Oysterville: Pearl of the Peninsula turns 150 in 2004

Hot Jazz and Oysters are served up Aug. 15 on the old Oysterville Schoolhouse lawn. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

Oysterville has no definite physical boundaries. Anywhere from Nahcotta to Leadbetter Point can be called Oysterville.

The 80-acre Oysterville National Historic District and the areas immediately adjacent to it are the heart of Oysterville. With Willapa Bay as its backdrop, the historic district feels like a movie back lot version of a 19th century coastal community. In fact, some structures actually are from the 19th century. Eight houses, a church, the Oysterville cannery and a one-room schoolhouse are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Oysterville's Cemetery was the first community cemetery established in all of Washington state. It sits on a hill to the west of the Oysterville National Historic District. Visitors love to stroll through this wooded graveyard, paying their respects to the recently deceased and to Oysterville's first settlers. In keeping with its designation as a ghost town, Oysterville has many more bodies at rest in its cemetery than living in its National Historic District.

Though Oysterville is a ghost town, it has life. Oysterville's post office is the oldest continuously operating post office in Washington state. The Oysterville Store sells groceries, souvenirs and gifts and is open year round. Oysterville Sea Farms sells seafood from its farms and specialty foods from its bakery daily. The Oysterville Church is open everyday of the year. The Oysterville cannery and all eight of the houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places create almost constant activity as they are maintained and repaired by their private owners. Similar efforts are made by non-profit organizations to maintain and repair the church and one-room schoolhouse.

Oysterville celebrates its 150th birthday on July 31 and Aug. 1. Oysterville Road and School Street will be open only to foot traffic and old-time fun. Visitors are encouraged to wear period costumes. The Oysterville Church Summer Vespers are presented at 3 p.m. every Sunday from Father's Day through Labor Day. The services are open to everyone. There will be no summer vespers service on Aug. 15. Aug. 15 is reserved for the Jazz and Oyster festival, which features great Northwest jazz being played on the lawn of the Oysterville School. Proceeds from the Jazz and Oyster festival help support the Water Music Festival. The Water Music Festival's most popular concerts are the Oysterville church concerts, held this year on the evenings of Oct. 21 and Oct. 22.

Old for a West Coast town, Oysterville is brand new in geographic terms. Oysterville could be the only place in the United States that has always had human occupants. First Nation people probably settled Oysterville as soon as it was created. Chinook peoples came to the area that is Oysterville at seasonal intervals for untold centuries to harvest its bountiful oyster beds.

It was the California Gold Rush of 1849 that drew significant numbers of settlers of European descent to Oysterville. Gold miners loved to spend their gold on Willapa Bay oysters. Settlers and Chinook Peoples gladly filled schooners with oysters to be shipped to San Francisco. By 1854, a community of several hundred, called Oyster Beach, existed here. On April 12, 1854, I.A. Clark filed a 161-acre land claim that encompassed all of what is now the Oysterville National Historic District. It was on Aug. 5, 1854 that community leaders decided that Oysterville was a better name than Oyster Beach or Shell Beach to represent their town.

As the demand for Willapa Bay oysters grew, so did Oysterville. Oysterville's peak population was approximately eight hundred people. Stage lines made daily runs on the ocean beach between Oysterville and Ilwaco. Ships made calls to Oysterville's two piers. Oysterville became the County Seat in 1861. Being a local shipping hub and the county seat, Oysterville attracted many nineteenth century travelers. Four general stores, three hotels, three saloons, boat shops, and blacksmith stables served residents and visitors. A map just to the north of the Oysterville Church depicts Oysterville as it looked like when its population peaked.

Like all extraction businesses, the native oyster business came to a bad end. What once seemed to be and endless supply of oysters steadily dwindled to almost none. As the Oyster population dwindled so did Oysterville's human population.

Hotels, saloons and a college all disappeared as people left. Even so, Oysterville refused to give up the county seat. In the middle of the night on Feb. 3, 1893, raiders stole all the county's books and records to move the county seat from Oysterville to South Bend. A sign across the street from the Oysterville School tells the story. In the 1920's aquaculture brought life back to the oyster business and thus Oysterville. As trucking became the most common type of freight transport, oyster processing shifted away from Oysterville to more populous areas. The oyster beds that Oysterville is famous for are still healthy and productive. The majority of oysters from these beds are processed in South Bend and Shelton.

In its 150th year, Oysterville exists primarily as a state of mind. A walk through Oysterville can reveal the supremacy of nature; evoking connections to generations goneby, while subtly forecasting the folly of generations present and future. Visitors often find themselves seeking sanctuary in the peace and insight they discovered here, long after they have left Oysterville.

Source: The Sou'Wester. Winter of 1978 Volume 13 number 4.

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