The Oyster Shucker’s Song

I grew up by the salt marshes and brackish creeks of a quiet North Carolina tidewater community that lies between the Neuse River and the Newport River at a place where they are both great saltwater bays on the edge of the sea. Oysters were just a part of my life.

When I was a young boy, we still picked up oysters on the rocks off Mill Creek, or the flats off Harkers Island, and opened them and downed them, standing knee deep in the water without a thought to pollution or getting ill. Come the first cold snap in autumn, we relished oysters as the highlight of dinners that my grandmother Vera served every Sunday after church.

I don’t much remember my grandmother buying oysters when we went to town in Beaufort on Saturday mornings. We treated those trips sort of like a ceremonial rite that went from the A&P to the Rose’s Five and Dime to my great-great-aunt Rosa’s home across the bridge in the Promise Land.

Instead, our neighbors and cousins shared oysters the way gardeners elsewhere foist their overabundances of tomatoes and yellow squash and pole beans on unsuspecting souls.

Many a time, we would come home from town and find a wet burlap bag full of Newport River oysters waiting on our back porch, a gift from some cousin or neighbor who had been out on the river that morning. We’d shuck them and roast them in a pit that we dug in the field, or eat them raw, or fried, or steamed in a big pot.

Oyster Fritters and a Young Boy’s Heart

My favorite oyster dish in those days was oyster fritters, and my grandmother turned a few oysters, a handful of meal, a dash of salt, a little water and of course the oyster’s own juices into the finest oyster fritters in God’s creation. Sitting down to a plate of her oyster fritters was all the lesson that I’d ever need to convince me that humanity’s highest arts could be fashioned out of the simplest things in life.

I could eat a mess of them right now.

No matter how we fixed them, the taste of those Newport River oysters harkened to far-off saltwater places and distant origins, to raucous, abundant life, and to a profound yearning that all of us who grew up in that time and place felt for the saltwater marshes and the open seas beyond them.

Roasting oysters out in that field or pulling those fritters out of the Crisco in my grandmama’s cast iron frying pan reached, too, into my young heart and touched a place I certainly couldn’t put into words in those years, and that I better not put into words in public at this particular moment.

All I’ll say is this: Back then I could never quite grasp how all my elders could seem so bent on denying me access to every other sensual pleasure in life I could imagine (and many more I could not), yet could knowingly leave me alone in a kitchen with oysters from the Newport River!

If trying not to awaken a young boy’s appetites for the sensual things life was the point, it seems like they should have known better.

Must be from Mill Creek Way

In those days we talked about oysters with scarcely less seriousness or exactitude than I have heard that Inuit people discuss the fine points of ice and snow.

When, say, my cousin Edsel dropped off a half-bushel of oysters on our porch while we were away, my grandmother and my great aunt Irene and maybe my mother would carefully shuck a few and sample them and then venture where they had come from by their flavor.

And I don’t mean what state or region of the country they came from either—I mean what creek or bay. To this day, I am confident that I can distinguished the difference between an oyster from Cedar Island and an oyster from the Newport River, though they are scarcely more than a half hour’s drive apart.

Of course any oyster from Cedar Island or the Newport River was a good oyster. The question was just how good. But if, on those rare occasions when my older relatives did buy oysters at the fish market, they ate an oyster that was just this side of rank, they would somberly nod and say, “Well, it’s not bad for a Virginia oyster.”

I don’t really know if all those poor oysters were really from Virginia, but we certainly thought as much.

On the other side of things, if we tasted an oyster that seemed to raise our souls nearly to celestial heights, we would nod and “ooohhhh” and finally proclaim, in a breathless whisper, “Must be from Mill Creek way.”

