Forty years ago, in 1977, Times writer Mari Buri paid tribute to the people who worked with the pride of Apalachicola’s estuary with a series of articles. Here is a sample of what she wrote and a glimpse into Franklin County’s past.
Eastpoint’s ‘bestest’ oysterman
Twenty-five years ago, when Marion Millender was 32 he resolved to become the “bestest” oysterman that ever was and the lean man with the leathery tanned face and the world’s bluest eyes may just have done so.
“Him and his wife can do as much, just the two of them, as six others combined,” a young man that works at Millender’s brother Fred’s oyster house in Eastpoint observed admiringly.
“When you’ve got five youngins you got to work,” Marion Millender said dismissing the compliment. “One got married but I didn’t lose her, I gained two more.”
But he does admit that he and his wife, working as a team, him tonging and her culling, can bring in 50 to 60 bags a day and that’s a lot of oysters to wrench up from the shell bars to which they cling.
“Really, it’s harder to cull because you’re bending over all the time.” He said. I’d rather tong.”
“The oysters are briny now,” he added, describing a recent haul. “But when the cold weather comes and some fresh water gets into the bay, they’ll get fat.”
“I enjoy it,” he said. “I was raised up under it. I was in the service and had three public jobs with the government. I had other jobs too, but if I got slack for a minute, they got on me and every time I said ‘I don’t have to take this, I know where the fishing bay is.’” So he oystered off and on for a few years.
A job building a church in Carrabelle really launched Millender’s career as an oysterman. “I was working with my brother, Shelley, and he came by and showed me the blisters on his hands,” Marion Millender said. “He asked me if I had them on mine too and I said, ‘You won’t ever see blisters on these hands for $1.25 an hour.” The boss had said ‘If I catch you talking again, I’ll move you over to work with me,” and just then he did. I said. “Shelley, I’m gonna go back and become the bestest oysterman that ever was.”
Since then, he’s been going out on the bay in little wooden oyster skiffs and plying the tongs. Now he has a good-sized blue and white boat that has a cabin with a little stove.
“I built a couple of my boats but not this one,” he said. He and his wife go out almost every day. They cook on the boat and often camp on St. George Island.
“She likes it best when the water’s real rough and the bay is kicked up good,” he explained. “She was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. They moved her daddy from Louisiana to Cape San Blas to St. George. They went across the bay in little boats all the time and that’s how she got to love the water.”
Marion has had to stay in port and mind the oyster house for his brother, Fred, who is in the hospital for a while this fall. He said it was all right, but he wanted to get back out on the bay.
“It’s like when you go away from home, you can see what has to be done there,” he said. “Or a card game when you’re looking over somebody’s shoulder. You can see what he can do and he can’t see none of it. When you’re holding the hand, you can’t either. It’s like that. Now I want to get back.”
“I like it,” he added. “When you’re out there you think about the bills you owe but you’re out of everybody’s way. I’d rather be on the bar out there every day of my life than drive to work in Panama City once.
“The oystermans is most blessed people on earth,” he added pushing a tan cap up on his head. “He goes when he wants to and if he sits down and talks for a couple of hours no one says nothing to him. He’s his own boss.”
She likes shucking ‘fine’
Ella Hatfield shucks oysters.
All day long, almost every day for 16 years she’s been standing on her feet in the shucking stall hitting those oysters with a hammer and opening them up with a knife, then sliding them off into a gallon bucket.
“The hardest part is standing on your feet all day,” she says. “But I like it fine. I’d rather do it than anything I’ve ever done.”
She’s picked beans and farmed and worked in a shirt factory up around her native Jamestown, Tennessee. And she’s raised quite a few children, along the way, too. But that was nothing new to her being one of nine herself.
She and her husband Ownsby wanted a milder climate, so one winter about 20 years ago they brought seven small children down to the warmth of Eastpoint. The youngest only two and a half when they came. The oldest was 16.
The Hatfields live a few blocks from the oyster house in Eastpoint. “I have a little garden with okra and sweet potatoes now,” she says. “I do a lot of cooking and like to bake and fix a big meal.
Eastpoint pro0ved to be a warm place in more ways than a thermometer can indicate so they stayed. So did five of the children; the other two went all the way to Blountstown 75 miles up the road. But Ella Hatfield still gets to see all of her 15 grandchildren pretty frequently.
“The four girls shuck and the three boys oyster,” Ella says. “There are a lot of friendly people – I’ve always liked it here and they do too.”
So does Ownsby. He shucks oysters at the next stall from Ella’s at Millender’s Seafood in Eastpoint.
“Ever hear of McCord and Hatfield?” he asks with a wry enigmatic smile. “McCord lost.”
There’s a lot of talking and hollering between the stalls.
