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Long IslandHistory

The oyster was their world

Shellfishermen work the Great South Bay from catboats

Shellfishermen work the Great South Bay from catboats about 1900 - the oyster industry's peak. Then overfishing, contamination and the opening of the Moriches Inlet struck. Credit: Nassau County Museum Collection

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

In the closing days of the 19th Century, the streets of West Sayville were paved not with gold, but with oyster shells.

There was no oyster rush of speculators hoping to get rich quick in the shell game. But the prized taste of Great South Bay bivalves made that made shellfish entrepreneurs rich and provided a living for thousands of others who dredged the bays and toiled in canning factories.

No one profited more than Jacob Ockers, "the Oyster King." The oystermen were primarily Dutch immigrants. Ockers, who was born in Holland in 1847 and brought to America three years later, began working on his father's oyster schooner when he was 8, and had his own boat before his 17th birthday.

Ockers ascended the oyster throne by buying shellfish and shipping them to New York City by water. In 1876 he set up an oyster processing plant in Oakdale and became the largest dealer of Blue Point oysters. The Blue Points were so highly valued that in 1908 the state Legislature passed a law defining them as oysters that had spent at least three months growing in Great South Bay. Ockers eventually controlled beds as far away as New Jersey and Massachusetts. Over time, he purchased in full or in part 10 schooners, becoming the first dealer to export large annually in the 1890s.

Shellfishing had begun centuries before with the Indians and expanded in the early 1800s as settlers dug oysters and clams from shallow water using open boats and long, iron-toothed rakes known as tongs. Rowboats gave way to sloops, and by 1890, there were 25 oyster processing factories known as shanties in Bay Shore, Oakdale, Sayville, Blue Point and Patchogue. The oysters were shucked and sent in wooden barrels to the city, first by boat and in the late 1860s by the Long Island Rail Road.

Not all of Great South Bay was equal when it came to supporting shellfish. Oysters and clams would set, or reproduce, better in the eastern part of the bay but would grow faster and fatter in the western part. The key was that the western end was saltier. Not only did the seed oysters grow better in the fresher water, but it discouraged the oyster's enemies such as drills and starfish.

About 1847, baymen began to use the east bay as a source of seed oysters they transplanted to the west bay. About this time Brookhaven Town officials began to lease two-acre underwater lots for $2 a year. To prevent poaching and the taking of undersized oysters, the towns began issuing licenses and appointed inspectors known as "toleration officers." government intervention. The most dramatic exception occurred in 1861 when they asked for help. Shellfishermen along the south shore of Queens and Brooklyn were incensed that competitors from New Jersey were digging clams along the New York shore under cover of darkness. When the clamdiggers' request for state intervention was ignored, they patrolled the beds with shotguns, and battles ensued. Ultimately the baymen notified the state that they were seceding. They organized the "Rockaway Republic" with Gil Davis as governor. New York Gov. Edwin Morgan sent the militia to arrest Davis. He was never caught but the poachers were scared off by the troops.

By the time of the Civil War, baymen had swapped their tongs for bottom. By 1901, all the local oystermen had boats with power dredges.

The Great South Bay oyster industry received a boost in the 1870s when Connecticut shellfishermen developed a system of growing seed oysters they shipped to Long Island for sowing. The industry's high point came in the 20 years bracketing the turn of the century when more than 150,000 barrels of oysters a year were being shipped from the shanties along the bay.

But overfishing, contaminated runoff and nature swamped the oyster business. On March 4, 1931, a new inlet opened opposite Moriches and within a few years, as the salinity increased, all the best seed beds had been wiped out by predators. Baymen switched to clams, and, on the East End, scallops. The 1938 hurricane swept about a third of the bay's oysters and clams off their beds and buried them in deep water where process.

Not all large-scale oystering took place on the South Shore. Oyster Bay and other North Shore harbors also supported an industry until Frank M. Flower & Sons Co. of Bayville and Oyster Bay.

Its history begins in 1876 when William A. Flower staked out three acres of oyster beds in Mill Neck Creek, an arm of Oyster Bay. His son Frank added a fleet of power dredges about the turn of the century. Frank's sons Allen, Butler and Roswell built a base in Bayville around 1940 and in 1962 a hatchery was added to grow seed oysters and clams. The company, now owned by three long-time Flower employees, continues to cultivate and harvest oysters and clams from its leased beds, making it Long Island's only surviving traditional oyster company.

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