The Oyster Shuckers

Karen Fox / Early Summer 2021

A Unique Maritime History
By Karen Fox

The billowing high, wide sails of the historic oyster schooner the A. J. Meerwald are a familiar sight gliding across the ocean waters off Cape May. Its home port, though, is a remote place: 38 miles up the Delaware Bay on a scraggy coast surrounded by thousands of acres of swamp and saltmarsh. The Meerwald anchors at Bivalve, at the last big twist of the Maurice River as it flows into the bay.  

Aerial view of Bivalve and shipping sheds on the Maurice River, 1932. Photo courtesy of Delaware Bay Museum

It is here, at the three villages of Bivalve, Shellpile, and Port Norris, that the “Oyster Capital of the World” flourished from the late 1800s into the 1940s. At the peak of the industry, in the 1920s, records show 60 million oysters were harvested; 700,000 containers were shipped annually, and up to 80 railroad cars a day transported the oysters to Philadelphia, New York and other east coast markets.

In those days, Port Norris, in Cumberland County, was one of the wealthiest towns in New Jersey, with multiple millionaires living in the handsome Victorian houses lining the streets.

The oysters were sorted, shucked, and packed in shipping sheds. Two of 30 sheds built in 1904 have been restored, equipped, and furnished to look and feel as they functioned in the 1920s. The rehabbed sheds serve as centerpieces of the Delaware Bay Museum, located on the Bivalve waterfront, steps from the A.J. Meerwald’s home dock. The Meerwald, built in 1928 and restored in the 1990s, represents one of the hundreds of similar masted schooners that once lined the shores at Bivalve when oysters were its rich livelihood.    

The practice of shucking was an intense, unique skill, requiring hours of standing in “the box” or stall, opening shells carefully with a stab or break, removing the precious juicy sea meat inside, then dropping each morsel in pint or gallon containers. Shuckers were paid by the volume they produced—in the 1920s, for example, 25 cents a gallon, or for a day’s work, about five dollars. Experienced shuckers took less than three seconds to pop the shell with precision, knowing that some shells are sharp as razors, because to tear the edible delicacy inside is to ruin it.

Oyster shuckers at work. Photo by Harvey W. Porch, courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society

Shuckers were almost exclusively African American. Most were recruited from the Chesapeake Bay villages and islands in southern Maryland where families learned the ways of the water. For generations they had harvested and picked crabs for market. Workers migrated with the oyster season to Delaware Bay, returning home to the Chesapeake a bit wealthier. Years of hard work and long hours afforded some shuckers the resources to rent or buy their own year-round homes in the oyster community. Many of their descendants live there today.   

There were two towns: Port Norris, where the oyster industry owners lived, and South Port Norris, or as it became known, Shellpile, where the workers were segregated and provided wooden shacks. The name Shellpile was derived from the mountains of discarded smelly oyster shells that still line the sides of the road.

Photos of Shellpile’s spartan living conditions were documented in 1938, when photographer Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) focused on shuckers as subjects for his black and white images of the rural poor in America. At the time, Rothstein worked for a U.S. government program, the Farm Security Administration. His photographs, archived at the Library of Congress, are considered some of the most significant images of Depression-era families. Shot over several days in Bivalve and Shellpile, Rothstein’s photos show the harsh lifestyle the shuckers endured. Their shanties lacked proper heat, plumbing, and electricity, and were part of the culture until the late 1970s when public housing was constructed and Shellpile became a ghost town.       

The art of shucking was passed down from one generation to the next. Beryl Whittington [1919-2013] was a teenager working in Shellpile at the time of the Rothstein photos. He migrated with his parents, seasonal shuckers, in 1928 from near Crisfield, Maryland. He became a full-time resident of Shellpile in 1940. In oral histories collected in 2005 and 2009 by the Delaware Bay Museum, Whittington recalled: “For culling eight pints of oysters, 55 cents when I come up here. I can’t say nothing too good about none of them because they was slave drivers.

Oyster shuckers at work. Photo by Harvey W. Porch, courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society

“If you didn’t make those oysters right you didn’t have no job,” said Whittington. “They wouldn’t let you leave unless you dumped the pile of oysters there. You had to stand there and pick every one of them. It was up to you, if you wanted a job, you had to do it right.

