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Arts & Culture

OREGON EXPERIENCE: The Oystermen

OPB | April 4, 2011 6:01 a.m. | Updated: Dec. 5, 2013 11:15 a.m.

“He was a bold man who first eat an oyster.” – Jonathan Swift, Ireland, 1738

Back in the 1850’s, throngs of East Coast people came West in search of gold. Some who failed went looking for something else almost as valuable – oysters. They found a mother lode in the shallow bays of Oregon and Washington. “The Oystermen,” the next episode in OPB’s OREGON EXPERIENCE series airing Monday, April 18 at 9pm, explores the historic dips and turns of the Pacific Northwest oyster business and celebrates some of its many colorful characters.

These unusual little creatures have played a distinctive role in Pacific Northwest history. Those 49ers had a tremendous appetite for oysters, and within a very few years “ … they had pretty much eaten every oyster out of San Francisco Bay.” The search was on for new oyster beds as far south as Mazatlan, Mexico and as far north as the Puget Sound.

In Oregon, the Yaquina Bay oyster industry began with a shipwreck in January 1852. Stranded in the area for several months, the captain and crew finally reached the Willamette Valley and promptly reported that the Yaquina River was abundant with oysters, clams and fish of all kinds. By 1863 two commercial oyster firms appeared on Yaquina Bay: Winant & Company, run by James Winant and Solomon Dodge who established the community of Oysterville; and Ludlow and Company.

At that time, the bay was part of the Coast Reservation, and disputes quickly arose about who could do what and at what cost in the area. The “battle for the bay” was on with potential settlers pushing for dismantling the Indian reservation and opening the area. And in the end, that is exactly what happened.

By the 1880s, the native oyster populations had been seriously depleted. Oystermen began to import and transplant juvenile oysters from the East Coast. And for a while, the oyster business flourished once more. But by the 1920s the industry was in trouble again. The comeback began with the discovery that seed oysters imported from Japan thrived in the cool waters off the Pacific Northwest coast.

Over the years, the industry has ridden a roller coaster of changing markets and changing tastes, depleted stocks and environmental impacts. “The Oystermen,” produced by OPB’s Eric Cain and edited by Lisa Kallem, is a story of interesting people and exotic species, water-quality issues and real-estate ventures and, of course, the many ways to grow – and to eat – an oyster.

Watch OREGON EXPERIENCE: THE OYSTERMEN online anytime after the broadcast at watch.opb.org.

About OREGON EXPERIENCE

OREGON EXPERIENCE is an exciting history series on OPB TV that brings to life fascinating stories that help us understand who we are and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. The series, co-produced by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), takes advantage of the extensive film, video and stills from the archives of OHS and OPB, and draws upon the expertise of OHS researchers and historians. Each half-hour show features captivating characters — both familiar and forgotten — who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. Funding for OREGON EXPERIENCE is provided in part by the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust.

About OPB

OPB is the largest cultural and education institution in the region, delivering excellence in public broadcasting to 1.5 million people each week through television, radio and the Internet. Widely recognized as a national leader in the public broadcasting arena, OPB is a major contributor to the program schedule that serves the entire country. OPB is one of the most-used and most-supported public broadcasting services in the country and is generously supported by 120,000 contributors.

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