Papa loved to talk and I loved to listen. We were a perfect match. He talked about the Oysterville of his childhood, a time that I could hardly imagine. He was born in 1876, sixty long years before I came along. In those olden days, there were no cars and no roads to speak of in Oysterville. Arrivals and departures were by boat or horse or “shanks mare” as he called walking on your own two feet. “And,” he said, “Oysterville was bigger than Seattle.”
The neighbors called Papa “Mr. Espy” and his cronies called him “Harry.” Sometimes there were visitors who called him “Senator.” He had whiskers that people referred to as a “Van Dyke” and he tipped his hat to ladies and held the door for them — even for me! I thought he was the smartest person I’d ever met and I never knew him to tell a lie. I believed him no matter what he said.
In the beginning, Oysterville’s economic prosperity was based upon the native oysters that thrived in Shoalwater Bay right at the town’s front doorstep. Oyster schooners — some with enormous shipping capacity — plied the waters between San Francisco and Oysterville. On their way up, they brought as ballast redwood lumber and fieldstone and everything an oysterman could desire, from top hats to prostitutes. On their way south, their holds were filled with oysters. Tons of them. In the 1850s, the supply seemed inexhaustible.
When Papa was a boy, Oysterville was the county seat. The courthouse was a two-story building across the road from the schoolhouse which, in those days, was also a two-story building. There were two stores, three hotels, and many boarding houses. There was also a tannery, a meat market, a ball park, a parade ground, a boat building shop and a coffin shop. Papa’s friend, Mr. Stoner, remembered that when he was a boy in the 1860s, there were 500 people living in the town and its environs.
Crowds During Court Week
Papa didn’t exactly contradict him, but he’d chuckle and say, “Maybe during court weeks.” They both agreed that when all the lawyers and their clients came to town, all the boarding houses and hotels in town were full and the Carruthers family would serve 250 meals at a sitting in their establishment, the Pacific House. They didn’t say that the saloons were full, too — not in front of us “little pitchers with big ears,” anyway.
I’m not sure I knew what a saloon was — there were none in the Oysterville of my childhood. But when Papa was a boy, there were seven and he remembered that on the days the oyster schooners came in and the men of town were paid in gold coins for the bushels of oysters delivered to the ship captains, there was always something doin’ at the drinking establishments.
“The men would draw a line in the sand outside the front door and some of the ‘wags’ would pitch twenty-dollar gold pieces. Whoever got closest to the line without going over would win them all.” He said he and his friends used to search around afterwards, sure that they’d find a gold piece that had been overlooked. No one ever did find one and, two generations later, neither did we.
Papa’s sister, my Great Aunt Dora, loved to tell about the bawdy side of life in those days. She remembered when the stage came racing up the weather beach and into town “lickety-cut” bringing all those “bad men and their fancy ladies” from Astoria. That happened every once in a while when there’d be a fuss about the shanghaiing going on along the Columbia River waterfront and the saloon owners and even some of the town’s politicians would have to leave town till things cooled off. It was Oysterville where they’d hide out for a while, hiring the hall for dances where a “one-legged Indian would saw out a tune on his fiddle” and a good time was had by all.
Methodists vs. Baptists
Papa said that in those early decades of Oysterville’s history, the town was about equally divided between Baptists and Methodists, although Aunt Dora didn’t remember it quite that way. She claimed the division was about equal, but it was “between the saints and the sinners.” According to some accounts, the Methodists got fed up with the boisterous nature of their neighbors and moved in 1889 to pursue a calmer lifestyle five miles to the south of Oysterville. Although the moving part is true, I’ve not ever seen anything that documents the reason other than a desire to be nearer the Methodist Camp Ground Association which was the beginnings of today’s Ocean Park.
Not long after that, Loomis chose a place four miles south as a terminus for his narrow-gauge railroad and the businesses in Oysterville (including John Morehouse’s General Merchandise store, forerunner to Jack’s Country Store) moved south, as well. “They could see the handwriting on the wall,” Papa said. And then, when Papa was 16, the South Bend Raiders came and stole the records from the County Courthouse — “Kidnapped the County Seat!” he said.
Oysterville’s decline wasn’t exactly gradual, but even in my childhood, most of the residences housed families whose dads worked in the oysters and there were enough kids in town for the school to remain open. And, still, in 1947 when Papa said that Oysterville was once bigger than Seattle, I believed him absolutely. He took me to the “children’s corner” of the family library and took out the last book in a 19-volume encyclopedia set published in 1891.
He opened it to the section on Washington and carefully unfolded the map that showed all the towns and cities and geographic areas of the state in faded pastels. “Look here, girlie,” Papa said, “and tell me what you see.” Right away, I was able to find the word “Oysterville” but he had to show me the tiny letters that spelled “Seattle” a few inches north and east on that map.
And there it was! Oysterville in bigger print than Seattle. I don’t know if I was suitably impressed or not. Even as an 11-year-old, I didn’t need any convincing to realize that Oysterville had much greater significance than that far-off place I’d barely heard of. To this very day, that Encyclopedia Britannica set still occupies the bottom shelf in our library. And, to this very day, there is no question in my mind or heart that Oysterville remains the most important place in Washington or even on the entire West Coast. Thanks, Papa, for pointing that out so many years ago!