Charlene , a professor of history at Kalamazoo College, was recently selected into the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lectureship Program.
Dennis is the Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College. His article “Sporting Disability: Official Representations of the Disabled Body at Tokyo’s 1964 Paralympics” was recently published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Sport and Social Science.
Editor’s Note: Try on this image: if author David Hammond ’73 were a recipe, its ingredients are the liberal arts—mostly literature and writing (he was an English major, after all), but also heaping measures of food and travel (in Strasbourg, France, and beyond, to be specific), enough science to understand the effect of nuanced environmental differences on organisms in seemingly close proximity, a taste for history (in chronicles such as The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay), and an appreciation of the ebb and flow of economic-environmental influences. I hope readers enjoy, as much as we did, the following piece–product of a curiosity refined by an education in the liberal arts. And not just any such education. Like oysters, a liberal arts education can have important variations, even in close proximity. Cheers to David Hammond, and to the K way of doing a liberal arts education.
In a recent Chicago Sun-Times “oyster guide”, I mentioned, with a hint of disbelief, that “some oyster enthusiasts even claim to detect subtle flavor differences between bivalves grown on different sides of the same bay.”
That claim once seemed to me somewhat unbelievable. I’m not scoffing any more.
A few hours after landing in Richmond, Virginia, I went to an oyster tasting that involved sampling the same breed of oyster grown in multiple locations all around Chesapeake Bay, north and south.
What I discovered in this pan-Bay sampling was that flavor variations in oysters from different parts of this bay are, indeed, clearly palpable.
It just makes sense: oysters cultivated closer to the Atlantic Ocean are saltier, and those further north and deeper up into the bay, closer to freshwater rivers, are sweeter. Similarly, oysters cultivated near moving waters tend to be somewhat cleaner tasting than those in beds where water moves more slowly.
Flavor differences, it turns out, are readily discernible, even in oysters that live a few miles apart. Historically, the oysters from Chesapeake Bay were known for being some of the finest in the world.
According to John R. Wennersten, in his highly entertaining The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, there was a time in the late nineteenth century when Chesapeake Bay provided 40 percent of the world’s oysters!
Throughout the past century or so, the oyster industry in Chesapeake Bay, much like that in the Gulf Coast, has waxed and waned, building up and then slipping down due to a variety of causes.
By the late twentieth century, the glory days of Chesapeake Bay oyster production had faded, due in part to fertilizer run-off that caused vast algal blooms that made life difficult for oysters. A little algae is just fine; oysters like it; too much algae crowds out the tasty creatures. Given the chance to increase and multiply, relieved of the burden of trying to live in heavily polluted water, oysters actually filter the water and make it cleaner.
Today, with regulations in place to reduce run-off, farmers are moving back into the Chesapeake area in a continuing effort to satisfy the perennial taste for oysters. Oysters are amazingly resilient creatures, and even though their numbers in Chesapeake Bay have dwindled over the years, the industry is undergoing a rebirth, with new oyster farms cropping up all over the bay.
Pleasure House oysters: Bringing Back the Old Ways
I had my first Pleasure House oysters at a restaurant called Terrapin in Virginia Beach. The oysters were much bigger than I’d usually prefer an oyster to be, but each was stunningly delicious, with briny, balanced flavors and beautifully firm flesh. Terrapin is one of only three restaurants that serve Pleasure House oysters; production at this oyster farm is understandably low.
Pleasure House oysters is one of many farms that have reclaimed their place around Chesapeake Bay. In response to the increasing demand for oysters, companies that had previously gone under are coming back to life, and new companies are starting up; some are doing their best to bring back the old ways of oyster farming.
At the Pleasure House oyster farm, cages are pulled up and the oysters sorted and tumbled by hand. This totally manual approach might seem like a gimmick, but Pleasure House oysters were perhaps the finest oysters I’ve ever eaten.
We went out on a Pleasure House oyster boat with Chris Ludford, whose regular job is serving as the area’s fireboat captain. When he’s not keeping the bay area from going up in smoke, he works his oyster beds on the Lynnhaven River, cultivating and harvesting oysters by hand. We pulled up next to a patch of marsh grass where Ludford had his cages.
The fresh-from-the-water oysters were glistening jewels of deliciousness, brimming with briny liquor and dense with layers of flavor. Somewhat fleshy, their texture was excellent.
“We’re in a perfect location here,” said Ludford, “a few miles from the ocean, so we get a lot of fresh salt water washing through.”
The Lynnhaven River has been yielding oysters for centuries. Local legend has it that shortly after landing in the New World, the first European settlers sat down with the indigenous residents to enjoy fire-roasted oysters.
