One East End family’s history in oystering goes on display

Bill Plock's grandfather, John Plock Sr., founded the Shelter Island Oyster Company. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
Bill Plock’s grandfather, John Plock Sr., founded the Shelter Island Oyster Company. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

What do oysters have to do with history? Everything. At least, when you’re talking about the East End of Long Island. 

And from the late 1800s to the 1950s, the Shelter Island Oyster Factory was a major player in the region’s oyster industry. In the face of incessant complaints about noise and odors that typically accompany such operations, it remained for decades as a thriving business run off the shores of Dering Harbor.

But its been forgotten by many. That’s why the Shelter Island Historical Society and The Nature Conservancy are joining forces on an exhibit that debuts Oct. 18 at the Historical Society’s Havens House Barn.

The exhibit will commemorate that time in history when oysters were thriving industries.

Bill Plock remembers because it was his grandfather, John Plock Sr., who founded the company where Bill worked after school and on Saturdays from the age of 12. And while his interests have taken him in other directions, he still surrounds himself with a lot of the memorabilia from the days when Oscar the Oyster reigned as a symbol of the best oysters grown on the East End of Long Island.

Among them is a plaque employees presented to his grandfather in 1928 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company’s founding.

“It was fun,” Mr. Plock said of working side by side with other employees, putting together and then packing corrugated boxes of oysters for shipping, and — as is true in many prominent family businesses — doing everything from sweeping the floors and organizing inventory to learning to shuck oysters.

He helped load boxes with canned oysters that were shipped to Boston markets weekly.

He remembers the noise and the odors, but if those weren’t embraced by factory neighbors, for him they represented a part of the excitement of the business.

Back in those days, everyone in the business of fishing, clamming and oyster farming worked together and helped one another thrive, Mr. Plock said.

When Bill was only 16, his father, John Jr., died in an accident, bringing the young man even closer to his grandfather, he said.

Even though he was the grandson of the owner, he was “just one of the guys” among the other workers who took him under their wings and helped him learn the various jobs.

That might have been Bill Plock’s future, but by the 1950s, the oyster business was dying out and it wouldn’t have been profitable to keep the factory going, he said.

Still, the sea was in his blood, so it was a natural transition to pursue work that would keep him close to the water. For 27 years, he worked at Brewer’s Yacht Yard, initially as a mechanic and rigging boats and later, as computers came on the scene, working as parts manager in the company’s stock room. He later started his own knife-sharpening business.

Besides the Shelter Island factory, the family owned a shellfish farming facility in Southold, where seeding was done and clam shells were cleaned and ground and sold for use in paving driveways. In 1992, the family created a development plan to protect 14 of the 22 acres of land in Souhtold and in 1996, donated those 14 acres and facilities to the Peconic Land Trust.

For the family members, the oyster business may be a thing of the past, but they still surround themselves with memorabilia from its heyday and daughter Rebecca Plock, who has interned at the Shelter Island Historical Society, was thrilled when she visited Universal Studios in Florida and saw a Shelter Island Oyster sign on a wall there.

Clearly, her family legacy in the business lives on in the memories of others, she said.

While Nanette Breiner-Lawrenson and her staff at the Shelter Island Historical Society gather memorabilia from  the Shelter Island Oyster Factory, Mike Laspia, through The Nature Preserve, is working to bring the science of oystering to the forefront.

“It seemed like a perfect marriage of the two organizations,” Ms. Lawrenson said about the cooperative exhibit being planned by the Historical Society and Nature Preserve.

Besides pictures, the Plocks will be lending items including Shelter Island Oyster Factory cuff links, tie clips, posters, cans and, of course, images of Oscar the Oyster for the exhibit. There will also be recipes for all things oyster and Ms. Lawrenson is hoping anyone with any memorabilia from that era might lend it for the exhibit.

“It was pretty neat that they really wanted to exhibit this,” Mr. Plock said. The family business “will be remembered forever now,” he said.

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