Rugged Individuals: Leaders of the Oyster Industry of the Past 70 Years, Part 2Earl Bendiksen - East Point
Erling Hilmar Bendiksen was born in 1910 at Kjerringoy, a small Norwegian island located a few miles north of the Arctic Circle. One of nine children, his parents were Hans Bendiksen and Anna Martinsdatter Bendiksen.
The great majority of the people living on Kjerringoy Island were husmen, farmers who did not own their own land. Hans, who worked as a cooper, died in 1916 when Erling was just six years old. In 1930 Earl and two sisters (Gunvor, 18, and Brynhild, 16) emigrated to America, from the port of Trondheim. Two brothers had previously come to America, Einar to New York City and Ben to South Bend.
One old time Eklund Park resident, H.B. Johnsen, remembered, "When Bendiksen came to Eklund Park in 1930 he was a poor man - he had nothing but a satchel of clothing and a few dollars in his pocket."
Former long-time East Point official Lawrence Johnsen, who worked for Bendiksen for more than 40 years, remembers those days:
...I went to work there fulltime in 1946, right after graduating from high school. Help was hard to get in those days, it was easy to get a job. Things got so desperate that they even hired some prostitutes from Raymond to work in their spare time. The company was really canning heavily in those days.
Bendiksen's foreman came up to the house the morning after my graduation party. I was still in bed. He asked my mom if he could go up to the bedroom and talk to me. He told me if I would come to work for him that I could sit in a chair and do nothing and he would pay me for the first day. I wouldn't have to do any work 'cause he knew I didn't feel good. I'll never forget that. I took him up on his offer ...
Some years later Earl told me how he got started. He said he borrowed $500 from Hilberg Hansen and bought an old gillnet boat and a scow and a piece of oyster land over at Nahcotta. He worked it himself and in those days he went to Alaska to fish in the summer time. He was the high boat at Bristol Bay for two years in a row back in the 1930s. He bought that plant down at Nahcotta first, before he bought the Cron operation. He didn't can at Nahcotta, he sold oysters fresh. He made enough money to buy Cron and Dehn. They hadn't been making any money on anything that they packed.
When the war started Bendiksen would drive back East, selling oyster contracts to customers. When I asked him when he slept, he said, 'I didn't.' An exaggeration, but the guy was a worker. He had a good memory. He wouldn't write things down, but he could remember everything.
Al Qualman remembered Bendiksen in his book, "Blood On The Half Shell." (Qualman refused to use the Norwegian's proper name - he referred to him as 'Ben Dixon.') According to Qualman's account, he met Earl in 1934. Bendiksen wanted to start an oyster company and for a short time the two men joined forces in a partnership. Qualman was impressed with Earl's incessant need to succeed and improve his position, but that same drive also helped him to decide to part company with him.
Roy Sheldon recalled that Bendiksen set up his first processing plant in Jack Cottle's old clam cannery at Nahcotta. "Jack Cottle had this old smoke plant, and Bendiksen moved into that. He had been very successful at salmon fishing at Bristol Bay and had gotten a good amount of money. He did this fishing alone, without a partner."
Oldtime fishermen and their sons and grandsons still talk of the record set at Bristol Bay by the hard working Bendiksen. Sheldon remembered the Norwegian's progress: "Afterwards Bendiksen ended up with salmon processing plants in Alaska. He took money he had earned oystering and built a scow cannery. He actually robbed his oyster business to furnish his Alaska operation. He got real successful."
Gerard Mogan's suicide death in 1942 resulted in a significant business opportunity for Bendiksen. Roy Sheldon, in a 1975 interview, recalled that Cynthia Knotvold (Mogan's sister) first asked Sheldon to take charge (management) of all of the Mogan properties. Sheldon turned her down, and instead recommended Bendiksen, who had worked for Mogan when the oystermen/adventurer had gone to South America in the late 1930s. Both Sheldon and Mogan had been impressed with Bendiksen's drive, saying, "The Norwegian works like a beaver and always makes a go of it."
