Anyone who has taught a child to bait a hook knows that fishing is a grand part of American culture.
What many folks don’t know, however, is that part of the history of bait fishing evolved right here in Columbia County, on a side street in Martinez, where Ghann’s Cricket Farm continues to prosper after 61 years of continuous operation, in the same location – and by the same family.
The story of one of Columbia County’s most tenured businesses began in 1952, when a young man named Aubrey Ghann was deciding what to do with the rest of his life after his welding job at the Clarks Hill Dam construction site had ended.
“He figured, with a huge new lake, there would be a lot of demand for bait,” said his son, Clay Ghann, who grew up in the cricket industry and is now the company’s chief executive officer.
In the early years, the six-acre compound on Cedar Street was remote countryside. Today it lies among the oldest and most developed areas of Martinez, not far from Baston Road and the railroad tracks.
Aubrey Ghann, who died in January at the age of 86, spent much of his long life promoting crickets as panfish and bluegill bait in an era when the insects were just beginning to gain a foothold against minnows and worms.
“He figured, that would be a good time to corner the cricket market in this country, and he would become the Cricket King,” Clay Ghann said.
In addition to growing crickets in Columbia County, Aubrey Ghann traveled extensively with a portable brooding crate promoting his fat, chirpy insects to sporting goods dealers across Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio and even Michigan.
“He was sort of the ‘Johnny Cricket-seed’ of bait,” said Clay Ghann, who married his wife, Cathy, in 1984 and bought the company from his dad shortly thereafter.
Today, Ghann’s Cricket Farm is one of the largest companies of its kind, shipping out about 160 million crickets per year through Augusta’s Fed-Ex hub.
The industry, however, has changed drastically over the years, Ghann said.
The clients today are no longer sporting goods and bait shops. Rather, the millions of crickets are bound for a different consumer: pet owners.
“It's a lot bigger than fishing,” he said. “A lot of people think there would be more demand for crickets as bait than pet food, but that’s because we’re in the South, where more people probably fish.”
Breeders of reptiles and amphibians buy lots of crickets, as do some laboratories. Pet food chains also buy Ghann’s insects in bulk.
“For a long time, we kept one foot in each market, but gradually we eased out of bait entirely,” he said.
Despite the changes in the cricket market, and a deadly cricket virus that decimated the industry in 2010, Ghann’s Cricket Farm continues to prosper.
Clay Ghann, meanwhile, still enjoys fond childhood memories of a simpler time, when Columbia County was criss-crossed by dirt roads and summers meant fishing in local ponds – with crickets, of course.