Mill Creek is a little community 4 or 5 miles from my family’s homeplace. It is bordered by Harlowe Creek and the New River. It’s on the way nowhere, really, but isn’t too far from Beaufort if you were going to visit. The oysters from Mill Creek have been legendary for their abundance and the grandeur of their flavor since the 19th century. It seemed only fitting, then, that in 1973 the local fire and rescue squad founded the region’s first oyster festival. Originally mostly a local affair, the festival now attracts as many as 10,000 visitors.

Every first Saturday in November, the rescue squad volunteers serve up platefuls of fried fish and brimming kettles of clam chowder. They’re both good, but I recommend you head straight to the shucking shed. If you are lucky, you will taste the saltiest, most delectable oysters in America—those taken from the Newport River.

I know that you who are from the coast, or perhaps have a favorite watering hole down there, probably think that your local oysters are better than the Newport River’s. I know that all of you folks from around Rose Bay, up in Hyde County, or Bay River over in Pamlico County, or Stumpy Point way off in Dare County, are mighty proud of your oysters.

I also know that you old timers from Brunswick County will boast on your oysters, too, and I will concede that they are mighty fine. And down at the New River, below Jacksonville, you people—bless your misguided hearts—act like you invented the oyster.

But even though I know you are all in grave error—Newport River oysters are unquestionably the best—I do not mind you standing up for your homegrown shellfish, no matter how wrongheaded you are. I am more than happy to argue oysters with anybody so long as it involves plenty of shucking and slurping.

What Happened to our Oysters?

There is only one problem: Our oysters have practically vanished. When my buddies and I get to comparing oysters, we are arguing about oysters that we used to have but do not anymore.

A century ago, Carolina watermen harvested nearly 2.5 million bushels of the tasty bivalves annually. In recent years, our watermen and women harvested less than 2 percent that total, a mere 42,000 bushels. We do not have a single oyster cannery left. Coastal restaurants import oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. Even our most intimate little oyster bars, some of them in business for 3 or 4 generations now, rely on oysters from the Gulf States or Mexico.

Rare, too, is the oyster love these days that can put aside fears of pollution and sewage and eat an oyster raw out of one of our bays like we used. And while none of us likes to advertise the fact, even at the Mill Creek festival the fire and rescue squad has often had to look far beyond the Newport River to feed us hungry hordes of oyster lovers.

What happened to our oysters? The answer is complicated and involves a mix of ecological, economic and management factors. Without question, though, the turning point in our state’s oyster fortunes came in the 1890s. You will never hear a more colorful chapter in coastal history than that of the oyster boom of that decade, but you might also never hear of a period that sounds more like our own

In 1880 the U.S. oyster industry was concentrated on Chesapeake Bay. That year, Maryland watermen gathered more than 10 million bushels of oysters, a hundred times the amount harvested in North Carolina. A Norfolk, Virginia, company opened a steam cannery at Ocracoke Island in 1877, apparently the state’s first, but it was hardly typical.

A New Bern newspaper’s reaction made that clear: “Anyone who has visited this locality,” wrote a correspondent for the Newbernian on May 12, 1877, “will readily understand the startling nature of their innovation. With its steam engine, its energetic Northern managers, and the aggregation of the floating labor of this place, the industry and enterprise exhibited a marked feature in this hitherto Rip Van Winkle locality.”

Ocracoke, one might have pointed out to the newspaper’s correspondent, at least had an oyster cannery. New Bern, at the time, did not.

Corn Crackers and Lime Kilns

Up until that time, most Carolina watermen tonged for oysters just to feed their families. From very early in the 19th century, and probably quite a bit earlier, Outer Banks fishermen also bartered unshucked oysters for corn with mainland farmers every fall, traditionally trading a pound of corn for a pound of oysters.

The shallow draft, wide-beamed schooners of the day—locals called them “corn crackers”—worked their way from Portsmouth Island, Bay River and the other great oyster rocks up coastal rivers to trade at every wharf and town.

In port towns like New Bern and Wilmington, oysters could be bought every day during oyster season from hawkers who moved up and down the streets at dawn. A few draymen carted oysters all the way into the Piedmont, and with the completion of the coast’s first railroads in the 1840s, a few dealers began to send oysters as far inland as Charlotte.

But oysters still had so few markets that Pamlico Sound watermen often raked up smaller ones and, not bothering to shuck them, sold them for a few cents a bushel to lime kilns. The lime from oysters was used as a wall plaster, to make bricks, as fertilizer, to preserve fishing nets and to inter the dead.

Oysters found wide usage in building and construction: the walls of Fort Johnston, built in 1802 to protect the mouth of the Cape Fear River, consisted solely of what its slave builders called a “batter” of burnt-down oyster shells and pitch pine, for example.

The Oyster Boom

The Carolina oyster industry began its ascent in the 1880s. With Chesapeake stocks already diminishing and America’s population soaring, the Baltimore canneries began to look south. Previously limited from sending oysters any great distance by the lack of transportation or preservation methods, the advent of new preservation technology—primarily steam canning and ice making—and the new availability of railroads and steamships opened local waters to a national market for the first time.

Bair Brothers opened a branch plant in New Bern in 1881, but it was the Moore & Brady oyster cannery at Union Point, also in New Bern at the juncture of the Neuse and Trent Rivers, that became the first real success.

By 1888, Moore & Brady hired 500 shuckers at peak season, making it the city’s largest employer. Its workers shucked as many as 2,000 bushels a day.

Virginia canneries also began to send “buy boats” south. They bought oysters from Carolina watermen (rendezvousing with them directly off remote locales such as Portsmouth Island, Brant’s Island or Cedar Island Bay, so the oystermen did not have to leave the oyster grounds to sail into port), then carried the oysters north for shucking, canning and selling as “Chesapeake Bay” oysters.

The potential for the Carolina oyster industry seemed limitless. In 1886 a nautical surveyor named Francis Winslow charted 10,000 acres of oyster beds in state waters. His report on the Newport River estuary—right off Mill Creek—was typical. Winslow described, in his words, “large and thickly stocked beds…extending nearly across the river.”

Winslow counted a whopping 403 acres of oyster beds in the Newport—so many that he found it more practical to sketch on his charts where oysters were not than where they were.

An oyster boom hit like a gold rush in the winter of 1889-90. Spurred by new laws opening the state’s oyster rocks on an unlimited scale and prohibiting the shipment of unshucked oysters out of the state, the Baltimore companies built canneries in Beaufort, Vandemere, Washington, Belhaven, Southport, New Bern and Elizabeth City.

The Camps of Hundreds and Thousands

“Men who had never before used an oyster tong could be seen repairing to our oyster banks,” W. T. Caho, the state’s shellfish commissioner, exclaimed. “All along the marshes,” he went on, “. . . could be seen the camps of hundreds and thousands who had never before engaged in the oyster business.”

Fishing crews from Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey stormed the state’s oyster beds. A visitor at Stumpy Point reported that as many as 50 Chesapeake schooners could be seen in Pamlico Sound in a single glance.

A little west of there, a newspaper reporter described 150 to 200 “canoes and small boats” oystering in Hyde County. Chesapeake schooners loaded their catches onto barges and carried them back to Norfolk and Baltimore.

“It is a real God-send to numbers of poor people,” the reporter wrote.

The Chesapeake schooners overwhelmed the oyster beds and the local oystermen. The newcomers also introduced oyster dredges and longer, sturdier tongs into the local industry. The new gear opened up the deepest waters of Pamlico Sound to oystering for the first time.

The oyster boom brought new life to coastal villages. One of the enduring fallacies about our coastal past is the region’s provincialism and isolation. In fact, through most of modern history just the opposite was the case. While the North Carolina coast often seemed a backwater to people in-state, shipping, fishing and the maritime trades generally tied the Outer Banks and our entire coastal region to the far-flung corners of the Atlantic—far more so than the small towns and cities in-state.