Oldtimers often said that Bendiksen had nothing more than his scow and a big rowboat when he took over the Mogan oyster grounds. Sheldon recalled that Earl added a double-ended gillnet boat. "It was powered by an old two-banger, a jump-sparkel outfit you cranked with a crowbar. A jump-sparkel was a real marine engine, heavy duty. Most of the gillnetters had one and two-bangers (cylinders). All the fishermen on the Columbia were strictly modern if they had two-bangers, the lesser ones had one-bangers." Things were different at Bristol Bay, where Bendiksen fished every year. There, the fishermen used only sails, as they were not allowed to use gas engines.
East Point SeafoodsIn January 1945, Bendiksen bought the Willapa Bay holdings of the H. Cron Oyster Company. A focal point of the transaction was the opening plant, built in 1936 on the N. P. terminal grounds in South Bend. Other properties included about 120 acres of oyster grounds, boats and bateaux, and harvesting equipment. George Esveldt, who was already in place as the plant manager continued in that position for Bendiksen.
Before the oystering season began in September, 1945, the former Cron plant was given two coats of marine white paint and became one of South Bend's most recognizable roadside landmarks. Several changes were made at the plant. A new grading and packing room was added with steam canning in mind, new steel opening tables, new concrete outwash troughs under the building, and other improvements.
Lawrence Johnsen recalled a comical situation between Bendiksen and Professor Trevor Kincaid's son. "Kincaid's son was hired by Earl to be cannery foreman, probably to get favoritism from Trevor. The kid didn't know nothin' from nothin' and we had a shipment for 200 cases of oysters going somewhere, which weighed, I'd say, about 3,000 pounds. The railroad spur came into the cannery in those days, and young Kincaid ordered a car in and he shipped those 300 cases in that railcar, it didn't even fill the floor space, you know. When Bendiksen heard about it, he yelled, "You did what?" I think Bendiksen had to pay for 40 thousand pounds even though the railcar was practically empty. Anyway, Kincaid got fired in a hurry.
In the 1950s Lawrence was named plant foreman, a position he held for many years. In 2002 he recalled those years: "After Earl got rid of Kincaid, he hired Andy Alvnes as cannery foreman. I was working in those days in the cannery until Teddy Mosely took me out on the Judy as a deckhand. I worked on the water for quite a few years before I came back into the cannery. I'll never forget, we'd go out and dredge a thousand bushels for the cannery, and another guy and myself would shovel it off at the dock. Boy, a thousand bushels was a big pile of oysters. I'd look at that big pile with that little shovel and think, 'What have I got myself into?' I did that job for quite some time."
Tough Times At East PointWhen East Point first began its shrimping operation at Willapa Bay, the oyster business remained about 90 percent of the total operation. However, imports from Japan and Korea during the 1970s began to create havoc with the U. S. market. American producers took heavy losses because of the cheaper prices of the imported Asian canned seafood products.
Lawrence Johnsen recently talked about the hard times of the 1970s:
Several years ago, when I was at Bendiksen, the Taiwanese brought in cheap canned shrimp so we decided to go into the fresh shrimp market. And that is a much different product than the canning. In canning you use a peeler that peels the shrimp raw and then they are blanched and canned. For the fresh that you buy in the trays, that's cooked. For the fresh that you see in the stores in the trays, that's cooked, or pre-cooked. Cooked in the shell before it is peeled. In makes for a different looking shrimp. For canning, the cooked shrimp curls it up tight and for the fresh market it doesn't. It also has more color when it is cooked in the shell. So we had to convert the plant and I think it's still set up with four peelers peeling raw and two peelers peeling cooked, pre-cooking them.
When I left Bendiksen in 1987 we had the plant in Kodiak, one at Dutch Harbor, and a salmon plant at Bristol Bay. It was a large operation. One year we had 40 million dollars in sales. A pretty good year.
