But my dad was a world champion oysterer for almost seven years. He opened, the best he said he ever did, he opened a full bushel basket full of oysters in under seven minutes with no cuts. He was a fast opener. A lot of people are fast openers but they cut the oysters, because they get in there with that knife and flay them open. He learned to open during the war when the government was buying oysters and they did not want cuts. — Joe Brignone
Oysters were a commonly harvested food in Willapa Bay before the arrival European American settlers. They were an easily accessible food source for groups that lived near the tidelands but were not necessarily a favorite of the Chinook’s seasonal food resources. Abundant yet localized, oysters were also a valuable trade good.
Many early pioneers were sailors from San Francisco, instead of overland trail emigrants. European American emigrants who settled in the Southwest Washington coast saw the commercial opportunity for an oyster export industry. While the Chinook population had been decimated by disease and was only a fraction of what it had been in the 18th century, they still formed a majority in early 19th century Willapa Bay. Consequently, Chinook provided much of the manual labor in the early oyster industry. Paid in goods rather than cash, the industry began as an exchange of the goods that Chinook had traditionally traded with whites. Into the later 19th century, Chinook labor was paid in staples like flour and sugar analogous to a “company store” model.
Willapa Bay’s 19th century oyster industry had a series of boom and bust cycles. Pioneer towns regularly sprung up and withered away over the decades. Though the local industry attempted a transition to more sustainable aquaculture at the turn of the century, both with native and transplanted east coast oysters, it collapsed in the early 20th century. Seed from Japan revived the industry in the 1930s and from there on it was true aquaculture, with every stage of the oyster’s life cycle carefully controlled. Originally a Chinook village at Goose Point, in the town of Bay Center became a locus for the new oyster farmers. Many of individuals interviewed here have personal or family connections to both the historical and the contemporary oyster industry.
Ken Reed on his grandfather in late 19th century:
Anyway, they settled there and Grandfather Clark got into the oyster business. I guess it was there for the taking at that time. I don’t know what year that was, by the way. And started a family.
Ken Reed on his father in early 20th century:
Well, when they first went back, when my grandmother was dying, he worked in the oyster industry because the family, you know, had oyster beds. And my father, you know, sold and they had a little white truck he used to run around in. I don’t know, you know, to whom he sold or how much he sold or how he sold. I don’t know any of that. But basically he was connected to the family oyster business.
Anna May Strong talks about the Rhoades family and the oyster business:
I went over my mind about the generations, what was important that I remembered that happened in Great-grandfather’s time. Great-grandfather Elliot Rhoades was prejudiced, although he hired Indian women, not men, the women worked out on the oyster beds. And, uh, that’s another book that’s missing. I’ve got his book he wrote the names of all the Indian women and what he paid them. He didn’t give money for pay. He had a company store and he gave them groceries, usually it was flour. But there were other things that he gave. And then he had a large family and he had two sons and Charles and – [to Margaret] tell me – Dee.
It was my white great-grandfather, Lewis Henry Rhoades and he homesteaded and it was right by the beach and they had a ranch and they raised cows and their own vegetables and all that but he actually was at Bay Center to be into the oyster business. That was his primary interest and goal.
Joe Brignone talks about women working in the oyster industry:
And another thing, when you talk about discrimination, the women worked opening the oysters just like the men, because it depended how good you were, ‘cause that’s how you made your money.
Ruth McCausland, “Oysters – The First Hundred Years on Willapa Bay.” The Sou’wester 29, no. 4 (Winter 1994).
Allison Tompkins Walker, “Oysterville, 1840-1897.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 33, no. 2 (June 1932).
Captain Emerson J. Wilson, “More Pioneer Adventures: The Second of Two Parts.” The Sou’wester 8, no. 4 (Winter 1973).