These maritime occupations made the coast in many respects more cosmopolitan, diverse and sophisticated than inland towns like Raleigh or Charlotte, particularly prior to the coming of the railroads.

“The fact is,” as a 19th-century visitor recalled of Beaufort, “communication with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore was more direct and frequent than with New Bern.” New Bern, of course was only 35 miles west of Beaufort.

New People, New Faces, New Ways, New Manners

This was certainly true during the oyster boom. Waterfront streets thronged with local laborers, Chesapeake oystermen and “Bohemian” oyster shuckers—Serbian, Dalmatian, Polish and other eastern European immigrants recruited from ghettos in Baltimore and New York City.

According to Kathleen Carter, a historian at High Point University and the leading authority on the oyster boom, the tiny town of Elizabeth City alone boasted at least 11 oyster canneries and 1,700 oyster workers in 1890.

“It was a jolly time—a new revelation,” reported the Economist Falcon, an Elizabeth City newspaper. “Population and money followed in perpetual stream and prosperity was felt in every fiber and pulsation of business. New people, new faces, new ways, new manners…. The song of the oyster shucker was heard in the land.”

The streets of coastal towns would be paved, literally, with oyster shells.

In the Hands of the Large Corporations

Prosperity bred controversy. Tempers flared between local tongers and Chesapeake dredgers. Reports of oyster poaching, smuggling and fraudulent leases were widespread. Battles over private property rights and the public’s rights to oyster grounds were hard fought and often nasty.

To conserve the rocks, the North Carolina General Assembly prohibited oyster dredging after the 1890 season, but many Chesapeake oystermen refused to heed the law. In 1891 the governor sent the Pasquotank County militia, armed with a howitzer, to prevent Chesapeake “pirates” from oyster dredging. As late as 1895, reports of Chesapeake schooners sneaking barge loads of oysters to Baltimore were still coming from Pamlico Sound.

Local oystermen also protested the monopoly held by the Chesapeake Bay companies. They did not want North Carolina oystering to follow in the footsteps of the Chesapeake industry, which was, as shellfish commissioner W. H. Lucas warned in 1893, “in the hands of the large corporations, and the oystermen are nothing more than slaves in the employ of said large syndicates.”

A petition from a group of Hertford, N.C. citizens echoed Lucas’s sentiments. In June 1892 they wrote, “We can’t see the justice in any arrangement that deprives the whole people of a divine blessing intended no doubt by the Almighty himself at the creation for their mutual good and enjoyment, that the pockets of a few may be filled with gold.”

The Chesapeake canneries moved south to the Gulf of Mexico when the Chesapeake watermen—most of who worked directly for the canning companies—were finally stopped from oyster dredging. Tonging did a better job of preserving the oyster beds, but it could not supply the canneries adequately, and the number of canneries fell to two by 1898.

The state’s oyster boom continued in a new guise, however, as 16 establishments eventually packed raw oysters on ice. Belhaven, Elizabeth City, Oriental, New Bern, Beaufort, Davis Shore and Morehead City all had packing houses.

Depriving Poor People of Oysters to Eat

The oyster boom quickly depleted the Carolina coast. This hurt the poor first. A 10-acre leasing system helped prevent big companies from monopolizing the oyster beds, but it took the beds out of the public domain and put them into private hands, and usually the hands that had money and political clout. A poor family that relied on oyster beds in a backyard creek or nearby bay to stave off hunger in a hard winter all of a sudden might find that they could not legally harvest oysters in their own neighborhood without violating another individual’s lease.

In 1890, when the Pamlico Oyster Company charged 5 Ocracoke watermen with trespassing on oyster grounds that their families had worked for generations, you can imagine the local watermen’s bitterness.

In 1911 Jordan Carawan of Mesic, in Pamlico County, expressed a common sentiment when he petitioned the General Assembly, arguing that the leasing system, as he put it, “deprives poor people of oysters to eat and catch for a living.”

