Bluffton Oyster Factory
Photograph taken by Hirsh
National Register Listing, 1995. Photograph courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
Hine, Lewis Wickes, photographer, 1913. Library of Congress.
Photograph taken by Hirsh
Oyster harvesting is an essential part of Lowcountry life and culture. It’s been a mainstay of local practice since before recorded time. Today, the Bluffton Oyster Company is one of the last hand shucking oyster factories operating in the United States. No modern technology here, Oysters are harvested and shucked the same way it's been done for over 100 years.
You are standing on over 100 years of discarded oyster shells and Lowcountry tradition. Look around you. See how the oyster factory and adjoining dock jut out from the natural riverfront shoreline? That’s because the “land” you are standing on is really a century of accumulated oyster shells.
But our story goes back even further...back before recorded history to a time when early man first walked these shores picking oysters, a ready food source that revealed itself every six hours at low tide. Indeed, archeologists have found Lowcountry shell “middens” (as shell piles are called), dating back more than 4,000 years!
May River oysters are “inter-tidal” which means they are exposed at low tide when the water recedes. This is a good thing because parasites cannot survive out of the water thus insuring the health of our local delicacy. “Sub-tidal” oysters, on the other hand, (like those found in Chesapeake Bay, Texas and Louisiana) lie on the seabed living under water all the time.
There are other differences as well. May River oysters grow atop each other in clusters of 20-30 oysters known as “cabbage heads” while sub tidal oysters appear singly on the bottom of the sea where they can be easily harvested by mechanical means such as dredging. There’s no such shortcut for harvesting cabbage heads. An oysterman pulls each cluster by hand using a hammer to knock it loose. It’s strenuous, back-breaking labor.
Tidal range in the May River is eight feet – much higher than two-foot tides in other parts of the country. (Beaufort County is 36% water at low tide and 50% water at high tide.)
This extraordinary tidal “flushing” is a natural cleansing for filter feeding oysters. It also increases the salinity of local waters, which many say is the secret behind the principal difference in May River oysters: Their exceptional taste.
All oysters have a distinct flavor nurtured by their environment. Our succulent Bluffton oysters are “salty/sweet” with a unique balance of sweetness and saltiness due to the salinity of the May River. Perhaps that’s why people from around the world prefer May River oysters and an oyster “industry” has existed here for generations.
Before the late 1800’s, however, oysters were not an industry, but daily survival for Native Americans and the “Gullah” people of the South Carolina sea islands. (The Gullah are descendants of West Africans brought to this country as slaves). For centuries, these subsistence farmers and fishermen would gather dinner every day at low tide.
Then in the late 1800’s something remarkable happened: Artificial ice making. It made large scale harvesting and processing possible. Oysters could be preserved and prepared for later consumption by those who could afford to purchase their food. This quickly gave rise to a thriving oyster industry with six oyster factories in Bluffton, four on Hilton Head and many others along the coast – 36 factories in Beaufort County alone.
All that started to change in the 1930s when the industry went into a slow decline. The reasons are many: Pollution in the days before the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act, overharvesting, but most of all real estate development. Oyster factories sit on prime waterfront property. Owners could get a much higher return using their land for yacht clubs, marinas and resorts. High-end condominiums now sit where Hilton Head oyster factories once stood.
Today, the Bluffton Oyster Company is the last continuously operated oyster factory in South Carolina. It is a 4th generation family business operated by Larry Toomer whose grandfather opened an oyster factory on Hilton Head in 1913. The Toomer family is synonymous with oysters. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, and children have all been involved in the oyster business. So, too, has Toomer’s other “family,” the men and women who pick and shuck oysters the same way their parents did for generations before them.
The picking season runs from September 15 to May 15. Picking is easiest in cold months when the mud shrinks and stiffens making oysters easier to find and get to. “Best to find ‘em when the mud shrinks,” old oystermen say.
This is more than folklore. Oysters are plumper in cold water. During winter months, one bushel of oysters yields twice as much meat as a bushel of summer oysters. Since pickers are paid by the pound, little wonder they like it when “the mud shrinks.”
To assure the freshest product, Larry only harvests what he can sell. Each day, he tells his pickers how many bushels he needs. They set out alone with the tools of their trade: A flat bottom boat, bushel baskets, hip boots, rubber gloves and a hammer.
Each picker has his favorite spots. The oystermen decide where to go; beach the boat; and start prying clusters from the mud. Once they get a cluster loose, they knock larger oysters into their basket returning the smaller ones to grow for another day’s harvest. It is heavy labor, bent over in the mud, with no mechanical assistance to harvest or lift 60 lb. bushel baskets into the boat.
Back at the oyster factory, the oysters are washed and passed on to the shuckers who open the oysters with a special knife. Years ago, each picker brought his wife, daughter, sister or grandmother to shuck his oysters. The pickers and shuckers were a team paid by the weight of shucked oysters, which they split 50/50. This tradition continues today with each shucker opening the oysters of a specific picker.
Fast efficient shucking with no damage to the oyster is a lost art. The best shuckers are women in their 70’s and 80’s who can open an oyster the size of your thumbnail in seconds without cutting themselves or the oyster. It’s a lifestyle passed on by their forbearers. And unless you have tried shucking an oyster, you can’t imagine how very difficult it can be.
Now let’s go back to where we started. The shells you are standing on. Oyster spawn –called “spat”– need a solid substrate to attach to such as bridge pilings...or other oysters. It’s why you see cabbage heads of clustered oysters. In years past, shells were tossed outside factories, piling up like the shells under your feet. But responsible oystermen like Larry Toomer, “re-seed” oyster beds by returning empty shells to the inter-tidal zone. This gives spat a solid base to grow on. “It’s our future,” says Larry. “If we don’t do it, it’s like cutting all the trees and not planting new ones.” Each year, Larry returns 6,000 bushels of shells to the May River. This way the Bluffton Oyster Company, and its unique Lowcountry way of life, will continue on for the next 100 years.