Around the Bay: The Wiegardts of Willapa Bay: The Third Generation

Jack Wiegardt enjoys a sunny day of the bay shore.

The Wiegardts of Willapa Bay:

The Third GenerationFor much of the past half century, there have been two Wiegardt family oyster companies: Wiegardt Brothers, which operated the old Wiegardt Brothers Cannery, and subsequently the Jolly Roger plant, and Wiegardt and Sons, which continues to operate the oyster grounds and production.

The third generation, cousins Lee, Jack, and Dobby, Jr. Wiegardt, succeeded in the business their fathers had begun in 1918. The men were originally partners in Wiegardt Brothers, but neither Dobby Sr. nor Dobby Jr. were ever a part of the oyster grounds operation. (Lee is the oldest, born in 1927, Jack in 1930 and Dobby Jr. in 1931.) The three men all earned college degrees and then served in the U.S. military before becoming members of the family business.

Lee WiegardtFollowing a brief stint in the Navy that began immediately after the Second World War, Lee returned to Whitman College to continue his undergraduate studies. During the summer break of 1948, Lee met Virginia (Ginny) Lundstrom. To be in closer proximity of Ginny, the young Wiegardt transferred to Lewis and Clark College in Portland, where his future wife attended school. The couple were married in the summer of 1949 following Lee's completion of a degree in psychology.

In 2001 Lee reminisced about his dad Fred Wiegardt. "I remember my Dad telling me how the industry had changed while he was alive. Canvas sails were replaced with gas and diesel engines, even rubber gloves had a place in the change: they helped the oyster workers. I wish he had been alive to see the changes in the last two decades of the 20th century: our hatchery, the control of the burrowing shrimp, and the hydrostatic machine using 50,000 pounds of pressure to open oysters, and at the same time kill bacteria. And the computers, too. Who would have believed that since my father's time we would be able to navigate our boats by satellite to tell us exactly where we are?" he said.

In 1941, at the age of 14, Lee acquired a Social Security card and went to work picking oysters; then, in high school and college, he drove a dump truck, ran a boat and towed barges and ultimately came inside to work in the plant. By the late 1950s the older generation (John, Fred, and Dobby, Sr.) began to slowly relinquish active control of the company.

Lee's memories of the earlier days are quite clear: "When I started after college I was given the job of running the labor end of the operation - the bed crew, plant crew, and so on. The guy in charge can get discouraged worrying about whether people are going to leave. You know, it was a good place to learn the business, but there were always people talking about leaving."

Until recently, Lee was recognized as the main cog of the business, the man who made the trips to Japan and kept things moving forward.

Wiegardt Oyster GroundOver the decades the oyster ground was acquired in several small portions, beginning with the earliest seed shipments. (The Wiegardts first purchased Japanese seed in 1928.)

Looking back in 2000, Lee said: "What helped our company was the Bush and Callow acts. These state laws (that go back to 1895) gave the oystermen the right to apply for oyster land ownership. We got the land in the 'thirties. What's interesting is that there is very little understanding what one piece of oyster land is worth compared to another piece of oyster land. Acquisition of land is one thing, but it changes with its production (or non-production). We used to own land at Dabob Bay, but I sold it. We used it for catching seed. That was back in the 1970s. Now everything we own is in Willapa Bay. (See Writer's Notes for an explanation of the Bush and Callow Acts.)

Everything we do now is ground culture. Our oldest piece of ground is called "Middle Sands." Been in the family from my grandmother. Her name is on the deed. Not a good oyster bed. Fritz and I were out there two days ago and were talking about it. My dad (Fred) told me he never could understand why Grandpa bought that piece.

