Alabama Folkways Articles
February 16, 2000

EZELL’S FISH CAMP IS A FAMILY TRADITION
By Burgin Mathews

For many of its customers, Ezell’s Fish Camp in Lavaca, Alabama (Choctaw County) is much more than a restaurant. It is a cultural institution of sorts, representing a way of life very much connected to the community’s river heritage and to family tradition. It is a place to come home to.

It is certainly all of these to Mary Anne Ezell Hall, who now owns the long-time family business. The original building, which is located on the Tombigbee River, served as a trading post around the time of the Civil War. Mrs. Hall’s grandfather Charles Agnew Ezell later used the property to meet the packet boats that brought manufactured goods and supplies from Mobile. His son C. A. Ezell, a commercial fisherman, housed his hunting club in the building during the late 1920s. Mr. Ezell’s cook prepared dinner for the club and for private parties until the locale evolved into a full-time, public restaurant in the 1950s. Since then, the business has continued to grow into a chain of catfish restaurants, each owned and operated by Mrs. Hall or one of her two brothers, Charles and Joe Ezell.

Although the old hunting club was eventually disbanded when the site became an established restaurant, Ezell’s remains a popular meeting place for hunters. In season, Mrs. Hall remarks, the evenings bring a sea of camouflage and muddy boots. Sometimes even the staff wear camouflage clothing on the job.

Hunters are not the only visitors welcome in Ezell’s. The restaurant regularly hosts family and class reunions, high school events, religious revivals, and political dinners, not to mention one wedding party to which the guests wore camouflage and the bride a mosquito net veil. The boat landing near the building’s riverside location once made it a popular site for local baptisms, and an occasional baptism still occurs there today.

With plenty of room to seat a large number of people, Ezell’s functions as a kind of community center, and its long history provides a sense of the past to its many customers who grew up coming to the restaurant with their families and now bring their own children.

For Mrs. Hall, the building and river conjure up many memories of the past. She remembers Joe Ferguson, who sat for hours at night weaving the nets commercial fishermen like her father would use. In addition to nets, slat boxes traps were often used for fishing. There are still a few commercial fishermen around, Hall said, but most of today’s fishing is left to the young or retired, and the tradition of using nets and boxes is no longer as common.

There are also memories of the floods that have occurred over the years, even the biggest of which have hardly slowed down business. Mary Perry, the restaurant’s manager, explained that they can see the river rising for days and are prepared when the water reaches the building. "When the river gets ready to come in, we don’t try to stop it. We just open the front door and open the back door. And we have some hatches on the back end of the building and we open those so it can come right through," she said. "And the wooden floors buckle up, but the rest of the building stays OK. And then you come in and clean up and start over and say, ‘Hey, we’re still here.’"

Such exposure to the river’s moods and motions strengthens the business’s vital connection to the water. "The river commands a tremendous amount of respect," Mrs. Perry remarked.

Ezell’s has undergone a few changes since it first opened, the most notable of which was the shift from serving river catfish to pond-raised catfish, a gradual transition that began about twenty years ago. The fish farms are dependable suppliers and the fish a consistent size, whereas the availability and uniformity of river fish is less reliable, explained Mrs. Hall. Furthermore, farmers can control the flavor of pond fish by what they feed them.

Although the Ezell’s restaurants also serve steaks, hamburgers, chicken, and seafood, the specialty is catfish. As Mrs. Hall notes, catfish has become quite a big business in the South. "Daddy said, ‘You know, one of these days they’re going to get where they can raise catfish like chickens,’" she remembered. "And it’s here."