“You gotta joke when you’re shucking,” a young man named Mitchell says as he goes by. “Otherwise it’s no fun.”
“It really is fun,” Ella adds. “You can make good mone7y too.” Shuckers are paid by the gallon. Four dollars a gallon now.
It wasn’t always that way. When Ella started 16 years ago the going rate was a dollar a gallon and it took her all day to get one, right at the first.
But she was working in a motel, making $25 a week cleaning rooms and oyster shucking looked like a better deal. Soon it was.
“It took m three months to get up to 14 gallons a day,” she says proudly. “I used to do 14 gallons a day but I’ve slowed down a bit.”
“You can start at six,” she says. “We work till we give out. Most start at eight and knock off around five.”
Watching the rhythmic tapping of Ella’s hammer, in the cool peaceful shadows of the oyster house afternoon, it looks easy, deceptively so.
How do you shuck an oyster? Well first don a heavy cotton glove, then set the oyster on a wooden block, with its hip resting on the short metal stake that sticks up. Give it a sharp tap with the hammer out toward the edge so the lip breaks off. Then stick a knife blade in the hole and pry until it opens.
“No, no don’t pry him, rock him like this,” Ella Hatfield explains. “Rock the blade till the oyster opens and then slide it out into the bucket.
There, it only took five minutes to shuck one oyster…at that rate it’ll be about a gallon a day. Not so easy after all.
“I like it,” says Ella Hatfield, her gaze as steady as her broad hands and as direct as the blow of the wields.
Oysters at Vera’s
Vera has a house by the side of the road - little white frame oyster house with dark green trim on highway 98 about a mile and a half west of town.
And after nine years of chatting with the folks that stop in at the raw bar foursome tasty Apalachicola oysters on the half shell and a cold one or two to swill, friendliness comes easily to Vera Lemieux, the owner of the house.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“I used to be shy. I never talked to anyone,” the short woman with the twinkling eyes who stands behind the bar says. “But when I started working I just said, ‘Foot, I gotta get over this.’ Yes I was real shy of talking to strangers, but I don’t meet strangers anymore.”
Now, everyone who stops – be it a traveling salesman in need of a break from the unrelenting glare of many asphalt miles unfurling – or a middle-aged couple who have finally summoned the courage to take the plunge and sample a raw one for the first time – or just one of the ‘regulars’ who come in every day – they’re all friends when they pass through her door.
But Vera’s friendliness is beguiling. C’mon you’ll see, but watch out.
Heading out on 98, it’s one of the first raw bar sat this end of Two-Mile. – slow down there’s her sign.
“Vera’s,” it says. “Eat fish, live longer. Eat oysters, love longer.”
Some time midmorning, Vera opens up. “I don’t have a set time,” she says. “Just when I get through at the house next door, usually about nine. But if anyone comes over and calls, I get on out.”
Pull in past the two gas pumps out front, over around to the side, by the door. Likely as not there’ll be a man sitting there on a chair soaking up a little sun, if it’s Saturday morning, anyway. Or at least there’ll be an oblivious dog stretched out waiting for someone. But go on in.
It’s not large, but bigger than it was. “This used to be a little ol’ place when I bought it,” Vera says gesturing to a line on the ceiling where an addition begins.
But addition and all, it’s just one room, split by a counter, with a rack of candy and snacks and five tall wooden stools on one side and a refrigerator, cash register and sink on the other.
“There was glass all the way around,” Vera says. “It was so hot and bright I couldn’t stand it.” Now the glass is gone and it’s quite dim. It’ll be a minute before your eyes adjust.
“What’ll it be?” asks Vera, setting a big metal tray with saltines and a little paper cup of sauce on the counter in anticipation. Her soft voice always has a smile in it.
Maybe you’re new to the world of the half-shell. So you order a half dozen to start off.
Vera starts shucking; and chatting. Maybe she’ll ask you about your children or tell you about oystering this season. “They’re real good and salty now,” she says.
They’re always salty at Vera’s.
Maybe she’ll tell you about when she worked in a shipyard as a welder during the war, or about the time when her son-in-law first got started oystering.
But whatever she tells you her deft hands are busy with a knife, sliding those succulent oysters out onto the half shell all the while. She may even tell you the difference between how they shuck oysters in the houses and how she does here in the bar.
“I pry them out,” she says, “It’s a different kind of blade from what they use.”
But sitting there listening and chatting, those oysters with Vera’s zesty homemade horseradish sauce are sliding down easy.
Before you know it, somehow that half dozen you ordered has turned into a dozen or two dozen or maybe even three and you’ve eaten them all.
And weren’t they great?
“I’m happy with it,” Vera says of her work. “I just like to fool with oysters, I guess.”