heat, and then the filthy soil and finally, the insecticide in the new peat moss. The air grew thick with snail death.

In Fort Worth, the Texas Department of Agriculture finally convened a meeting of Gene Weaver's customers, and Fullington was on hand to tell them the cold truth about their snail dreams. "It was a real sad deal," he recalls, and then he spoke of the woman who came to him, saying her husband had been laid off and they had no money left, but they did have four snails and were hoping to make a new beginning.

If a farmer is able to raise his snails to maturity, eventually he learns that an unprocessed snail brings about a nickel on the current market, if you can get it to someone who will buy it. The snail farmer makes a decision at this point. He either begins converting innocent people into snail farmers, selling breeders for upwards of $1 apiece. Or he begins conceiving of The Final Solution.

In Wichita Falls not long ago, Johnny Twilligean and his neighbor solemnly dug a pit for 500,000 escargot "and just roasted 'em," he says. Alex Drobena in Marlin carried his creatures to the woods in five-gallon buckets and "set them free." As for Clinkinbeard, he was afraid his snails might make someone sick, so he didn't try to sell to any restaurants. Instead, the snails sit beside the worms on his bait stand, and he sells them now for $1.50 a dozen.

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