- Historic Sites
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
All that is left now of Grandpa’s village is a handful of well-worn homes on the peninsula side of Shoalwater Bay (now officially Willapa Harbor—but the water remains shoal), a small estuary of the Pacific Ocean in the sparsely populated southwestern corner of the state of Washington.
Four hundred feet of salt meadow protect the village from the bay, but the breastwork is a porous one. In December swollen morning tides turn the meadow into an archipelago of gorse-topped islands. My parents’ home, now the property of their surviving children, seems afloat then, and I have known the street behind it to become a waterway for rowboats and rafts.
A hundred inches of rain fall in a normal year; we have mutated so that we breathe comfortably in air that is half water. I suspect that if the peninsula sank, we could live under water entirely.
Grandpa’s village is a far reach from the rest of the world even today; but when I spent my knee-pants years there, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the reach was even farther.
We lagged by a half century in physical comforts—and, I suppose, in social attitudes. I was more than six years old when the first automobile reached us and more than ten before we Espys had a car of our own. I was eight before we could boast a gramophone—a wind-up contraption that pitted a revolving black cylinder against a scratchy, grimly determined needle. I was fourteen years of age when we blew out our last coal-oil lamp and flushed our first toilet.
We stayed still while the seasons revolved around us.
In January tens of thousands of brant, a seaweed-eating goose that we mistakenly considered inedible, outlined the bay a few hundred feet from shore. Their quacking was as mournful, ominous, and interminable as a Greek chorus.
In February herring (tastiest of fish they seemed to me then) swarmed over the ocean bar in such prodigious quantities that they must have raised the level of the bay. The ebbing tide left them thrashing in backwaters; we scooped them up in buckets, sieves, souwesters, and, if all other containers had been pre-empted, in the sweaters off our backs.
By March the sound of the brant was fading, but lovesick frogs in the marshes were calling, and tadpoles in stagnant ponds were dreaming of the records they would break once they had their hind legs.
In April leaves replaced the pussy willows, and a green haze blurred the silhouettes of the alder trees.
In May lilacs, azaleas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons caught fire in the rain, and we suddenly realized that the gorse had turned golden and the Scotch broom canary yellow.
In June, if we were lucky, there were traces of sun. In July we counted on a northwest wind to spring up every afternoon and spin the vanes of our mill so that it would pump until the water barrels on the roof ran over. When the wind failed, we children did the pumping.
August was the month of dahlias, marigolds, and chrysanthemums. September brought school and equinoctial storms. In October we harvested cranberries, inching on hands and knees, straddling rows that were low and red and wet. In November ducks and geese cried endlessly in the flyways, marshes, and lakes.
In December the old folks died.
The name of Grandpa’s village, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, is Oysterville. You will find it on few maps, today. Yet in 1891 an Encyclopaedia Britannica map named it in type three times the size of Seattle or Tacoma. At that time it was the center of the oystering industry on the Pacific coast … the seat of Pacific County … a way station for sea traffic between San Francisco and the Puget Sound.
The story of its genesis, rise, and decay goes back a hundred and twenty-four years.
It all began when the schooner Robert A. Bruce dropped anchor on the mainland side of Shoalwater Bay in December, 1851.
In those days California prospectors were squatting all day by gravelly streams, panning for gold and subsisting on hardtack, beans, and coffee, with an occasional dividend of venison or bear meat. When at long intervals they flung themselves into San Francisco’s open and undiscriminating arms, they gave rewarding food priority even over obliging women. To palates depressed by hardtack any seafood was a salty and invigorating miracle. Oysters were a resurrection.
This brings me to the Bruce boys, who were not boys but seven Maine fishermen who had called on Lady-Luck in the gold country and found she was out. They decided to cut their losses and prospect for oysters instead. To this end they pooled their money to hire the Bruce , an eighty-two-foot two-master abandoned by her New York crew in favor of the gold fields. The Bruce boys sailed northward for Shoalwater Bay, reputed to grow the tastiest oysters in the world.
There they built cabins and hired Indians to gather oysters for sale to later comers. Soon the whole mainland side of the bay was their oyster.