But the bank would not continue financing Earl. He was kind of sick for a while, and he had let the inventory get so high, and he was in bad shape and owed the bank about 22 million at about 14 percent interest. The bank told him to get someone else to run the company or they were going to foreclose on the loan. Earl tried to talk to the bank about letting his son Odin be in charge, but the bank wouldn't go for that, so then he mentioned my name. The bank said okay but they insisted on writing up the agreement and it was quite an agreement that I had. It mentioned personal things that he owned, like the boats and the oyster ground that was his personally, but the canneries in Alaska were owned by the corporation, East Point Seafoods, Incorporated. This agreement the bank drew up put me in charge of everything, including what he owned personally, I think I was CEO for three years ...
The pressured situation created a difficult situation in which old friends Lawrence Johnsen and his boss Earl Bendiksen could no longer tolerate. Eventually the men mutually agreed to part company, and in 1987 Johnsen left the company that he had loyally served for more than 42 years.
From the Perspective of Odin Bendiksen
Odin Bendiksen was thrust into the leadership of the oyster and salmon packing business after the death of his father in 1991.
The company faced a loss of resource while also heavily leveraged with financial debt. When East Point general manager Harry Taylor was killed in an accident at the South Bend plant, the loss to the company was devastating.
Along with the personal tragedy, the company lost a man with years of knowledge gone forever, locked in his head. The sudden death of brother Larry came after the company had been sold but still shocked friends and the community.
Without the presence of his company leadership Odin may have found some solace and relief in the sale of the company to Taylor Shellfish. Regardless, the longtime presence of the East Point company has been a serious loss to the economical and emotional health of South Bend.
Bendiksen RememberedRetired boatbuilder Dorwin Fosse recalls getting a call from the East Point boss one night back in the 1970s. It seems that Earl was calling from Norway. When Dorwin answered his phone Bendiksen was very chatty and asked, "How are you doing, are things going good with you?" Dorwin answered, "Not really that good, Earl. It's two o'clock in the morning here."
Darryl Pedersen, South Bend native who graduated from the University of Washington's School of Fisheries, worked for Bendiksen in Alaska in the early 1960s. Like most employees, Darryl said that the small crew he worked with would busily close up operations at the end of the summer before heading south. One year, when Darryl had to return because of his university studies, Bendiksen insisted that he stay rather than leave. Darryl completed his work and left on schedule. Bendiksen refused to speak to him for two years.
South Bend businessmen often had to ask Bendiksen to prepay for services and goods purchased. Jim Cearns and Dorwin Fosse were among the local businessmen to testifiy that Earl would "forget" to pay bills. Bendiksen had a curious ethics standard that led him to ignore interest payments to the Dennis Company. Having received a bill with interest added, he finally paid up, minus the interest.
Many employees recalled that Bendiksen assumed that your employment meant that your life belonged to him and the company. Any deviance from this idea and you could kiss any further employment "goodbye."
Lawrence Johnsen once asked Bendiksen his theory of business. Earl replied, "[Blanking] your competitor before he [blanks] you."
Stan Gillies - Stony PointFamily heritage counts for a lot in the story of Stan Gillies' Stony Point Oyster Company. The great-grandson of a Stony Point/Bruceport pioneer, William Clark, Gillies was a fourth generation oysterman in the extended Clark-Gillies family. William and Mary Barton Clark raised three sons who made up the second generation: Loyal Lincoln Clark, Horace Hathaway Clark, and Justus Joshua Clark, Stan's grandfather.
Justus J. (best known as J. J. or by his nickname of "Jetty"), moved his family home to South Bend in 1908, where Stan lived as a child. Stan's parents, Emma (Clark) and Archie Gillies, suffered from tuberculosis while their children were young and Stan and brother Tom spent some of their youth with their maternal grandparents. When Emma and Archie returned to their Aberdeen home, Stan was allowed to remain with his grandparents while the younger Tom lived with mom and dad.