The End of the Steam CanneryThe closure of the Wiegardt Brothers Cannery came in 1975 after the Japanese (and Koreans) began marketing their canned oysters and putting them in the United States. Lee Wiegardt talked about it in 2000:

"The Japanese brought their canned oysters over here - cheaper than the devil. Dirty water, dirty plants, the Japanese wouldn't eat 'em, but they would can them and ship them out. It still is that way. Then the Koreans came in. In 1974 our accountant recommended that we declare bankruptcy. I just couldn't do that. Then we switched over to fresh market and stopped canning. Now, not only the Koreans are selling here, so are the Chinese.

"The Chinese oysters are a real poor quality. I remember a couple of years ago Uncle Sam was going to pay a couple of aquaculturists to go over to China and help them. I said teaching the Chinese how to fish is like teaching a cat how to mouse. You know, the oldest book written on acquaculture was by a Chinese general who was in prison. Somewhere around 495 A.D. or B.C. It is still a reference work, it is that good."

Jack WiegardtLee and Dobby Wiegardt still recognize cousin Jack as having been the intellect of the Wiegardt clan. After graduating from Ilwaco High School in 1946 at the age of 16, Jack alternately spent time at Stanford University and Whitman College before entering the U. S. Army during the Korean War. Later, Jack returned to Stanford and completed his undergraduate studies before entering graduate school at the University of Washington (where he met his future wife, Carole Schrader Wiegardt).

Jack and Carole, wed in 1956, moved to Ocean Park the following year where their first son, John, was born. During the late 1950s Jack took his place as a partner in the family oyster business, known in those days as F.W. and J.L. Wiegardt Oyster Company.

Dobby recalls Jack as being eager to establish his own independent business. "Jack and I went up to South Bend to look at Art Hammond's cannery. He tried to talk me into going in with him, but I decided not to do it." Both Lee and Dobby thought that Jack was too much an optimist, not understanding that the good times of the 1950s oyster business could sour. The two cousins said Jack thought it would be easy to go it alone. Lee remembers, "He was a risk taker."

True to his convictions, the hopeful entrepreneur asked the company to divide up the Weigardt family oyster grounds. Two years later Jack took another significant step when he purchased the Ilwaco Oyster plant (which was renamed the Jolly Roger).

Jack was often admired for his creative approach to the industry. Oyster seed was grown in big flumes from larvae that was purchased from a Pigeon Point, California lab. Part of the plan was to create a single oyster product. Large raft-like containers were built out of plywood and wire mesh to allow water to tumble the single oysters. Unfortunately, Mother Nature dealt the oysterman a cruel blow when winter storms destroyed the rafts, and scattered the oysters hither and yon. Although the experiment failed, others, from as far away as France, took note of the effort. Another of Jack's ideas included the purchase of a nitrogen freezer, to market a frozen oyster product.

After experiencing financial problems during the 1960s (which included the expense of purchasing Japanese seed stock), Jack opted to depend on a natural "set" instead of purchasing additional seed. Several lean years of oyster reproduction left the beds with fewer and fewer oysters.

Dobby Wiegardt claims that Jack was one of the first oystermen on the bay to recognize the danger of the burrowing ghost shrimp. Jack proceeded to attack the problem. He purchased surplus Army equipment, one a big-wheeled "weasel," and the other a half-track vehicle. A large round water tank was added, filled up for maximum weight and then pulled across the oyster ground.

Lee Wiegardt observed, "Jack got rid of the shrimp, but the problem was he got rid of his oyster land, too ... The ground was ruined: the substrate was shot, turned to silt, and sluiced away. It was a mess." Fellow oystermen were tough critics. Many just shook their heads.

Widow Carole Wiegardt recalls her late husband's efforts to recover from financial problems. Jack dealt with bankruptcy (Chapter 11) from the years 1972 to 1975 before leasing both the oyster grounds and the Jolly Roger building to Wiegardt Brothers. For Lee and Dobby, the leasing of the Jolly Roger plant gave them a better opportunity to quit the old steam packing plant and get back into the marketing of fresh oysters that they had done during World War II.