“I could shuck up here 20 to 22 gallons a day,” he said. “Some of them guys could go 35 to 40 gallons almost a day. I had an uncle who could do it. And, singing the spirituals and keeping the morale up to keeping it going.

“Clyde Phillips formed the union was the only time he got that time cut down to six to two [meaning eight work hours] yes sir, it was six to six, five to five [12 work hours]. If you didn’t work you didn’t have no job.

“There was heat, [in the shucking sheds] but not the kind of heat that they have today,” said Whittington. “We had them coal stoves, little pot-bellied coal stoves, one or two in the oyster houses. You had to get off your oyster box to get down and get warm.

“It was a shame,” he said. “It was a sin where we had to live in them houses. There were holes in the wintertime we had to take boxes and put up inside. I’m telling you how it was. I don’t need to tell you the good part. I will tell you the bad part.” 

Now, 80 years later, Whittington’s son, Donald “Biggie” Cisrow, is an oyster shucker at the Oyster Cracker Café, a restaurant sharing the A. J. Meerwald’s wharf. “My father taught me how to shuck when I was 16 back in the ‘70s. There weren’t many jobs, and I didn’t know how to do anything else,” he says. “I worked in the oyster shed every day eight to 10 hours when I was a kid. I started out making about seven dollars a day. As an adult, in the late 80s, on a good day I could make $100 to $150, four to five bushels in an hour. There are breakers and stabbers. I prefer stabbing. You pick up the oyster and smack it, let it breathe a little so you can get the knife in. Let the knife feel its way in. Don’t puncture the balloon, save the juices, the liquor.” Breakers hold the oyster in the palm of the hand and hit it with a piece of iron that’s in a board and knock the tip off to open the shell.

“My mother, Evelyn Cisrow, and my father met in the shucking house. Most of my family worked in the oyster industry. My father was the cook on the oyster boat the Cashier. My brothers and I worked the boat. We had a crew of eight, four guys on each side, getting on our knees, grabbing the lines, pulling in the oyster dredge. We would be out on the bay 10 hours in the winter, 16 hours in summer riding the water 20 miles out. My dad was in the galley below. He could really cook, and they wanted us to be really well fed. The bosses made sure my dad had all the food he wanted to make us meals fit for a king. For breakfast, potatoes, bacon, sausage, pancakes. For lunch, some steaming beef soup, cheese and bologna sandwiches, and for dinner, fried chicken out of a cast iron pan, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, greens, and hot, homemade rolls. He stayed in that galley and sweated and cooked. Everybody loved my dad.”

Oyster shuckers at work. Photo by Harvey W. Porch, courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society

Beryl Whittington played baseball in the Port Norris Oyster League. Weekend sports were relief from the hard labor in the sheds and at sea. He was a baseball coach and a teacher of gospel song. “My brothers, sisters and I sang in the John Wesley Methodist Church choir,” says Donald Cisrow. “We grew up on The Jackson Five and sang as a family, five-part harmony.” The Whittington-Cisrow family in 2004 represented Bivalve as tradition bearers for the Smithsonian Institute’s Waterways Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. They demonstrated boat and oyster cooking and sang gospel.

“Music was the soul of the shuckers,” says Donald. “That was the tradition – shuckin’ and singin’. My twin brother and I worked next to each other. We sang old time hymns. There was rhythm to it—shells cracking, and call-and-response singing.  It was real emotional. My father would sing out something really inspirational, like lyrics from Steal Away, Won’t It Be Wonderful, Get Us Through Our Day, and everyone would follow in their own way with harmony and rhythm. It was like a symphony.  Sometimes the whole shed would really get it going –rattlin’ the windows, sounds echoing down the street and out the bay.” 

Donald “Biggie” Cisrow, 3rd generation oyster shucker at the Oyster Cracker Cafe.
Photo courtesy of Delaware Bay Museum

Donald Cisrow is known best by his nickname “Biggie” though he is not an oversized man. “My twin Ronald was born nine minutes before me, and I was bigger than he. So they called me Biggie and him Little, but as time went on, he was bigger than me. I miss him. He passed away three years ago. He was only 60.”