A 1932 graduate of South Bend High, Stan played on a championship football team in the fall of 1931 that featured several excellent athletes, including John Reischman, who went on to play quarterback for the University of Oregon. Stan attended the University of Washington where he was a fraternity brother of future oystermen Ed Gruble and Earl Brenner.
Between the completion of his university studies, and his entry into the military during World War II (1936 to 1942), Stan was called home to carry on grandfather Jetty's oyster operation. (Jetty Clark died around 1936.) When Stan returned from his three years in the U.S. Navy, he resumed his oyster business on the 350 acres of oyster land, much of it inherited from his family. (At least 100 acres, located in South Bay, was poor oyster ground.) For many years father Archie kept a close hold of the purse strings of his son's oyster work. This situation lasted for several years before Stan insisted that the control of the company be under his control.
Regardless of his ties with his father, Stan was a strong personality in his own right, and projected a stubborn attitude toward the business end of oystering. Together with his work, he spent considerable time serving on various boards with professional organizations, including the Pacific Coast Oyster Growers' Association.
Romance and marriage took place in 1940. Stan and Theresa Ulmer of Aberdeen were married in February 1940 in a secret ceremony, only publicly announced in August of that year. Happily married for more than 40 years, the couple experienced personal tragedy with several failed pregnancies. Theresa died several years before Stan, leaving him to live alone for several years in the large house in South Bend.
Some local townfolk claim Gillies was not a self made man as many of the other oystermen were, but rather a person who had been born with a "silver spoon in his mouth." One non-admiring oysterman remarked, "Stan Gillies was a playboy - the only thing he did was work his mouth."
Regardless of his critics it can be acknowledged that the man was an astute observer of his chosen field and served many years on various committees dealing with both the conditons of the bay and the oyster industry. Of his strong attributes, Stan was a generous person who helped many local people, especially his employees and people he chose to befriend.
Nick Jamber, who has built a successful oyster business in Bay Center, was a former employee who benefitted from Gillies'generosity, having been given a boost in starting his own oyster business several years ago. When Gillies died, Jamber's Ekone Oyster Company received former Gillies oyster land and the dredge Skanoentntl. Because of the way the will was designed legal problems occurred, but there can be no question that Stan's generosity benefitted those who received his property. Other former Gillies land is now operated by Don Gillies (and parents Cliff and Sally Gillies) and Phil Olsen (and parents Clyde and Norma Olsen).
Several families were recipients of Stan's interest-free loans for down payments on homes, college expenses, and much more. Almost all of this activity was done without public knowledge. Upon executing Stan's property, following his death, there were several debts forgiven. Money was also left to Grays Harbor College.
Stan's reputation as a player, led one social observer to recently say, "Stan may have had a good time in his younger days, but he turned into a dedicated hard worker in his later years."
of Stan Gillies
Stan was considered a good guy by many of his friends and associates, but there were some who warned that playing golf with the man could be an unpleasant experience.
He was known to be very competitive, and especially grouchy when losing wagers on the course. He could also be curt and unkind to certain people who crossed his path. According to circumstances, some people recall a Stan Gillies taking great pleasure in charming women or dominating a conversation about old World War II experiences in the South Pacific.
Stan had a way with words, and thrived on a good bull session. The following are chosen phrases of the man's homilies:
"Growing oysters is a gumboot business. You get there on the mudflats and have to know what's going on. You have to like to walk on mud." "Oystering is not easy work, but there's a lot of things to like about it - you're your own boss." "There are some Johnny-come-lately oyster growers here who have no idea of what they're doing. They'll learn their lessons the hard way."
"There have been times when I say to myself, 'what am I doing out here?' But the longer I've been in it the more I enjoy it. I would not for five minutes put up with the old methods. The best tides for hand picking are always in the middle of the night. Those were terrible hours. Now we go out with the dredge, and I get to stay in the wheelhouse."
The Death of John Cremerius
In November 1944 an oysterman by the name of John Cremerius died while inspecting oyster ground owned by his employer, H. Cron and Company. For years the cause of Cremerius' death has been the conjecture of many unsubtantiated rumors.
