Editor’s Note: In this series, local historian Sydney Stevens examines the many connections among Pacific County residents — connections with one another and with the past; connections that bind us in special and unexpected ways
By Sydney Stevens
For the Observer
“I have a dream to spend an afternoon with my great-grandfather Meinert Wachsmuth aboard his plunger, the Vivian.” I’ve heard Chester Nace Wachsmuth Jr., better known locally as “Tucker,” mention that dream more than once. “Maybe we’d go for a sail in 1903, right before he sold his oyster business and, along with it, the Vivian. I’d love to feel that tiller in my hand, hear the wind in those heavy sails, get a sense of how it was to work out on our bay before things became mechanized.”
Meinert would have been an “old man” of 61 by then, yet younger than his great-grandson Tucker is now. No doubt, he’d have many stories to tell. He was 14 in 1856 when he left his native Duchy of Schleswig in the area that we know today as Germany. His mother had died and his father had re-married. Meinert wasn’t happy at home.
His 18-year-old brother Nicholai was already a sailor of some standing and he probably helped Meinert stow away. “It was not an unheard-of practice in those days,” Tucker says. “Often, when the culprit was discovered, he was put to work as a cabin boy. If he proved to be a good hand, he might be given a chance to stay on.”
Meinert sailed for the next 10 years. “He made seven trips around the horn — incredibly hard and dangerous work in the days of sailing ships. My Uncle Louis said he was full of stories.” So is Tucker.
No stories remain
“Uncle Louis was a great storyteller himself but, incredibly, he didn’t remember a single one of his grandfather Meinert’s stories, even though he spent a lot of time here in Oysterville with him in the early years of the 20th century. It’s true that Uncle Louis was still a kid when Meinert died but…” he says incredulously, “…not one single story!
“That’s a big part of my dream — spending a few hours out on Shoalwater Bay with Meinert and hearing him tell how he happened upon Oysterville…” Tucker pauses and looks across the deserted road toward the bay. “…and why he chose to settle right here after having seen so many other places in the world.”
Tucker has a theory about that. “I’ve visited the Isle of Sylt where he came from and it looks very much like it does here,” he says. “It’s long and narrow, running north and south, and is surrounded by the sea. Even the vegetation is similar. I think Meinert might have felt at home here.
“He apparently came up here from San Francisco in 1870 on the Louisa Morrison, which was an oyster schooner owned, at that time, by the Morgan Oyster Company. They were based in both San Francisco and Oysterville. Was he working for them? I’m not sure. He was listed in the U.S. Census that year as a “day laborer” in Oysterville, age 28, born in Schleswig, Germany — though at the time of his birth that area was part of Denmark.”
That census register also lists Meinert’s wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Josephine Sullivan Wachsmuth who was 20, born in Ireland. They lived at “House No. 26” which Tucker thinks may have been one of the hotels or boarding houses in town because also listed at No. 26 was John Dan, “Cook in Hotel,” born in China. However, no one else is named at that address. “Another reason to go back in time and check things out,” Tucker laughs.
The Shoalwater Trade
By Meinert’s and Lizzie’s arrival in 1870, the oyster industry in Shoalwater Bay was at its height. “The little silver-dollar-sized oysters (Ostrea lurida), were the basis for the lucrative Shoalwater Trade — the shipment of fresh oysters from Shoalwater Bay to San Francisco. It had been just shy of twenty years since Charles Russell had sent the first experimental shipment south. By 1854 Oysterville was begun — the only settlement on the west side of the bay.
“When my great-grandparents arrived, this was a happening place. Two or three schooners a week anchored out in front of town. They off-loaded groceries, lumber, and everything an oysterman could use, from top hats to prostitutes, or so it was said,” smiles storyteller Tucker — almost as if he remembers it himself.
“Oystermen and their Indian employees scurried over the tide flats loading bushel baskets of oysters into the hold of the now empty ship. Within 24 hours, off the schooner sailed again, heading south with two or three tons of fresh oysters aboard. Oyster sales to the gourmet restaurants of San Francisco made Oysterville a rich boomtown.” As early as 1855 it had become the Pacific County Seat and soon boasted a boarding house, two hotels, three saloons, a tannery, sail shops, and a blacksmith,” he says.
Coming up in the world
“I’m not sure when my great-grandparents left Oysterville and returned to San Francisco. I suspect it was so that Meinert could earn enough money to fully establish himself in the oyster business. They came back here in 1881. By then, Meinert, had his own oyster company with cards that read: “M. Wachsmuth, Planter and Wholesale Dealer in Eastern & Shoal Water Bay Oysters, Orders Promptly Attended to. Oysterville, Washington.”
“By the 1900 census, Meinert had come up in the world. “He was then listed as an ‘Oysterman’ and he and Lizzie had five children.” The first three had been born in Oysterville — Theodore in 1871, Harry in 1872 and Meinert, Jr. in 1873. The next two — Tucker’s grandfather Louis Charles and his great aunt Christina, were born in San Francisco in 1877 and 1878, respectively.