Donald says he is looking forward to getting back to shucking at the Oyster Cracker Café this season. “I enjoy telling customers my family story. Our old workboat Cashier is anchored right next to the raw bar. The museum is steps away where you can hear my dad and shuckers he worked with in their recorded personal memories.”

Museum curator Rachel Dolhanczyk says storytelling sessions have been held since the 1990s to preserve the life experiences, the oral histories, of those who have created this unique maritime culture on Delaware Bay. “These are memories and recollections about a time and a place you won’t find in the history books,” she says. The museum’s Abundant Oyster exhibit displays photos, tools, and timelines of when oysters were king in the community, and African Americans were the predominant work force. Most revealing are the oral histories.  

Lionel Hickman, in 2005, recalled: “When you would go into the shucking houses, there would be a staccato type of noise of the breaking and opening of oysters. Most shuckers had a rhythm. It was a host of different sounds and motions as well. In those days, most of the way money was made was by the gallon and they would sort the oysters as they shucked them for four grades of oysters.”

Georgia Robinson, in 2009, remembered: “They had oysters big as my hand. You had a stool and a block of wood and you stabbed the oysters. You had a piece of iron and you cracked the oysters and shucked them. That’s how we got into them. They had a block and they would break the shells. But we were stabbers. When we made $50 we were almost rich.”

Henry Hayes told an interviewer: “In them days a lot of them women could shuck oysters too. We had a lady could shuck them whole just like a picture. She didn’t cut them up. When you open an oyster, you cut it out by the heart, but if you cut it back by the lip, that makes it bleed. If you got a whole oyster… just cut by the heart top and bottom, that oyster measures up in the bucket. But if you cut him ragged… that makes him bleed. He dries up.”

Barry Ballard, 2009: “We were poor, but we didn’t know it. We didn’t have anything, but we had everything we needed. We didn’t have everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed. We were just happy people. In the summertime, we did baseball, pick-up basketball. I didn’t care for fishing. We picked beans, some picked tomatoes.”

Lionel Hickman, 2005: “We would often ride the train rails from Port Norris to Port Elizabeth and back. Of course, that was without paying a fee because we would steal rides on it. Our parents didn’t know we were doing that.”

Clyde Phillips, 2008: “I remember going down to the big house—Port Norris Oyster Company, down in Shellpile. This was pre-war because they would be singing the spirituals. There is a process of shucking where they would lean forward and grab an oyster off the pile with their right hand, then came back to the edge of the table or bench. There would be a block of wood with a vertical piece of metal in it—maybe an inch or an inch and a half wide—that they would lay the thin end of the oyster on it. They would hit it just to break the bill off—just enough to get the blade in, and they would hardly miss a beat doing that.”

The story of this small, isolated community that labored long hours with precision under mostly unsafe, uncomfortable conditions was the subject of a nationally distributed 1929 black-and-white film now in the museum archives. It shows workers shucking while singing gospel and pulling in overloaded oyster dredges from the bay. This season a new documentary is scheduled to be produced called Traditions in Transition: New Jersey Oyster Shuckers.

Oysters continue to be harvested from the bay, and shucked by hand, but it is now a boutique industry, only a fraction of what it was a century ago. Museum Curator Dolhanczyk says the purpose of the documentary is to bring awareness to the lives, past and present, of the African American and Latino shuckers in the oyster industry. The plan, she says, is to premiere the film at the annual Oyster Roast, to be held on October 23.

Donald Cisrow, the third generation shucker at the Oyster Cracker Café, is looking forward to the celebration.  He notes when oyster lovers gather, there is often talk about trying  to define the taste and texture of this delicate water-born creature—be it crispy or tender; briny, fruity, smoky, musky, nutty, buttery, citrusy. Like wine, oysters tend to take on the unique flavor—the terroir—the taste of the place involving its environment, climate, water, soil, vegetation.

Perhaps the most eloquent description of the taste are the words of French poet Leon-Paul Fargue, who said eating an oyster is “like kissing the sea on the lips.”