Leipsic offers up a pearl of an oyster festival

LEIPSIC — As any fan of the Delaware Bay oyster will tell you it takes a firm hand to pop open their extra thick shells.

Shucking at the second annual Leipsic Waterfront Oyster Festival on Saturday, Jim Fox was hard at work cracking oysters open for festival-goers.

“I’ll be at this all day long,” he said with a smile. “After awhile it gets pretty sore up in your wrist.”

To shuck, Mr. Fox jabs a specially designed oyster knife into the natural seam of the shell, gives it two firm raps on a nearby block of wood to drive the blade in and cranks sideways on the knife and shell to pop it open.

Leipsic Mayor Craig Pugh, a professional waterman from the age of 12, noted that all the raw oysters for the occasion were harvested directly from the Delaware Bay.

“We’ve stockpiled about 14 bushels of oysters for the festival — there are about 60 to 80 oysters per bushel,” he said. “Delaware Bay oysters are lighter, milder tasting than most oysters. Compared to something like a Chincoteague oyster, which can be really briny because they’re closer to the ocean, ours are more subtle tasting.

“Generally, they have a lot of meat too because they tend to be bigger and the shells are extremely hard.”

The festival has been widely embraced since its inaugural event last year. Leipsic Councilwomen Donna Ortelli said the first event drew about 400 people despite poor weather. This year that number is likely to be even higher in light of favorable weather — high 50s and partly cloudy for most of the day.

The town-wide festival filled Main Street from the Leipsic Volunteer Fire Company house down to the town hall with live music, interactive educational displays and game and activities for kids.

The main attraction, of course, was the oyster feasting opportunities. Patrons had their pick of raw or fried oysters, various other seafood and other grill items. Local Lewes-based Big Oyster Brewery also hosted a stand where they were serving their Hammerhead IPA, Solar Power and Shuckin’ Pumpkin.

Organizing and running the festival is a community effort that supports community institutions, noted Mayor Pugh.

The proceeds earned from the festival are distributed to both the Leipsic Volunteer Fire Company and the Leipsic Watermen and Farmers Museum project.

It wasn’t just local residents who took increased notice of the festival this year. Gov. John Carney, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and Kent County Commissioner Terry Pepper joined Rep. William Carson and Sen. Bruce Ennis in attending this year.

Both the governor office and the Legislature issued declarations naming October 2018 Oyster Month in the state in honor of the humble bivalve mollusk and its contribution to the state’s economy.

Praising the festival, Gov. Carney said “[w]e need cool things to do in Delaware, and what’s happening here today. I’ve gotten an education from the mayor on oysters’ importance to this estuary. What he told me was that they are a real bellwether for the strength and viability of this estuary.

“And, it seems like it’s stronger than it’s been in years and that’s a great thing.”

According to Mayor Pugh, a mysterious pathogen called MSX (multi-nucleated unknown) infected and decimated the Bay’s oyster population in the 1950s. Another punch was delivered in the 1990s when the fungus Dermocystidium marinum nearly wiped out the Delaware and New Jersey oyster business entirely.

However, the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary reports:

“The oyster population rebounded somewhat by 2000 due to the combined efforts of Delaware and New Jersey and the oyster industry, producing some 100,000 bushels per year.”

Though the population still struggles, it’s seen some small gains due to shell-planting and transplant programs in recent years. All tables at the festival on Saturday were marked with instructions to leave shells behind so they can be re-purposed in this way.

“The oyster business used to be a lot bigger, but it’s starting to come back a little,” said Mayor Pugh. “Commercially, we’re only allowed to harvest about 90 bushels of oysters annually. There’s only about 200 people in the state licensed to harvest oysters — probably 10 or 12 of them are here in Leipsic. Most will make a couple thousand dollars per year bringing in oysters.

“It’s a smaller portion of our income, but it helps pay some of the bills.”

During the festival, DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin announced several blocks of grant money obtained to help develop three acres of “open space” in the town.

“The state will be providing to the town of Leipsic $78,000 from our Outdoor Recreation Parks and Trails fund as well as $72,000 that Sen. Ennis and Rep. Carson have secured,” he said.

The land parcel, located behind the Leipsic Fire Company, was donated by the family of the late Mae Northwood — a long-time resident of the town.

Mayor Pugh says the town plans to take its time carefully planning out the use for the open space.

“We’ve been discussing a park or maybe a pavilion, and there’s hope that as this festival takes off, it could be used as a public gathering place,” he said.

As if one town-supported civic project and festival weren’t enough, Mayor Pugh says the Leipsic Watermen and Farmers Museum project is making incremental progress as well.

The site for the museum is in the north end of the Town Hall building.

“We still have a way to go, but we did recently put a new roof on it, replaced some windows, installed new heating and air conditioning units and a lot of the electrical work has been updated,” said Mayor Pugh.

“We’ve made some pretty big steps with it, probably investing somewhere around $300,000 in it at this point. We’re looking at around another $150,000 to get it to where it needs to be.

“That includes adding handicap ramps and bathrooms while maintaining the historical integrity of the building.”

Mayor Pugh and the town council believe the festival, future park and museum will help substantially tie them into the Delaware Bayshore Byway as a tourist destination.

“The museum particularly is important to us because it can be a resource for people to come and see the historical value of what we do here and how this small town’s people are connected to the bay — it has been and continues to be very important part of our livelihood.”


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