The World is Your Oyster
Daufuskie Island - the perfect home for oysters
Because the Daufuskie oyster is so well known, one might think that it is a type of oyster. Actually, the Daufuskie oyster is a Crassostrea Virginica, a common species which can be found in abundance from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. However, because of the island’s unique shoreline and tidal range combined with a lengthy spawning season, Daufuskie oysters grow in clusters rather than individually.
Valued Throughout History
Native Americans have lived in the Low Country for at least eight thousand years. It is clear that they, and later the settlers, valued the oysters as evidenced by the massive mounds of shucked oyster shells that have been found on the island. Not only was the meat delicious to eat but the shells had a variety of uses.
Native Americans used shells to make tools which were traded with inland tribes. Early settlers baked the shells to extract lime. The lime, which was used as fertilizer, was also mixed with sand, oyster shells and water to create a type of concrete called tabby. Able to withstand the elements, tabby was used in the building of houses and other structures. The largest of these was the plantation home at Haig’s Point built in 1838. Examples of oyster-based tabby ruins can be seen throughout Daufuskie.
A Promise for the Industrious
From the 1800s until the start of World War II, oysters were a booming business in South Carolina. Basically free and plentiful, they were enjoyed by all classes of people and provided exciting opportunities for the industrious to become wealthy and influential.
Take, for example, Luigi Paoli Maggioni, an Italian immigrant who started the L. P. Maggioni and Company in 1870. His plan was for the company to sell shellfish and other small items from a fish market on the Isle of Hope near Savannah. By the 1880s, he had leased oyster beds and opened a raw shuck oyster house on Daufuskie Island. In 1893, in the same location, he opened the L. P. Maggioni and Company Oyster Factory where oysters were harvested, shucked, steamed and canned, and then transported by sailboats (and later motorboats) to Savannah.
At the height of the oyster industry, with people coming over from Savannah and other neighboring islands to work, Daufuskie’s population may have reached 1,000. In 1903, when the Maggioni cannery was moved to Savannah, shucking factories and a number of shucking shacks were built on the island. Many of the workers were Gullah (descendants of freed slaves) and Polish immigrants who gathered oysters from intertidal beds lining many creeks and bays around Daufuskie. Both pickers and shuckers were paid with oyster tokens from the canneries.
If you were to walk the shores of Daufuskie in those days, you would have seen piles of shells on the beaches and men floating in bateaux (locally-built, highly efficient boats) as they combed the local waters for oysters. They used rakes and shovels in the shallows and long-handled tongs in deeper waters to collect oyster clusters and bring them to the shucking factory or to the shucking shacks where the women did the shucking. Once shucked, the oysters were transported on ice to Savannah for canning. In June, after the oyster canning season was over, the pickers would plant shell on the beds to serve as cultch for the next crop of oysters.
Daufuskie Island oysters were considered a delicacy and were known as far away as Bar Harbor and New York. It’s reported that the Tsar of Russia even enjoyed Daufuski Oysters. This brand name (without the ‘e’) was used by Maggioni and Company to market its oysters worldwide. In the 1920s, it is estimated that at least 3,500 people were employed in the oyster canning industry and, at one point, there were at least 25 oyster steam factories in 17 different locations in the area including Hilton Head and Daufuskie Island. By then, the L. P. Maggioni and Company, which had been started as a small retail fish store, included fifteen canneries throughout South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Sunset on the Oyster Industry
Things changed for the oyster industry with the depression of the 1930s and World War II which took many workers away from the oyster industry. After the war, workers found better job opportunities elsewhere and the shortage of workers became a problem. In the 1950s, pollution from the Savannah River contaminated Daufuskie’s oyster beds. In the 1980s, two economic factors made it even more difficult for the struggling industry to survive. Government welfare programs paid workers as much for not working as factory wages paid their employees. The wage and hour law that was broadened to include all cannery workers resulted in a heavy increase in labor costs to the canneries. The last Maggioni factory closed for good after the 1986 spring season.