Still striving to succeed in the early 1980s, Jack tried his hand at gillnetting, including having a small gillnet boat built. Jack and Carole's company, formally called Northwest Oyster Farms, no longer had oyster ground, but continued as a Manila clam business (which today is successfully managed by son Cris Wiegardt).

Debts had been fully paid as Jack continued to work at financial recovery. Regardless, the man who had demonstrated creative methods of oyster farming ended his own life in 1987 at the age of 57. Sixteen years later Lee and Dobby still remember their cousin as a bright and hard working friend.

Dobby WiegardtFollowing a tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force during the last stages of the Korean War, Dobby spent one year studying at the Harvard Business School before coming home to report for his new duties at the Weigardt Brothers cannery. Dobby, Sr., greeted his son with open arms and said, "Welcome home son, you now are in charge of the cannery's labeling department!"

Actually, the veteran oysterman's memories of the family business go back much further. Dobby remembers as a small boy riding with his dad in the company's old flatbed truck. Father and son would take the ferry across the Columbia to Astoria's port dock, where they would unload cases of oysters, ready for shipment to another port.

Methods of transportation of Wiegardt oysters have taken various forms. In the days of the Peninsula's railroad, weekly shipments were made. Later, the company trucked oysters to South Bend where they were shipped out on the Northern Pacific railroad.

In more recent years the company has owned and operated two small refrigerated vans, one 22-feet long, the other a 40-footer. Historically, oysters have been trucked out by several companies, including Wilson Transfer, South Bend Transfer, City Transfer of Astoria, and especially Sorenson of Chehalis.

After years of being in charge of production at the old steam plant, Dobby assumed a position of general supervision at the Jolly Roger, or as he describes it, "a jack of all trades." Others describe Dobby's role as a mediator who kept a watchful eye on the company books.

In describing the company's past years, Dobby proudly remembers the company's oyster stew business.

"When the steam packing of oysters was shut down in 1975 we still opened up the old plant on a sporadic basis to produce the oyster stew," said Dobby. "The stew production continued on a seasonal basis even though our main business had become the marketing of fresh oysters at the Jolly Roger plant."

Dobby continued to supervise the packing of oyster stew at the old plant. The veteran oysterman grimaces when talking about those last years of the stew operation.

"It was hard. The old cannery had to be fired up, the machinery cleaned and repaired, and a new crew found to run the operation. Toward the end we got our stew oysters from several sources: the Jolly Roger, Bendiksen, Sam Hayes of Tillamook Bay [Bay City], and others places. The Koreans had flooded the market with cheaper oysters that were sold in this country frozen - it had become a tough business."

Since retiring in 2001, Dobby has turned the tideland property near his home into a Manila clam and oyster habitat. By adding crushed shell and gravel, along with a lot of hard work, the small shellfish production has been enhanced.

"If I hadn't taken care of the ground it would be covered by Spartina grass by now," he said.

In looking back on his five decades in the oyster business, Dobby revealed a wry grin and quipped, "I guess it has been quite an achievement - or was it just stupidity?"

Trials, Tribulations, and TriploidsThreats to the bay's shellfish industry include several invasive species: the burrowing ghost shrimp (mentioned in another section of the story), the oyster drill, the green crab and the cordgrass problem . (Like the Pacific oyster, the last three are immigrant species.) Together, these threats could destroy the bay's shellfish habitat.

Lee recalls that the Japanese oyster drill came to the waters of the Northwest with the importation of the oyster seed as early as the first shipments.

"They laid around the bay and didn't move until El Nino affected them."

A small snail, the drill is about an inch long with a ribbon-like band of teeth called radula, which bores through the oyster's shell to devour the oyster.

"We sold seed to other oyster growers but sales had to be curtailed when an infestation of the drill was found in their oyster land in the late 1990s."

In the past Lee has said that the company attempted to find ways to keep the drill away from their oysters.

