Oysters on the Half-Shell and by the Railroad Car
Remembering the good old days of Maryland Seafood Packing
For a century, a thriving industry depended on watermen to harvest the oysters and oyster shuckers and packers to pack them for shipment.
reviewed by Ben Miller
The end of things can be sad. Nearly ended in Southern Maryland is the historic seafood-packing industry that sustained families and the region’s economy for generations.
A new exhibit at the Calvert Marine Museum documents and commemorates a once vital and now vanishing industry.
The exhibit It Ain’t Like It Was Then: The Seafood Packing Industry of Southern Maryland shows what it was like then when hundreds of people worked in oyster, clam, crab and fish packing houses, small and large in Calvert, St. Mary’s and Charles counties.
This exhibit shows the people who owned the companies and the people who shucked the oysters.
The first people you meet as you enter the exhibit are Gertrude Bean, Henry Bean, Washington Hutchins, Francis Hutchins, John Ellen and Loretta Ellen, who sang gospel songs while they worked at the J.C. Lore & Sons oyster house in Solomons. They were recorded in 1984. As you listen, you see a recreated section of a packing house, containing tools of the packing trade from the 1900s.
Touring this exhibit, you will meet many more people in photographs, quotations and recordings. If you are from Calvert, St. Mary’s or Charles county you may know or remember some of them.
Through their words, these people tell us that the work in the packing houses was hard and there was a lot of it. A lot of oysters made a lot of work.
All the Numbers Were Big
Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River teemed with oysters.
In 1701, Francis Louis Michel called the abundance of oysters incredible. “There are whole banks of them so that ships must avoid them.”
The abundance was still incredible in 1885, when oystermen harvested 15 million bushels in Maryland and Virginia.
In 1887, 30 to 40 railroad cars a day filled with raw oysters headed from Baltimore for coastal and inland markets.
This industry depended on watermen to harvest oysters and oyster shuckers and packers to pack them for shipment. At one time Southern Maryland had more than 100 packing houses.
Two videos preserve the work day at the packing houses. A silent color film made in the 1950s shows the J.C. Lore & Sons oyster packing house in Solomons. The film Chesapeake Horizons shows the Warren Denton & Company in Broomes Island in 1983.
Working the Job
The oyster industry began in a big way in the early 1800s. Oystermen from New York and New England after depleting their own beds discovered the oyster beds of Chesapeake Bay. The industry boomed in the 1880s. Then in 1924-25, a typhoid fever outbreak was traced to raw oysters. Demand dropped.
Despite the decline in popularity of oysters, the seafood packing industry continued to thrive in Southern Maryland.
In a 1984 interview, J. C. Lore Jr. of Solomons remembered, “There wasn’t any time for a vacation, because our oyster season went into the shad season in the spring of the year, then from shad season to go into soft crabs and hard crabs, then picking crab meat would go into the oyster season again in September.”
Packing was no vacation, either, for the people who worked in the packing houses, many of whom were American blacks, in contrast to white owners like Lore.
Oyster shucking was a skilled job. A skilled shucker could shuck and pack 20 oysters a minute. The job was also dangerous. The shucking knives could cut; the oysters could cut. The shuckers wore rubber knee-length bibs and stood in a three-sided chest-high box to protect them from the sharp shells.
In the1930s, oyster shuckers earned $.35 a gallon of oysters for their work.
In 1983, Elijah Sowell had worked at the Warren Denton & Company packing house for 40 years. He started at age 15, making $8 a day. This was “more than my mother made,” he says in the later film.
Interviewed in 1982, Gertrude Bean remembered, “We had to shuck oysters, we couldn’t do nothing else. There was nothing else for women to do around here. We had to do that to help our husbands.” We read her words in a photo caption.
In 2005, Ola Mae Carter of St. Inigoes recorded her memories of picking crabs at the Charles E. Davis plant in Wynne, St. Mary’s County.
The mother of six remembered a truck stopping at her house at 4:30 in the morning. The workers rode to the packing house on benches in the back of an unheated truck. “It was like riding in a car with the windows down,” she said, in a recording you hear in the St. Mary’s section of the exhibit.
Carter picked crabs from the “dark in morning to the dark at night.” She ended each day with her fingers taped from cuts.
Remembering the Days
Nowadays, Calvert has one working packing house, Bunky’s Charter Boats. St. Mary’s has six and Charles has none. The surviving packing houses in Maryland import guest workers for 90 percent of the remaining work.
Hard as the work was, there is sadness in its loss. Calvert’s exhibit is saddened by more than nostalgia for passing times. The decline of the seafood industry was caused by the decline of the health of Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River. This is an old story, told here in a different context about the loss of jobs and livelihoods.
In the 1983 film, Verne Conner, who worked in the office at Warren Denton & Company packing house, remembered when the Patuxent was clear and brimming with life. Oysters in the plant were “packed to the ceiling.” She worked long hours, but at the end of the day she said she felt happy when all orders were filled.
By 1983, with the Patuxent oysters nearly gone, she said, “Today when you can’t fill your orders, it is not happy at all.”
It Ain’t Like It Was Then lists the usual suspects for the poor health of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. Indisputable is the decline of the seafood packing industry in Southern Maryland.
Visiting the Exhibit
Calvert Marine Museum’s story of The Seafood Packing Industry of Southern Maryland is told largely through text and photographs, which tell more than even interested viewers can absorb while standing on their feet. You can’t help but be glad to meet each person pictured here, especially when their words take you into their lives. Recordings and films showing people at work and telling of their experiences are the most engaging part of the exhibit. Except for the loosely recreated packing house and plenty of oyster cans, objects are few. You could see it all in 15 minutes, but you can give it more.
There’s little here for children and perhaps not enough to entrance stangers, but people who bring associations to the culture will fill in the gaps with memories.
Virginia Hickman, visiting from Millville, New Jersey, with her daughter and son-in-law, enjoyed the exhibit. Her grandmother, Ella Minda Lore Davis, was the sister of J.C. Lore Sr., the founder of the J.C. Lore & Sons Oyster house in Solomons. Hickman worked in the office of a seafood packing house in Bivalve, New Jersey, in the 1950s.
If your interest is strong but endurance fails, you may like to take the exhibit home. A book of the same title as the exhibit, It Ain’t Like It Was Then, by Calvert Marine Museum curators Richard J. Dodds and Robert J. Hurry, is loaded with stories and photographs of those in the seafood packing industry.
See It Ain’t Like It Was Then and the rest of Calvert Marine Museum including more history plus live otters and lots of interesting stuff on sharks, skates and rays plus a boat house and light house daily from 10am to 5pm. $7 with age discounts: 410-326-2042.
About the Author
Bay Weekly museum reviewer Ben Miller planned exhibits for the National Park Service from Alaska to Virgin Islands for 32 years, with a hand in the making of more than 100 exhibits. He’s visited hundreds more museums and has worked in historic preservation in his long-time home of Jefferson County, WV, including Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown.