Editor's Notebook: South Bend native captures the oyster industry

<p>Matt Winters</p>

There’s very little that would induce Pacific County’s oyster growers to gather in a darkened theater on a gorgeous late-August afternoon, all scrubbed up, combed down and surrounded by shyly beaming spouses and children.

There are always about five dozen wave-tossed tasks waiting to do, stewarding oysters along on their multi-year voyage from seed tank to dinner table.

It’s pretty unique for small-town working people to ever get to be the audience at a world-premiere documentary about themselves. That’s what happened Saturday in Raymond, Wash., when its elegant old community movie house was the venue for Willapa Bay Oysters.

It’s even rarer for a nonexpert to gain the trust and access achieved by filmmaker Keith Cox in this industry that often behaves as if it wishes an invisible force shield and Star Trek cloaking device could conceal the bay’s existence from the outside world.

Although oyster growers themselves would never be so fancy as to say so, referring to their business as an “industry” comes close to missing the point. In some ways they are more like the alchemists of the ancient world, turning dust not into gold but coveted shellfish.

Cox, a South Bend native with a first-class pedigree on the bay, throws open the curtain on this esoteric business and discovers gold of his own, in the form of awe-inspiring people, scenes and sounds. His project, spanning eight chapters that are encapsulated in the film shown in Raymond, has taken three years so far. A movie-industry professional who most recently has worked on the new Man of Steel and The Hobbit, Cox has a great eye and ear.

Ultimately, it’s easy to envision Willapa Bay Oysters becoming a segment on PBS’s NOVA series or the National Geographic Channel. You can find snippets of it on YouTube. If it gains a wide audience, the oyster growers of Willapa will have to learn to live with fame – what a terrifically appealing bunch of people they are.

Here are some excerpts of my email interview with Cox.

Why the fascination with Willapa oystering?

Truthfully I was originally more interested in doing something for the local communities as a way to give something back, than I was specifically attracted to oystering. After being inspired by my great grandfather Frank Turner, and grandparents Dick & Martha Murfin for their preservation of local history through the Ilwaco Tribune newspaper which they ran for over 50 years combined, I was just interested in doing a project which could help preserve an aspect of local history. I was friends with some of the oystermen, but my fascination has really grown throughout the project more than existed in the beginning.

Was there something you found especially surprising?

At first everything was surprising. I didn’t know anything about oystering, literally nothing. I don’t even eat oysters. At first I became captivated by all the oystermen themselves and the multi-generational family farms, so much history tracing back to the beginnings of the industry. … It surprised and fascinated me to learn that oyster beds that are right next to each other, not miles apart, literally right next door, can have different growth rates for the oysters … The water currents of the estuary are so complex and constantly changing, each farmer has had to learn what techniques work best for each of the various oyster beds.

What are you most proud of with this project?

When I discovered that several oystering families had taken 8mm home movie films in the 1950 and 60s, it truly felt as if I had discovered the most valuable “buried treasure.” … I am proud that this project can contribute new elements of that history to be preserved as a companion to those wonderful historical resources.

I was struck by the intergenerational nature of the industry and particularly about young women becoming passionate about it. How about you?

Although women have likely contributed to the industry since the beginning, its fun to see a younger generation of women passionate about carrying on the family tradition. Not just working on the farm or in the processing plants, but helping run the businesses.

Who would you say are the greatest characters of the modern-day oyster business here on the outer coast?

Leonard Bennett, Jim Kemmer and Phil Olsen are definitely some of the “characters” of the modern-day oyster business. They are all farmers who come from multi generations of family in the business, but they just have endless stories, never a dull moment when around them.

— M.S.W.

Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer and Columbia River Business Journal


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