….The winter oyster operations were in full swing the next time I biked out to Esther’s place. Esther had enough workers to shuck the oysters, but she always found other stuff for me to do around the place and she paid me more than my weekly allowance at home. She said she got bored just watching over the workers and she liked someone to talk with. Me, I liked the chance to get away from the house. I helped out by keeping a low fire going in the wood stove, shifting crates and kettles when things got really busy, and other chores as needed.
“Will, get me one of those brown bottles up over the icebox. Just too damn cold out here; I gotta keep the blood flowing.” As I left the shed and headed for the house she yelled after me, “And drag some more wood into the kitchen while you’re at it!”
OYSTERING ON HOOD CANAL
Will’s family on his mother’s side, the Tolleruds, had been growing and harvesting oysters on Hood Canal ever since the mid 1800’s. Their operation was typical; a small family affair employing about half a dozen workers at the height of the season. Will’s uncle Lloyd and Lloyd’s mother Esther had both worked as shuckers when they were younger, but now Lloyd directed the planting and barge operations and Esther did the books and kept an eye on the workers out in the shed. Many of the day laborers hired during the season were Native Americans who lived along the Canal.
Growing and harvesting activities took place in the water just off shore, in beds covered with oyster shells. Lloyd and his workers would spread seed oysters over the beds and leave them to grow, and once the shellfish reached maturity (typically a year or so) workers would pole barges out over the site. At low tide the barge would sit on the bottom and the oysters could be raked together and pitchforked into the barge. At high tide the barge would be floated in to shore to the oyster preparation shed. There were usually enough oysters in one bargeful to keep two or three people busy shucking for an entire day.
Once the barge reached the shore workers would transfer the oysters to a shed for processing. The Tolleruds had a gasoline powered conveyer that carried the oysters from the barge. The conveyer belt went up to an opening in the top of the shed and dumped the oysters into a metal-lined silo. At the bottom of the silo was a wooden flap that dropped the oysters onto a table. You can envision an operation similar to that of an automatic dog food feeder; fill it up and as the dog pulls the pellets out at the bottom, more fall down.
Shuckers stood at the metal topped table and opened the shells, put the meat into metal buckets, and threw the empty shells on the floor. Later the shells would be gathered up and recycled to act as the medium on which oyster spat – oysters in the larva stage – would grow.
The oyster meat was then carried over to a second station, dumped into one gallon containers with drainage holes, and hosed down to clean out dirt and sand. The meat would then be packaged and sent off to market.
Barging oysters was physically demanding work, and there was always the danger of falling into the water and drowning. Oyster season stretched from October to May, the worst weather of the year in the Pacific Northwest, so outside work was extremely uncomfortable. Conditions inside the sheds weren’t much better. The sheds were dry, but most didn’t have any electricity, so the only light source was whatever sun came through a skylight in the roof. Most of the sheds weren’t well heated either, because it was important to keep the oysters cold.
All in all, it was a difficult way to make a living, made more difficult by the pollution that flowed daily into the bay from sawmills and paper mills in the surrounding towns. By the mid-1900’s the region’s famed Olympia oysters, described by Mark Twain as ‘the closest thing to heaven on earth’, were in danger of complete extinction, and a battle in court between the oystermen and the logging interests became inevitable.