Few Ever Reach Old Age

The oyster boom also took a heavy toll on oystermen and oyster shuckers. Spurred by hard times and the new markets, oystermen worked through the heart of chilly winters in small, open skiffs and often stayed in remote, windswept camps, usually only coming home on weekends, if then.

“The injury to health from exposure is so great that few ever reach old age,” observed Ernest Ingersoll, a fishery biologist.

Oyster shuckers—many of whom were women and children—had it no easier. The work was hard, the oyster houses were unheated, and the day’s work often began at 4 or 5 in the morning and lasted well into the night.

When oyster shuckers pressed for better pay or working conditions, the companies frequently imported migrant workers or seasonal workers from other towns. That happened in Beaufort in 1893, when the local shuckers at the Weitzel and Delamar cannery refused to work for the proffered wage of less than 13 cents per gallon of shucked oysters, or roughly a dollar a day.

The company responded by recruiting shuckers in James City and New Bern and bringing them in by railroad.

Many a coastal youngster had one ardent hope: to grow up and earn enough money to get Mama out of the oyster house.

After the Oyster Boom

By 1909 the oyster boom was over. It had peaked in the winter of 1898-99, when Carolina oystermen harvested 2.45 million bushels. By 1906, state geologist Joseph Pratt was already reporting a 50% decline in oyster harvests. It was the beginning of a long downward spiral for the state’s oyster catches.

From 1890 to 1908, the industry gathered more than 4 million pounds of shucked meat every year. From 1920 to 1960, a good annual harvest fell to 1.5 million pounds. From 1960 to 1990, a half million pounds was a good year. In more recent winters, our watermen and women gathered less than 230,000 pounds. Our busiest packinghouses shucked oysters trucked in from Texas and Louisiana.

Ecological changes since 1960 have made it difficult for oysters to recover from generations of overharvesting. As filter feeders, oysters are notoriously sensitive to water quality, and estuarine pollutants have risen dramatically in recent decades.

Oysters are also highly sensitive to changes in salinity levels. The drainage of pocosins and other coastal wetlands for agribusiness and corporate timbering, in particular, has increased freshwater runoff into our estuaries, tainting many of the great oyster bays.

Land clearing, channelization of waterways and new ditching has also heightened the amount of silt flowing into the estuaries, another damper on the health of oyster beds.

Many of the old time oystermen I know also blame the drag lines on shrimp trawls for damaging oyster beds and tearing up the hard bottoms where oysters once flourished.

In addition, since the late 1980s, shellfish diseases have invaded coastal waters. While harmless to humans, they have proven catastrophic to oysters.

A Burlap Bag of Oysters

Some years, I hate to admit, you probably won’t find a single Newport River oyster at the Mill Creek festival. But I still go, and I still hear the call of the oyster shucker’s song from day’s past, and I am still drawn home to the great salt marshes and the quiet tidal creeks where I grew up.

I still stay as much of the year as I can at my family’s homeplace, and now and then I still come home from town and find a wet burlap bag full of oysters on my back porch.

I do not need to be told where they are from. My community has changed a great deal like nearly all such places, and that soggy bag of oysters is a much needed reminder to me that not everything has changed, and that not all my neighbors are yet strangers, and that oysters can still be found in the Newport River.

A burlap bag full of oysters won’t feed the crowds at the Mill Creek festival, but it is enough to remind me of other days, and it is enough to give a soul a glimmer of hope that one day the great oyster beds will return to those saltwater bays and brackish creeks that are lodged so deeply in my heart.

This essay was originally a lecture for a fundraiser for a literary festival in Morehead City, N.C. It later appeared in Corn Bread Nation 3, an anthology of food writing from the American South that was published by the University of North Carolina Press in association with the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2005. 


4 thoughts on “The Oyster Shucker’s Song

  1. Pingback: The Oyster Shell Road | David Cecelski

  2. Pingback: Of Oysters and Chicken Grit | David Cecelski

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