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Museum Celebrates Oyster History

November 11, 2002

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ST. MICHAELS, Md. (AP) _ Before the feisty blue crab climbed to the top of the heap, the oyster was king of Chesapeake Bay seafood.

Throughout the 1800s and well into the 1900s, the un-photogenic mollusk in the lumpy gray shell was more plentiful to catch and more popular to eat than crabs _ now Maryland’s signature seafood dish.

Hundreds of oyster shucking and canning houses lined the waterways on both sides of the bay, from Norfolk, Va., up to Baltimore, forming the backbone of the region’s economy. On some parts of the Eastern Shore, such as Talbot County, the majority of male residents listed ``oystering″ as their vocation in the 1880 U.S. Census.

``Crabbing was just something you did ’til oyster season came back,″ said John R. Valliant, president of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

In October, the museum completed an acquisition that it hopes will help put the bay’s oystering heritage into perspective: nearly 900 rare and antique cans, advertising signs and assorted knickknacks devoted to what’s known in shore parlance as ``arsters.″ Museum representatives believe it is the largest and most valuable collection of its kind.

The Chesapeake used to supply oysters for much of the eastern half of the country, but the harvest plummeted in the mid-20th century due to over-harvesting, pollution and disease. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that today’s population stands at less than 2 percent of its abundance before European settlers arrived. The number of canneries has dwindled to a hardy few.

Valliant’s great-grandfather, William H. Valliant, once owned a canning factory in Bellevue. Eating oysters today generally means raw on the half-shell, served as an occasional appetizer or bar food. But Valliant remembers eating them once or twice a week in season _ which generally lasts as long as the months have ``Rs″ in them: September through April.

``When I was a kid, and actually in my family to this day, we ate oysters as long as they were available,″ he said. Cookbooks in the collection attest to the variety of ways oysters were served, from omelets and fritters to soups and stews.

Among the artifacts are a 1912 calendar, paperweights and oyster-shaped flasks once given out as promotions for canning houses. There’s sheet music for ``The Oyster Rag″ by Tom Lyle. ``So you can get an idea what a big part of the culture it was,″ said Lindsley Rice, assistant curator of the museum.

But the heart of the collection, which has been appraised at more than $200,000, is the nearly 600 metal containers and cans ranging in capacity from eight ounces to five gallons. Many of those are gallon-sized and look just like paint cans _ complete with wire handles _ and once contained the fruits of a bushel of oysters, which contains about 80 to 120 of the meaty mollusks.

The cans come from all around the Chesapeake, though most are either from Baltimore _ then the biggest canning center on the bay _ and Crisfield, once dubbed ``Seafood Capital of the World.″

One can from Chas. Neubert & Co. of Baltimore touts its oysters as ``The kind with that natural delicious salty tang of the sea.″ Another, dating from the 1950s, is decorated with a waterman who bears a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley.

All the cans came from one source: Ronnie Newcomb, an Eastern Shore collector who began accumulating them in the 1970s. Newcomb, a field supervisor for Verizon, lives in Church Creek. He already had collections of hunting decoys and other Chesapeake Bay memorabilia.

``Through my decoy collecting and travels, I started noticing the oyster tins with their really nice colorful labels,″ said Newcomb, who stored them all in his house and garage. ``It was funny to me, all these same oysters were going into so many different cans with different labels.″

Newcomb says he took trips all over the United States tracking down the articles, finding them anywhere from Midwestern antique shops to ``some old lady (who) saves a tin and puts buttons in it.″

It was hard for him to part with the memorabilia when he sold it to the museum this fall. Today, it is stored in a warehouse as the curators decide how best to display it all. Valliant said he would like all the cans to be out at one time in an exhibit that highlights Newcomb’s role as a collector.

After that, they’ll be worked into permanent and rotating displays at the museum. Historians will be able to study them, looking for insights into the economy, culture and population shifts in two centuries.

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On the Net:

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum: http://www.cbmm.org

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