From the shores of Eddings Point Landing on St. Helena Island, I watched as a lone oysterman launched his bateau. Only a few hundred rugged souls make their living gathering oysters in the salt marshes and rivers along the coast. It was just at the break of day when I arrived on my way to meet the owners of Maggioni Oyster Company, a company that’s been in business since 1870. But I was early that day and decided to linger awhile at the landing.
artwork by Ray Ellis
An Eddings Point morning deep in the heart of St. Helena Island rouses at its own pace as a lone oysterman leaves the shore in his wooden bateau, pushing off from the mudflats into distant channels. He will wind through streams, rivers, and places only he and God understand. Secrets of these unspoiled waters rest within him, hidden to all others. Nooks and crannies along the shoreline yield the undiscovered wealth of the mighty river.
Silently, he and his bateau gradually disappear into the fog, taking my imagination with him. He’s one with the river, his boat, at home in himself and his way of life and the endless search for hidden bounty along the shoreline and choppy waters. He has embraced the waterman’s life and entrepreneurial hard work.
Harvesting a wild bushel of muddy, craggy clusters native to this region’s salt marshes and integral to Lowcountry roasts requires hours bent over in the elements, cracking oysters apart with a metal tool. Whatever struggle led him to the river’s shoreline, he must feel it is worth enduring. The water ripples in front of him, disturbed only by the gentle flow of tidewater traveling to the distant ocean beyond the horizon.
photo by Andrew Branning
The ebb and flow of the river have shaped and reshaped life along the salt marsh since ancient times. Those living close to the water’s edge understand the riches this river will provide.
Early settlers to this area carved dugouts from large cypress logs and gathered oysters by hand. Little has changed over the years, as today our oystermen gather in virtually the same manner. Their bateaux, up until the ’90s, were rugged and river-worthy, much like the men who built them, averaging 16 to 20 feet in length and made to withstand running aground on rough shelled river banks over and over again. Their long, broad shape made them perfect for receiving enormous loads of oysters, 40 to 80 bushels at a time. If they were close enough, the harvesters rowed out and back to the shore by themselves. If not, they were towed by sailboats that released them one by one beside oyster beds along the way and returned on the incoming tide.
Years ago, fleets of crisp, white-sailed sloops, each with its string of bateaux slowly trailing along behind were a common sight on the river. As the years went by, motorized boats took their place and pulled the bateaux to and from their work, often pulling 10 to 15 at a time all in a line. (Sketch by Nancy Rhett of Beaufort)
Strong men loaded their oysters with knowledge and skill so as not to tip or sink in the choppy waters of the incoming tide. Manned by men with pride who had watched their fathers and grandfathers go out into these same rivers, the Colleton, Combahee, the Broad, the Okatie, and Chechessee, to find those quiet places known only to them. I know wars have been waged in these waters by men in white boots – wars against the elements of nature. Bitter winds of winter blew hard, creating at times, almost impossible conditions. Often working alone with the only sound being that of cast-iron claw tongs crunching into oysters, men lean down, take a few more steps, lean down again reaching into the mudflats, not just for any oyster, but for the prize, as generations had done before them.
Outside the oyster house, hard-working women would gather with the incoming tide as their oystermen returned on the high water with their loaded bateaux. These whitewashed cinder block structures stood at the river’s edge, ready to receive the bounty while seagulls shrieked overhead, piercing the chilling late afternoon air. Mounds of bleached shells surrounded the oyster shucking house in perfect testimony of what was soon to begin. Ladies with small, strong-tempered knives and wooden-handled hammers waited in patience nearby. Shovel loads of oysters were about to be heaved onto long cement tables.
painting by Michael Harrell
Standing on cinder blocks, oysters shoveled in front of them; the women stood chattering before beginning the crescendo of hammers opening shells.
Extended hours are spent in the oyster house by rugged women- Gullah women whose ancestors have known hardship and knew how to earn an honest wage. Listen as you head down Wharf Street in Bluffton on most any winter afternoon, and you may hear gospel hymns rising in the air. Just as their ancestors sang hymns in the fields of long ago, so they follow in their footsteps, passing the time by praising the Lord. The Bluffton Oyster House is the last remaining oyster shucking house South Carolina.
Most of the men working to the rhythm of the tides are old now. Their sons and grandsons have long ago left these sea islands just as the women who shuck the oysters have no one to follow after them. Images of women waiting at the water’s edge for men returning with oyster-laden boats are rapidly disappearing.
Steaming oysters by Sandra Roper
This story is an excerpt from the 10th Anniversary Edition of Shrimp, Collards, and Grits coming summer 2021.
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