“Someone in the family said that there were three more children who didn’t live to maturity. Maybe their birthdates were during those years between Meinert, Jr’s and Christina’s births. The pattern seemed to involve adding a new family member once a year,” Tucker muses.
“I’d love to know some of the details of the family business, too,” says Tucker. “It’s not clear when Meinert, Sr. renamed his company Wachsmuth and Sons or when his four boys began taking a formal part in the oyster business. I imagine they worked for their dad from the time they were very young — that’s what youngsters did in those days. But when was ‘and Sons’ added to their business cards and letterhead?”
Importing the Easterns
By 1890, the little native oysters for which Oysterville was named, were in serious decline. Over-harvesting and a series of freezing winters had taken their toll. Oystermen began to look for a suitable replacement. In San Francisco Bay, there had been some success in growing oysters from seed imported from the East Coast.
“My great-grandfather Meinert, Sr. was the first local oysterman to bring Easterns into our bay,” says Tucker. “He imported a railroad car of seed oysters from the east coast and planted them on his beds. They were successful. That began the era of the Easterns here, which lasted for about 20 years. Things didn’t pick up again until just after World War II when oystermen began importing seed from Japan and the era of the Pacifics got going. Meinert and his contemporaries — the generation of pioneers — didn’t live to see that happen, though.”
In 1903, Meinert sold his business, including his plunger the Vivian, to the West Coast Oyster Company. With the exception of Meinert “Meiny” Jr. who lived in Nahcotta, the Wachsmuth boys moved away from the Peninsula. After their mother Lizzie’s sudden death in 1905, Christina remained at home in Oysterville to look after her father.
“With Christina’s help, my great-grandfather was able to remain at home until his death in 1924. What I know of him during those years comes mostly from my oldest relatives or from what neighbors wrote in letters and from information gleaned from photographs. He had a dog named Rover that, apparently, roamed the village and was much beloved by the children. Both Meinert and Rover are pictured in some of the school pictures and it’s easy to imagine that, since they lived right across from the school yard, they were often included in school activities.”
In December 1911, 12-year-old across-the-street neighbor Medora Espy wrote: Rover Wachsmuth was run over and badly hurt Friday night. His leg was paralyzed. I don’t know if he is dead or not. They (Mr. Wachsmuth) said they would have to shoot him because he couldn’t live in that state. Yesterday when Asenath and I asked how Rover was Mr. Wachsmuth answered Asenath so gruff like and said “Awlright” and that was all. I heard a shot yesterday morning about six o’clock and it sounded like it was right under my window.
The Mud Pie Story
One of Tucker’s favorite stories about his great-grandfather was told to him by Isaac Clark’s granddaughter, Edith Olson. “She said that when her half-sister, Beulah Slingerland (Wickberg) was a little girl, she lived just south of the church and was fond of making mud pies out in her front yard. My great-grandfather would pass that way on his daily walk, and she would always give him a pie to eat along the way.
“One day she saw him toss his pie into the bushes. The next day she wouldn’t give him a pie and told him why. She was angry at him for a long time. At the village Christmas party the next December, there was a beautifully wrapped present with Beulah’s name on it — a lovely doll that Beulah treasured for years.
“Looking back on that Christmas occasion she said that, although all the children received gifts, hers was the only one with a recipient’s name on it and it was very grand by comparison to the usual tops and jacks. She thought, in retrospect, that Mr. Wachsmuth was probably the one responsible for it.” Tucker muses, “It seems ironic that I know this story about him but not any of his own stories!”
The collecting gene
While Tucker’s love of sailing and storytelling seem to have come directly from his great-grandfather, his passion for collecting (from juke boxes to model sailing ships to oyster tongs to old signboards — you name it, Tucker probably has it) comes from his grandfather, Louis Charles Wachsmuth.
After the sale of Wachsmuth and Sons, young Louis Charles Wachsmuth moved to Portland. There he founded Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, the oldest family-owned restaurant in Portland. For years he decorated the walls and shelves with paintings and anchors, portholes and half hulls — anything maritime and especially anything nautically related to Oysterville or Yaquina Bay in Oregon where the family also owned oyster beds.
“I grew up fascinated by the interesting things my grandfather collected and displayed — not only in the Oyster Bar, but in his home, as well. Very early on, I began my own collecting — not necessarily nautical items, but certainly those were of interest, too. Recently, when some changes were made at the Oyster Bar, much of the collection was dispersed among family members. I was lucky to acquire most of the things that were related to the Peninsula and, especially, to Oysterville.”
Tucker worked at the Oyster Bar for more than 40 years before retiring to the Peninsula — the first Wachsmuth of his generation to live here again. He joins many other local descendants of his great-grandparents, Lizzie and Meinert Wachsmuth — cousins who have surnames such as Pierson, Freshley, Cordray Truitt, Nevin, Cottle, and Powell, and many of whom have had a presence on the Peninsula for generations. Tucker and his wife Carol live in Oysterville on the very property once owned by his great-grandfather and where his grandfather grew up. But that’s another story!