“Shag” Wllis, also known as “Fostie” Willis, remembers his old friend Sid Folsom and their many days together on the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers and on Lake Seminole.
Willis and Folsom were friends early on, beginning at the age of 3 for Willis. They were neighbors for many of their early years and spent many happy days fishing on the Chipola, a river they both loved dearly.
Only one land-based adventure came close to matching the fun they had on the water – Sid’s big brother Richard had been in the Navy, and he’d brought them an old parachute once. Capturing the right wind gust, they could make it balloon up, and then they’d run diving into its big sail. It was the only thrill comparable to their barefoot days throwing baited lines into the flow of the Chipola.
“It started a long way back,” Willis said of their days on the Chipola that remain magical in memory. “Starting when we were about 12 years old, we’d ride our bikes over to get on the river and go swimming at Blue Hole,” Willis recalled. “And we would fish, hunt for sharks’ teeth and arrowheads. We had a big time.”
His friend Sid also made deep connections to the Gulf of Mexico as he was growing to manhood. His uncle had a shrimp boat, and he’d worked summers on the boat off the coast at Bay County.
When Willis and Folsom were young divorced fathers, they were roommates in their old neighborhood.
It was those treasured years in which their love of the big Apalachicola and Lake Seminole solidified and became at least as important to them as their childhood days on the Chipola, which is the Apalachicola’s biggest tributary contributor.
Both had arrangements with their ex-wives to get their young children on most weekends. And almost all of those weekends were spent on a houseboat near Parramore’s Landing off River Road.
“We didn’t just sit at home. Our kids had the life of Riley,” Willis said. “Every time we could get out, we’d load them up and go to Parramore's to spend the weekend on the boathouse. We‘d have just a wonderful time. We wouldn’t head back until almost dark on Sunday nights.”
The memories they made there, the bonding they achieved with their children on all those adventures, Willis said, are priceless treasures of the heart and soul. As he and Folsom had grown into men and realized the importance of those rivers as assets that needed protection, they often worried over the fortunes of the natural wonders that had helped them forge so many memories as friends and daddies. They came to know the rivers better than most professionals who studied them and had roles in their fates.
Willis said Folsom also loved sharing the bounty those rivers provided. He regularly gave away countless fish he’d caught over the years. And he didn’t just bring them to the recipients straight off the boat. He almost always cleaned them first, putting them in bags so that the lucky receiver could simply meal and fry as soon as soon as they were hungry for them.
He was a well-respected fisherman among locals, famed for his big-catch catfish and for his skill in the fine art of gashing suckers just right for a fish-fry. Not everyone has the skill and patience for that. He did it a lot for their big circle of water-loving fishermen friends. He was a giver on many levels, Willis said, including his habit of, each year, buying 100 pound of area-grown peanuts and boiling them in an all-day cook to give away.
Willis and others, like the Riverkeepers’ Chad Taylor, say Folsom’s love of the rivers and his love of sharing their bounty made him an advocate who was just as important to the rivers as any statute, any lawmaker, or any official in the agencies that steer their futures. In the “Water Wars” that now threaten them all, and through all the other crises that have beset the rivers through the years, Folsom’s generosity and his concern for the rivers had helped draw the attention of many to the cause of protecting them and their riches.
His death in June left a void, Willis said, not only on a personal level for him, but in the collective voice that speaks for the rivers. Taylor agreed. And that was why, last Friday, Willis was remembered in a moment of story-sharing at the Riverkeepers’ meeting held at the historic First National Bank in Marianna. Taylor said Folsom and others who love the rivers and the gulf as he did are among the most important allies of Jackson County’s natural resources.
As Florida continues to fight the Water Wars, Taylor said, voices like Folsom’s are important ones that should rise up and sing the message so that those who make decisions about the fates of the rivers can hear how the life of man is enriched by the lives of the rivers that flow ceaselessly through the world they share.