One other historic use of oyster shells was especially important to farm women on the North Carolina coast and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Building roads, fertilizing fields and making cement, mortar, plaster and whitewash out of oyster shells were all big parts of coastal life. But so was using crushed oyster shells in poultry yards.
In every little coastal village and on every back road, you would have found farmers—and especially farm women— combining crushed oyster shells with feed or scraps and scattering the mixture around chicken yards.
They considered “chicken grit,” as it was known, as essential for poultry’s digestion (which it was), and the lime, or calcium carbonate, in oyster shells also played an important role in assuring healthy shell production.
It wasn’t just a local phenomenon, either. As North Carolina’s oyster industry began to boom in the 1880s, canneries and shucking houses opened in many of the state’s coastal towns and villages.
Many of those canneries and shucking houses employed local laborers, but many also brought immigrant laborers to the North Carolina coast. They came largely from Poland, Hungary, Italy, Dalmatia, Bohemia and other parts of Eastern Europe.
People generally referred to them all, however, as “Bohemians.”
As they got to work and the oyster shells piled up around the new canneries and shucking houses, coastal firms such as the J.M. Swindell Co., in Washington, N.C., and the Southgate Packing Co., in Beaufort, began to specialize in oyster shell grinding mainly for the production of chicken grit.
Turning Oyster Shells into Chicken Grit
To grind the oyster shells, those companies employed heavy mechanical grinding mills like those used by Midwest slaughterhouses to crush livestock bones into bone meal, a common fertilizer ingredient.
Those companies’ leaders purchased the machines from firms such as the Raymond Brothers Impact Pulverizer Company in Chicago and the Gruendler Patent Crusher and Pulverizer Company in St. Louis.
A 1919 report by the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries described the process of turning oyster shells into chicken grit:
“The shells are first dried in a direct-heat rotary drier…. If they have been sheltered from the weather and are thoroughly dry the drying process may be dispensed with. After passing through the drier they are carried by a conveyor to the crusher and from there to the screen, which is usually of the revolving type and made of various-size mesh to separate the crushed shells into several grades or sizes.”
For many families that lived well inland and never ate an oyster, commercial chicken grit from a firm like J. M. Swindell Co. or the Southgate Packing Co. was the closest they came to the sea.
In 1890 nine out of ten residents in North Carolina still lived on farms. According to my friend Lu Ann Jones’ fascinating book, Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South, 88 percent of those farms had at least small backyard flocks in 1900.
Usually raised by women and girls, those chickens produced eggs for home consumption, which was especially vital to a family’s survival in hard times, such as after crop failures and during economic depressions.
Those eggs also gave farmwomen something reliable that they could trade for groceries and other goods. In eastern N.C., most country stores did a busy barter trade in eggs.
Butter and Egg Money
In Mama Learned Us to Work, Lu Ann— who grew up on a farm in lovely Corapeake, in Gates County, N.C., by the way— also emphasizes that many farm wives found their egg money to be their only income independent of their husbands.
As a result, for many farm women, raising poultry was the basis for an important degree of financial self-reliance.
By selling or trading eggs, Lu Ann points out, those farm women also earned a little “butter and egg” money for “extras” that were otherwise often unimaginable on a small farm.
Those “extras” frequently included quite a few things that might not sound so “extra” to us today. I’m referring to items such as eyeglasses so that a child might go to school or a dress so that a child did not feel too ashamed to go to church.
I did not choose those two examples at random. I know a woman who grew up in eastern N.C. who missed a year of elementary school in the 1930s because her family could not afford an $8.00 pair of eyeglasses.
I also know a woman in eastern N.C. who, as a child, did not go to church for several years because she did not have shoes and was ashamed of her one tattered dress.
A Way of Life
In Mama Learned Us to Work, Lu Ann Jones also stresses that women’s poultry raising was sometimes the difference between a farm family’s “making it” and ruin.
She quotes a farm agent in Beaufort County, N.C., in 1931 to that effect. The farm agent declared that a backyard poultry flock was “keeping the farm in operation in numbers of cases.”
The agent went on to say, “The poultry rank along with the gardens in enabling the small farmer to have something to eat and some spending money.”
In Bladen County, N.C., another farm agent in Lu Ann’s book cited the case of a farm woman’s flock that was the source of the family’s only income. With her egg money, the woman supported a family of nine.
Raising poultry—and oyster grit—were a part of those women’s lives in better times, too, of course. On many farms, but also at many homes in towns and mill villages, tending chickens was as much a part of an average woman’s daily life as cooking supper or washing laundry.
Even in places where rural women were beginning to get jobs in cotton mills or other “public work,” backyard chicken coops—and for many, chicken grit made out of oyster shells—were part of a way of life.
If you want to learn more about the history of North Carolina’s oyster industry, you might want to check out my essay entitled “The Oyster Shucker’s Song.”
I originally wrote that essay as a lecture at a literary festival in Carteret County, 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.
If you want to learn more about the latest efforts to restore the health of North Carolina’s oyster beds—and how you can be part of those efforts— I strongly encourage you to check out the N.C. Coastal Federation’s web site here.
If you want to explore some of Lu Ann Jones’ other writing (and you should!), I strongly recommend Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, a prize-winning book that she co-wrote along with Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Mary Murphy, James Leloudis, Bob Korstad and Christopher Daly.
In addition, a new version of Lu Ann’s book (co-written with Amy Glass), “Everyone Helped Their Neighbor:” Memories of Nags Head Woods, is just out, too.
I also drew especially important information for this post from two other sources. The first is Lewis Radcliffe’s study called the “Uses of Oyster Shells,” which was published by the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1921.
The second is a scholarly article by Justine Christianson that is titled “The F. & H. Benning Grinding Company: A Case Study. ” It appeared in IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology in the spring of 2005.