Sunrise on the Oyster Industry
Although the commercial oyster market all but ceased to exist, people hadn’t lost their insatiable appetite for oysters. Thus a mom-and-pop industry began to supply hand-shucked oysters to small fish stores or to individuals. David Clemons of Little River, S.C., described how his parents often made a living in the wintertime by selling hand-shucked oysters. They gathered them in the morning, shucked them in the afternoon and delivered them to the customers (restaurants or residents) the same day. Despite the lack of ice and little or no supervision, few, if anyone, ever got sick from consumption of these shellfish.
For many years, particularly in the northern coastal section of the state, individual shuckers were the only source for obtaining local raw shucked oysters. With government health regulations becoming more prevalent, these local shuckers came to be known as “bootleggers.” Oyster lovers swore that no better oysters could be found and resisted all efforts to close them down. According to county records of a little South Carolina town, the Director of the South Carolina Marine Fisheries sought to curtail the practice of home oyster shucking. He arrested eight or nine of the oyster purveyors and brought them up before the local magistrate. The magistrate, who might have been a consumer of these delectable oysters, saw nothing wrong with what they were doing, so he promptly dismissed all charges, much to the Director’s chagrin.
In addition to supplying individual markets and retail fish stores, several local oyster shucking houses got together and began to supply oysters to companies that breaded and froze them. These included Joe Pinckney and Chief Toomer of Daufuskie Island.
The Oyster Market Today
Nearly all oysters produced in South Carolina at the present time are sold in the shell and utilized by roasts. This vertical roast market consists of the many annual oyster roast events (sometimes attended by more than 1,000 people) and food establishments which, in season, either offer roasted oysters as the only entrée on their menus or offer them in various forms as specialties on their regular fall menus.
Reefs – Home for Happy Oysters
In response to this continuing demand, healthy oyster reefs, which provide a home where oysters can mature, have become more important. Because of its unique shoreline and tidal range, Daufuskie provides a perfect setting for oyster reefs. Building an oyster reef begins with the planting of a healthy material called cultch which will attract juvenile oysters. Since adult oysters and even shells of dead oysters emit chemicals that attract oyster larvae, it’s not surprising that the best cultch is an oyster shell. Clean shell (no trash) is most often collected from area oyster factories. It is then planted in a suitable location where there is evidence of current or past oyster habitat and appropriate salinity and flow to sustain oyster growth. A mature reef requires at least three years to develop.
In April of this year, thirty volunteers, led by South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources SCORE program, participated in building Daufuskie’s first man-made oyster reef. It was laid in just one day from shell provided by the Bluffton Oyster Factory. The newly planted reef will begin to attract oysters immediately.
The oyster reefs that result from the presence of these delicious, juicy little creatures are also good for the environment. Oyster reefs improve the water quality of the island’s estuaries. A single oyster can actually filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs keep erosion at bay and provide a habitat for fish, shrimp, and crabs. Healthy oyster reefs are essential for maintaining and increasing the oyster population.
South Carolina - the Napa Valley of Oysters
As good as oysters are to eat, they are also good for you. Oysters are a healthy food. They are high in protein, essential vitamins and minerals and low in calories and fat. Oyster season in South Carolina runs from September through April. If the month has an r in it, it is oyster eating time and Daufuskie becomes the social scene for oyster festivals and oyster roasts. Many residents actually harvest their own clumps as part of the fun. Maps of public oyster beds and guidelines for harvesting are available from the SC Department of Natural Resources.
With mouth-watering thoughts and big-time dreams, oyster connoisseurs have begun whispering that South Carolina could become the Napa Valley of Oysters. Like Napa grapes, the flavor profile, the merrier, of South Carolina oysters varies according to where they are found. At tasting parties, words like “sweet, salty, earthy, light” are used to describe the merrier. Identifying the salinity and complexity of the oyster is akin to tasting and rating wines.
In 2016, the Year of the Oyster (YOTO) Program helped put oysters and Daufuskie back in the limelight. In 2017, Daufuskie’s first man-made oyster reef again brought attention to Daufuskie oysters. It’s events like these that give us all a greater appreciation for the treasure we have in our incredible, delectable, delightful Daufuskie oysters.