Memory Lane

MEMORY LANE

CONNETQUOT, NEW YORK

Local Baymen: Past and Present

Back when oysters were a culinary craze in the 1800s and early 1900s, the Blue Point oyster was one of the most highly prized. The New York Times reported in 1867, “the oysters of France and other countries, though many of them large and inviting in appearance, are flabby, watery and tasteless when compared with our own incomparable ‘Blue-Points’ or ‘Saddle-Rocks’. “1 Because there was a high demand for Blue Points oysters and they could be successfully planted and harvested in the Great South Bay, an oyster industry boomed in our area.


Back in 1880, a high percentage of the male population in Oakdale was listed in the census as baymen. The largest shippers of the famed Blue Points oysters in 1899 were reportedly Jacob Ockers, the Westerbeke Brothers, and Charles E. Mills, all of whom had oyster plants in Oakdale. 2 In 1888, ninety out of a hundred men in the villages of Sayville and West Sayville owned an oyster lot on the bay and would make $5 to $6 a day. Suffolk County News reported, “A large proportion of the oysters find a ready market in Oakdale, where they are packed in barrels for shipment to New York and Europe.” 3


During the boom years of oysters, many Dutch immigrants who had worked in the oyster industry in Holland were drawn to the area in the pursuit of earning a living by shell fishing in the United States.  They settled and built homes mainly in West Sayville on Cherry, West, Division, Tyler, Rollstone, Atlantic and a portion of Brook, which were streets and avenues close to the oyster processing companies, especially the Blue Points Company, which was located at the foot of Atlantic Avenue.


However, one Dutch bayman named Jacob Ockers, who lived in Oakdale, would be nicknamed “the oyster king.” He was born in January 1847 in the Netherlands and came with his family to the United States in the early 1850s. 4 The Ockers family settled in Oakdale and made their living on the bay.  Jacob Ockers would become probably the largest individual oyster grower and shipper in the United States.  Back in the late 1800s, he owned sizable acreage on the Oakdale shoreline which he used for his business. The land bordered Frederick G. Bourne’s Indian Neck Hall estate.  Bourne, who was the president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and a millionaire, was not comfortable with oyster shacks bordering his property. He bought the land from Ockers, who made a large profit on the sale and was also able to obtain a lease to continue using the facility. However, in 1908 Bourne terminated Ocker’s lease, forcing him to relocate the Oakdale operation to West Sayville. 5 From newspaper accounts of the day, it seems reasonable to surmise that Bourne and Vanderbilt did their best to prevent the oyster and fishing industry from growing in Oakdale, even forcing relocation of what was in Oakdale to West Sayville. After all of these events, Jacob Ockers would still keep Oakdale as his home where he died in 1918. 6 His house, which is located on Montauk Highway, still exists and is owned and maintained by the Town of Islip.


During the 1930s, the oyster industry was in trouble. A series of storms caused new inlets along the barrier beaches. This changed the salinity of the bay which caused the growth of “drills,” a small predatory snail that drills into oysters. Hurricanes also buried and drowned baby oysters in silt. Because it takes four to five years for oysters to mature, lean years followed the storms.


With oysters becoming a scarcity, baymen turned to clams, which were still abundant in the Great South Bay. In 1968, baymen dredged and raked up 5,536,836 pounds of hard clams which accounted for almost half of the U.S. production. 7 A decade later, clamming was still a lucrative business. During 1976, the towns of Babylon, Brookhaven and Islip collectively issued 6,500 clamming permits. 8 One photograph of the Great South Bay from the 1970s, captures an image of the bay crowded with clamming boats; the scene resembling a traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway. 9 Unfortunately, the clamming boom also didn’t last. Overharvesting, dredging, stormwater runoff pollutants, and issues from the local sewer system, were believed to be some of the factors in the decrease of the South Shore’s clam population. 10 Fearing that the livelihood of Islip fishermen was in jeopardy, the town enacted several programs in 1984. 11 They were unsuccessful. When the Nature Conservancy took title to 11,500 acres of the Great South Bay in 2002, they surveyed the clam population and were surprised that the results were worse than expected. They found no clams at 52 of their 74 sampling stations, and only a handful at the others. 12 Most of the baymen have either relocated or found other careers. We spoke with one of a few full-time baymen still fishing in the Great South Bay. Russell Bucking is a Babylon resident who began his career in the 1960s. Listen to him tell us about fishing now and his memories of the West Sayville Dutch community.

 

  1. Our Oysters: Where They Come From and What They Cost Us. New York Times. August 27, 1867. ProQuest Historical: New York Times.
  2. 1880; Census Place: Oakdale, Suffolk, New York. Enumeration District: 321. Ancestry.com.
    Sayville’s Fat Beds. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. September 1 1899. The Westerbeke Brothers moved their oyster shipping plant from Oakdale to West Sayville in 1902. A New Oyster Shipping Plant. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. August 11, 1902.
  3. Sayville Brevities: The Prospects on Our Bay. Suffolk County News. Feb 25, 1888. NYS Historic Newspapers by Suffolk Cooperative Library System.
  4. Public Member Trees. Ancestry.com.
  5. Oyster King” Must Move. Brooklyn Public Library. September 16, 1907. Fultonhistory.com
  6. Capt. Jacob Ockers Dead. New York Times. December 5, 1918. ProQuest Historical: New York Times.
  7. Our Flourishing Baymen. Newsday. December 6, 1969. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Newsday.
  8. Clamming Limits: Not all Dig the Idea Proposal Aims to Revive Fishery in Great South Bay Some Say Poor Water Quality is the Problem. Newsday. December 23, 2009. ProQuest Historical: Newsday.
  9. The Life of a Clam Digger (1972, Long Island) http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?125664-The-Life-of-a-Clam-Digger-(1972-Long-Island)/page4. Wiley Van Pelt member, posted Aug 7, 2012 #182.
  10. The Decline of the Clam. Newsday. March 6, 1983. ProQuest Historical: Newsday.
  11. Islip Eyes Programs to Aid Clam Industry. Suffolk County News. August 15, 1985. Fultonhistory.com.
  12. Revival Effort on the Half Shell. New York Times. Nov 23 2003. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

 

Russell Bucking Interview