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When the oyster was Shelter Island’s world

KATERINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | An artifact from when Shelter Island was a key player in the industry of the east coast.
KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | An artifact from a time when Shelter Island was a key player in the shell fish industry of the East Coast.

What do oysters have to do with history?

Everything — if you’re talking about the East End of Long Island.

It’s why the Shelter Island Historical Society and The Nature Conservancy are combining forces to create an exhibit that debuts October 18 at the Havens House Barn. The joint venture commemorates a time in history when oysters joined tourism as thriving industries here. Until the 1950s, the Shelter Island Oyster Factory maintained a flourishing community enterprise on the shores of Dering Harbor.

The factory was a major player in the oyster industry, despite complaints from some neighbors in the area at the time about loud noise and dreadful odors.

Bill Plock remembers. His grandfather, John Plock Sr., founded the company where Bill worked after school and on Saturdays from the age of 12. And while his interests have taken him in other directions, he still surrounds himself with memorabilia from the days when “Oscar the Oyster” reigned as a symbol of the best oysters grown on the East End of Long Island.

Among Mr. Plock’s treasures is a plaque employees presented to his grandfather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his entry into the oyster business.

“It was fun,” Mr. Plock said about his days working side by side with the employees, putting together corrugated boxes for shipping, sweeping the floors, organizing inventory, shucking the bi-valves and loading boxes with canned oysters that were shipped to Boston markets weekly. Even though he was the grandson of the owner, he was “just one of the guys” among the other workers who took him under their wings and helped him learn the various jobs.

Back in those days, everyone in the business of fishing, clamming and oyster farming worked together and helped one another thrive, Mr. Plock said.

He remembers the noise and the odors, a real turn off for most, but for him it represented the excitement of the business.

When he was only 16, his father, John Jr., died in an accident, bringing the teenager even closer to his grandfather, he said.

Not only was John Plock the founder of the Shelter Island Oyster Company, but he originated the “Shuck-Em” mechanical device for opening oysters and owned the company that went on to manufacture the device.

John Plock had started in the oyster business at a stand in the Fulton Market in New York City before opening his own oyster shucking business in Brooklyn. He opened a small Shelter Island Oyster Company in Rackett’s Basin at the entrance to Sterling Basin in Greenport in 1935.

As he became involved in cultivating oysters, his crews plied the waters between Greenport and Shelter Island and he built a more modern headquarters for which to ship the oysters to various buyers.

The Oyster factory might have been Bill Plock’s future, but by the 1950s, the oyster business was dying out and it wouldn’t have been profitable to keep the factory going, he said.

Still, the sea was in his blood. It was a natural transition to pursue work that would keep him close to the water. For 27 years, he worked at Brewer’s Yacht Yard in Greenport, initially as a mechanic and rigging boats and later, as computers came on the scene, working as parts manager in the company’s stock room.

But perhaps all those years of shucking oysters had developed a fascination with knives. He began his own small business, Long Island Knife Works, sharpening knives, scissors and various tools, at first for friends and co-workers, and now as a full-time job working out of his Southold home.

Besides the factory here on the Island, the family owned a shellfish farming facility in Southold where seeding was done and clam shells were cleaned, ground and sold for paving driveways.

In 1992, the family created a development plan to protect 14 of the 22 acres of land there and in 1996, donated those 14 acres and facilities to the Peconic Land Trust.

In conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program, Peconic Land Trust began to restore the old buildings to maintain their historical significance.

Now knows as the Shellfisher Preserve, the project is to not only maintain the facilities, but conduct shellfish aquaculture research and education. Since 2003, the Southold Branch of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative leases the property for members to grow oysters, hard clams and bay scallops in the Peconic Estuary.

For the family, the oyster business may be a thing of the past, but they still surround themselves with memorabilia from the heyday. Bill’s daughter, Rebecca Plock, who has interned at the Shelter Island Historical Society, was thrilled when she visited Universal Studios in Florida and saw a Shelter Island Oyster sign on a wall there.

Clearly, her family legacy in the business lives on in the memories of others, she said.

While Nanette Breiner-Lawrenson and her staff at the Historical Society gather memorabilia from the Oyster Factory, Mike Laspia, through The Nature Preserve, is working to bring the science of oystering to the forefront.

“It seemed like a perfect marriage of the two organizations,” Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson said about the cooperative exhibit being planned by the Historical Society and Nature Preserve. Besides Ms. Breiner-Lawrenson and Mr. Laspia, members of the committee who have helped put the exhibit together are Donna Clark, Brenda Harms, Linda Hacker, Phyllis Wallace, Robin Drake, Kiki Boucher, Rebecca Plock, Cindy Belt, Kathleen Minder, Tim Purtell, Jim Wojcik and Tom Hashagen and Lisa Shaw.

In addition to pictures, the Plocks will be lending items including Shelter Island Oyster Factory cuff links, tie clips, posters, cans and, of course, images of Oscar the Oyster for the exhibit. There will also be recipes for all things oyster and Ms. Lawrenson is hoping anyone with any memorabilia from that era might lend it for the exhibit.

“It was pretty neat that they really wanted to exhibit this,” Mr. Plock said. The family business “will be remembered forever now.”