"Not all bottom will grow oysters. I don't want to put the rototiller on the bottom and do something to our ground. We can keep the bags of oyster seed off the bottom by using creosoted wood, or with copper around the area. The drills won't come across the copper."

The drill presents a serious problem, but the bay has a more insidious threat to its existence. For decades a shimmering green, deeprooted saltmarsh grass, known as Spartina alterniflora, or cordgrass, has silently created a dense meadow, trapping sediments and raising the elevation of tideland, creating a highland marsh.

In 2002, Dr. Kim Patten reported, "Willapa Bay currently hosts one of the largest Spartina infestations in the world ... Spartina is particularly well-adapted at colonizing and thereby eliminating much of the upper part of the wide expansive intertidal mudflats of the geologically young estuaries along the Pacific coast. The long-term ecological impact of this colonization includes major declines in shorebird and waterfowl species, biodiversity, eelgrass beds, macroalgea beds, native saltmarsh habitat, and commercial shell fish beds." For years the loss of habitat has been of deep concern to the oystermen, threatening to destroy a $16 million industry.

Fritz Wiegardt acknowledges that the bay's overall Spartina problem has approached a crisis situation even though the Wiegardt oyster ground has yet to be seriously harmed. Only one 15-acre piece of company-owned land at the Nemah has been inundated by the cordgrass. As many critics have stated, Fritz blames the state for its lack of action to eradicate the plant. "If the state had acted ten years ago we wouldn't be in the situation we now find ourselves in. All they did is waste time and conduct research studies. One hope is the work of Lester Mahrer and his group."

Beyond the environmental problems, local oystermen continue to search for a product that can enhance a year-round market. A genetically-altered oyster, called a triploid, has been developed to be the marketing answer to thwart the summertime spawning season. The triploid, which does not spawn, can be marketed at any time of the year. Lee Wiegardt, however, has been a grower not convinced that the tripoid is the savior for his industry.

"Up to 2000 we harvested one crop. The technology wasn't that good when we were growing them. We got about 60 percent triploid and 40 percent diploid (the usual spawny oysters). The majority of the year you can't tell the triploids from the diploids. Probably the biggest triploid producers in the bay (in 2000) were Taylor and Coast. I'd hate to be caught with everything I have in triploid stock."

The Fourth GenerationOf the three cousins' grandchildren, there are three younger Wiegardts who are active in the shellfish industry: Fritz (son of Lee), Mark (son of Dobby), and Cris (son of Jack). Sue Cudd, Mark's wife, works in the industry. More recently, Fritz's wife Chikako has worked for the Wiegardt hatchery operation for several years. Ken Wiegardt (son of Fritz) represents the fifth generation as a bed manager for the company.

Cris Wiegardt, 38, owns what was formerly his parents' (Jack and Carole) 365-acre Manila clam farm off of Jensen Spit, Long Island. The company is called Sandpoint Clam Farm. After cultivating ten acres in recent years, Cris now has 70 acres in production, reporting that the business shipped out 105,000 pounds of clams to markets in 2002. A crew of three to four men are employed to do the work. The clams are washed in Nahcotta and stored in a cold room at the Jolly Roger plant. The clams are then bagged, tagged, and packed in wetlock boxes and shipped to points in California, mostly in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Sorenson of Chehalis is the shipper.

Mark Wiegardt grew up working for both Wiegardt Brothers and Wiegardt and Sons. Mark and brother Eric labeled cans and worked on the beds. After earning an economics degree at the University of Washington, Mark took a position with Taylor United. Wife Sue Cudd, a fisheries graduate from the UW, worked for several years developing the hatchery larvae production for Wiegardt and Sons. Chikako Wiegardt (Fritz's wife) took over the lab job when Sue left for Hawaii.

Later, after Mark and Sue married, the couple moved to Hawaii where they worked for Taylor Resources at Kona. The Kona project entailed an aquaculture project that produced clam and oyster larvae that was then sent stateside to Taylor's Puget Sound oyster grounds. More recently, Mark and Sue worked for Taylor at the Whiskey Creek Hatchery at Netarts. Since Taylor quit its Netarts operation, Sue has become the operator/prospective owner of the Whiskey Creek hatchery. (Nowadays Wiegardts buy larvae from Sue's lab.) Mark now manages Taylor's operations on Willapa Bay, meaning he oversees the entire Willapa Bay operation formerly owned by Bendiksen East Point.

Beginning in 1975, Fritz Wiegardt took control of production at the Jolly Roger plant, and for the past 28 years he has maintained a supervisory role with both the "Brothers" and "Sons" companies. When Dobby sold out in 2002, Wiegardt and Sons purchased Wiegardt Brothers.

Since Lee has suffered health problems, Fritz has assumed control of both companies.

Adjustments have been made in the running of the Wiegardt operations in the past year: The capable Lonnie Howard now manages the Jolly Roger plant (Wiegardt Brothers), while Ken Wiegardt is the manager of the Wiegardt and Sons operation. Ken's responsiblities include the production of seed, transplanting of oysters, oyster harvest, the production of singles in the shell, and getting the product to the plant. Recently, Lawrence Johnsen was hired to handle sales for the company on a part time basis.

Younger Wiegardt grandsons are also interested in or working in the shellfish industry: Mark's son Jarrod, a high school senior, has spent the summer working for Sue at the Whiskey Creek hatchery. Cris Wiegardt reports that his son Cody, 12, looks forward to accompanying his dad to the Long Island clam farm.

The Pursuit of KnowledgeThe Wiegardt family's third generation seems to have been a complete departure from their fathers' generation. The three cousins went off to college on a quest to find their way in life. Lee, the eldest, earned a psychology degree from Lewis and Clark College. Dobby spent four years at Washington State University and came away with degrees in political science and history. During that time Dobby spent a semester at George Washington Unversity, learning about the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Jack, after returning from military service, earned a General Studies degree at Stanford University before studying sociology in the UW's graduate school. Apparently having solved their questions concerning life's mysteries, the three men returned home to the Peninsula to join the family oyster business. (There was one obvious and tangible result of their pursuit of knowledge: all three brought home wives they had met at college.)

Sources and Writer's Notes

1. Personal interviews with Lee Wiegardt, 2000 through 2002.

2. Personal interviews with Dobby Wiegardt, 2002-2003. Throughout the years, including the 1990s, this writer has benefitted from the personable help from both Dobby and Lee. The lending of books, photographs, and many hours of interviews and discussions (as well as telephone conversations) have been much appreciated.

3. The Bush and Callow acts of 1895; RCW 79.90.570: The Bush and Callow acts were intended for the cultivation and propagation of clams and other shellfish. More recently (2001), the state legislature has ruled that vested rights in shellfish cultivation may not be impaired in subtidal lands originally included under the intention of the Bush and Callow acts. Historically, traditional oyster land has been protected from development of other aquacultural development.

4. "An Interview with Lee and Dobby Wiegardt," from Longlines, PGCSGA newsletter.

5. Telephone interview with Carol Wiegardt, August, 2003.

6. Interview with Wallace Woodham, Seaview. August, 2003.

7. Wiegardt and Sons have four oyster dredges, although one is not in service. One, built by the Gertulla boat shop several decades ago, is the Tide Point. Two newer dredges are in regular use.

8. Correction: Anna, the eldest daughter of Heinrich and Laurine, died at the age of 91 in 1975, not 1987.

9. "The Efficacy Of Mechanical Treatment Efforts In 2001 On the Control Of Spartina In Willapa Bay In 2002," by Kim Patten, W. S. U. Long Beach Research and Extension Unit. A Progress Report submitted to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, Dec., 2002. Dr. Patten's report is used as background information.

10. Various information concerning Wiegardt operations from newspaper files (microfilm, Washington State Library).

11. Wiegardt and Sons, Inc. evolved from the F. W. and J. L. Wiegardt Oyster Company (oyster grounds).

Following the division of the oyster ground, originally owned by brothers Fred and John Wiegardt (and subsequently by sons and cousins Lee and Jack), Wiegardt and Sons is now owned or leased by Lee and Fritz Wiegardt. Since Dobby, Jr. retired from the cannery business the Jolly Roger operation is also under the control of Lee and Fritz. Carol Wiegardt, widow of Jack, retains ownership of the Jolly Roger and some oyster ground. As partially mentioned, this property is leased to Wiegardt and Sons for an annual payment.

12. Lee and Ginny Wiegardt's family. (Lee was born in 1927 and graduated from Ilwaco HS in 1944. Ginny Lundstrom was a student at Portland's Lewis and Clark College when she and Lee met at Long Beach.)

a. Fritz, 50, married to Chikako, who also works for the company. Chikako and Fritz have two children: Ken, about 30 yrs of age, is the bed manager for Wiegardt and Sons. Daughter Lisa works as an accountant in Seattle.

b. Laurie Choate, 46, (divorced), graduated from Ilwaco HS ca. 1975,. Laurie has two children, John Choate and Katie.

c. David, who is divorced. Dave worked for Wiegardt and Sons but is now retired on a medical disability.

d. Bill, who is deceased.

13. Dobby and Lila Wiegardt's family. (Dobby was born in 1931 and graduated from Ilwaco High School in 1948. He also graduated from WSU in Janurary, 1953. Lila Meiners was a 1949 graduate of Pullman HS and met Dobby at Washington State while they were students.)

a. Mark, 48, is married to Sue Cudd. Mark now works for Taylor Resources while Sue manages the Whiskey Creek Oyster & Clam Hatchery at Netarts. There are three children, two from Mark's previous marriage: Ashley, age 20, and Jarrod, age 18. Sue and Mark have one child, Max, age 4.

b. Eric, 46, is married to Ann, who was raised on Orcas Island. Ann and Eric have two sons and two daughters: Nathan (1985), Zachary (1987), Kelly (1990), and Esther (1995). Eric operates his art studio and gallery on the site of the old Wiegardt Brothers' Clam Cannery.

c. Teresa, 45, is married to Rick Goodwin, who is a Pacific County sheriff's deputy. Teresa and Rick hav three daughters: Janna (1988), Rayna (1990), and Abigail (1993).

d. Todd, 42, is a twin. Divorced, he lives in Raleigh, North Carolina where he works as a wholesale florist. Todd is raising his young son, Dawson.

e. Karen, 42, the other twin, lives in Hawaii with her husband Peter (whose greatgrandfather was a medical missionary to Hawaiian royalty). Karen is a homemaker who has a university degree in education. The couple has one son, Ben jamin, who is 13 years old.

14. Jack and Carole Wiegardt's family. (Jack was born in Astoria in 1930 and graduated from Ilwaco HS in 1946. Jack and Dobby, Jr. started grade school together, but Jack skipped two grades. Carole Schrader was from the Seattle area.)

. a. John Wiegardt, 46, single and lives at Depoe Bay, Oregon.

b. Elizabeth, born in 1960. Liz and husband Ken Egel live in Petaluma, California. They have one daughter, Rachel, age 12.

c. Andrew (Andy), 39, lives with his second wife in Astoria where they have recently purchased a home. Andy has three children, stepson Randy, 17; son Aaron, 15; and daughter Melanie, 13.

d. Cris, 38, is divorced and has 1 stepdaughter, Charisse, 17; and son Cody, 12. Cris operates the Sandpoint Clam Farm.

e. Paul, 35, and wife Malinn live in Portland and are expecting their first child. Paul is preparing for a job in computer science.

f. Youngest son Jamie died in 1993 at the age of 23.

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