When you got into Baltimore, you'd fall short maybe twenty-five, thirty bushel...'Cause they took a good round bushel, you know, out of it. And this is life, the way we lived it.
Erwood Avery, Age 84 (1991)
Rise and Fall of Crabs and Oysters
On the Chesapeake Bay, oyster harvests peaked in the 1880s — during Captain Avery's lifetime — while crabs catches didn't reach their peak until a century later in the 1980s.
In the mid-19th century, the demand for oysters grew with the rise in the nation's population and a new wave of immigration to America. The opening of oyster canneries in Baltimore in the 1840s and the completion of the American railroad further fueled demand and provided the ability to get oysters to eager markets. Northern packers and oystermen — like Captain Salem Avery of Blue Point, Long Island — migrated to the Chesapeake Bay to join the flourishing oyster industry. At oystering's peak in the 1884 — 1885 season, waterman harvested 15 million bushels from the Bay. One hundred years later, the Chesapeake Bay yielded less than 100,000 bushels of oysters.
Crabbing and crab feasts are more of a 20th century phenomenon. Crabs were first offered for sale in the late 1800s, and Maryland's first crab cannery opened in 1900. In the early
20th century, hard-shell crabs were not nearly as popular as today. People preferred "peelers" and soft-shell crabs. Crabbing was not even a viable way to earn a living until after World War II. Longtime Shady Side residents remembered shipping bushels of crabs to Baltimore by steamboat and not making enough money to pay the freight. All of that changed as crabs became a popular menu item. By the 1980s, Chesapeake crab harvests reached their height at 100 million pounds.
Captain Salem Avery and his son Salem Walter Avery were both "middlemen" in the oyster industry. They were buy boat captains who would anchor out on the water, hoist flags to indicate their readiness to buy, pay tongers on the spot in cash, and then take the catch to the docks in Baltimore or to local packing houses. Buy boats made it possible for the watermen to remain on the job and the assured the freshness of the catch.
My father's occupation was an oyster buyer, and he shipped them as far as Baltimore. His boat had no power on it. It was sixty-five feet long and held 1,400 bushel of oysters. I've sailed with her up and down the Bay. Occasionally, he'd go to the Rappahannock River, and haul and freight wheat back to Baltimore. We used to put those oysters out on a long dock which now is a build-up of the harbor in Baltimore. That's where we used to sell
them most of the time.
— Bernard Avery, age 73 (1984)
Oysters were taken to the packing houses to be shucked, packed, and shipped to rail lines serving Pittsburgh, Chicago, and even San Francisco. In the 1930s, packing houses sprung up closer to oyster beds, and Baltimore's seafood plants began closing. By the mid-20th century, the West River area boasted seven oyster packing houses — two on the Parrish Creek, one on South Creek, and four in Galesville. Crab processing was more of a cottage industry in the West River area. Women steamed and picked crabs in their homes, packed the meat in pound containers, and marketed most of the harvest locally to residents of the community's many summer cottages and boarding houses.
They had an oyster house. They had oyster shuckers come in here...mostly Polish. They'd come down from Baltimore, and live in those little shanties in there. Then they would move on, and another group would come in, and they canned the tomatoes...
That's My Living — Following the Water