Hans (John) Cremerius, a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, came to the United States in 1935 and to South Bend in 1941, where he took a job with the H. Cron Oyster Company. Within a year the amiable hard worker was named manager of the South Bend operation.
Among Cremerius' responsibilities was the management of the company's oyster grounds. On the early morning of May 17 the German-born oysterman boarded a Birchcraft outboard and left the Cron dock, speeding away to inspect company oyster beds near North River.
Two hours later, at 7 a.m., bed foreman Bob Lawler took a picking crew to the bay, but saw no sign of his boss. The assumption was that Cremerius had gone to another part of the bay and would eventually show up at the plant. By the late afternoon, when Cremerius had not returned, Lawler was joined by Ed Odion to search for the missing manager. When the two men neared the spot they believed Cremerius had intended to inspect they spied the Birchcraft, upside down, on a beach between Smith Creek and Alder Creek.
Without a skiff to reach the shore, Odion and Lawler went up North River to the old John Anderson place where they obtained a dugout canoe. With the canoe they were able to reach Cremerius' boat, which had a large hole torn in the starboard side. The outboard motor was still attached to the boat and was set at full speed. Cremerius was no where in sight.
The following morning U. S. Coast Guardsmen recovered the body, floating in the ebb tide at Tokeland. Cremerius was wearing two life preservers, as well as a kapok cushion tied around his neck.
Experienced watermen suggested that the man had swung his boat close to the north bank of the North River tideflat where he hit a deadhead log. (Paint marks were later found on the submerged log.) It was further conjectured that Cremerius had been violently thrown into the water, injured and in shock. At that point he may have struggled to put on the extra life jackets. Unable to help himself, Cremerius most likely died of shock and hypothermia. The body was taken on the flood tide or was swept toward the ocean before the ebb tide pushed it back to Tokeland.
Two months after Cremerius' death, the Cron company was sold to Earl Bendiksen. Berta Eberhardt referred to the years of World War II on Willapa Bay as the time of the "Oyster Wars." It was a well known fact that certain oyster "pirates" knowingly dredged their neighbors' oysters, sometimes in broad daylight. For more than sixty years suspicious oldtimers continue to wonder how a seriously injured man could have put on all those life jackets.
Sources and Writer's Notes
A. Earl Bendiksen
1. Interview, Lawrence Johnsen
2. Telephone interview, Odin Bendiksen, East Point Group, Kenmore, Wash.
3. Washington State Oral/Aural Interview, 1975: Roy Sheldon
4. Al Qualman book, Blood On The Half Shell.
5. Kjerringoy Family Geneology/ History.
6. Earl and Louise O'Brien married in the early 1950s. They had one child, son Odin, born in 1954. Odin is married with a daughter, 21, and twins, a boy and a girl, 17.
7. Earl's brother, Ben Bendiksen, lived on South Bend's Eklund Park hill for many years. Ben married Anna Hansen, daughter of Amandus and Maria Hansen (another Eklund Park family). Ben and Anna had four children: Adele, Grace, Beverly, and Ben. Ben moved his family to Seattle before the children attended high school.
8. Pronunciation: To Americans, the name Kjerringoy sounds much like Cherring-goy, or, more properly, Cherring-gah. Many Norwegian immigrants who found homes at South Bend, Puget Island, or Astoria came from this little place. And many of the men became salmon fishermen. This writer is proud to be a descendant of one of these families.
B. Stan Gillies
1. Discussions with Stan Gillies, 1992-1995.
2. Willapa Harbor Herald, South Bend Journal: various articles
3. Discussions with South Bend's H & H afternoon coffee clatch.
4. Discussion with cousin Cliff and Sally Gillies.
C. The Death of John Cremerius
1. South Bend Journal, May 25, 1944. The major part of the Cremerius' story was taken from the 1944 Journal story. According to Jim Cearns, his father Frank was well acquainted with Cremerius.