Shoot Photos, Not Guns
In The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, Wennersten relates many tales of pirates—some local, others coming down from Maryland—who raided oyster beds all over this area. To combat such pilferage, an Oyster Navy launched in the late nineteenth century. There were frequent pitched gun battles between this local law enforcement agency and oyster pirates. Much blood was shed. Many poachers were shot by the guns of the Oyster Navy.
Finally in 1959, a colorful local character named Berkeley Muse was out pilfering oysters with some good ole boys when he was shot and killed by the Oyster Navy. Beloved by the community, he was immortalized (more or less) in a song (I found it on iTunes) by Calico Jack & Janie Meneely:
Potomac was as good a place as any man could choose
Till the Oyster Navy came and shot down Berkeley Muse
With the death of Muse, and ensuing public outrage, the Oyster Navy was throttled back.
Predictably, the pirating of oysters continues.
“Every Fourth of July,” Ludford told me, “we have people coming in and trying to poach our oysters. It’s traditional for people to have some oysters and beer, and I guess some folks just can’t afford them. Last year on the Fourth, I got a call from a buddy who told me there were pirates in my oyster beds. I jumped in my boat and went out there. They took off, but I shot a picture of the license on their boat with my brand new iPhone.”
Police eventually caught the malefactors and their loot: a passel of Pleasure House oysters. No blood was shed.
Slurping unbelievably fresh Lynnhaven River oysters in the sun, with the wind blowing off the nearby Atlantic, it was easy to see why the oyster was one powerful food. Indigenous people, English settlers, red-blooded American boys, for all of them, oysters hold an enduring allure.
You know you want to. Go ahead, do it. Just don’t get caught.
Sneak into your sister’s room while she’s out to the party, fish under her fluffy ruffled pillow—and there it is, with its tiny gold key attached by a thin orange and black ribbon. Read her diary under the bedcovers at night, using a flashlight to skim her rounded handwriting. All her secrets …
It’s a lot like that. Only these diaries are one hundred years old, they’re available online, and the girl sharing her secrets on the written page is Claire Wight, Kalamazoo College Class of 1916. She’s a student (and athlete) at K, walking the Quad with her boyfriend Ralph, tennis racket under her arm, telling him how she’s pretty darn sure that “Tuffy,” her math professor, is going to flunk her this time.
Some things change and some never do.
The diaries, nine of which may be viewed by appointment at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, are dated between 1909 and 1938. In 1909, Claire Wight is 15 years old and attends Kalamazoo Central High School. “Mamma gave me a lovely new diary,” she writes. And she writes in her diary most every single day.
“She’s at the stage of figuring out who she is, what love is, what she wants to do with her life,” says Lisa Murphy ‘98, College archivist at Upjohn Library Commons. Wight’s diary entries about her years at K begin with 1913. Her entries for the year 1912, when she was a freshman in the fall, are missing.
September 17, 1913:
“College opens! It seemed good to see all the students back and it was regular ‘pandemonium’ with them all talking at once. I have a very stiff program. The hardest there is and I don’t know how I will come out with it. I have 7:55 math, 9:15 german 10:15 public speaking, 11:15 history 1:30 Chemistry besides Lab work gymnasium etc. I have Prof. Williams, Prof Bacon, Prof Dagistan, Dr. Balch, Prof Smith, This P.M. E & I went down town and got our books then came home & went over to the gymnasium & practiced tennis against the brick wall Oh I hope I can beat Miss Gregg, It was quite fun watching the Freshmen and helping them out of their dilemas [sic]. This evening I studied a while then Ralph & I went walking through town out onto East Main got some ice cream & candy then came home.”
Murphy has been in close contact with Paula Metzner, assistant director for collection and exhibit services, who has been meticulously transcribing the diaries to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum website, entry by entry, with spelling and grammar mistakes intact for authenticity. In the Kalamazoo College archives (third floor of Upjohn Library Commons) are collections of photographs, programs, notes and various mementos from Claire Wight and from her school years at K in general.
“Claire Wight was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Rev. Wallace Wight, who also went to K and graduated in 1892,” says Murphy. “The Baptist roots of Kalamazoo College were very strong during that time, so it makes sense that she came here. Women had few career choices back then—maybe teachers or nurses—but a minister would have thought it was important for a young woman to be educated.”
Students back then, explains Murphy, would not have declared majors and minors, but rather designated a course of studies. It appears Claire Wight studied chemistry along with Latin and German, and other general courses, including what was then known as “hygiene class.”
“Hygiene class promoted health and efficiency,” says Murphy. “It would have included gymnastics, dancing, graded physical training, and games.”
Wight made her mark most, however, in tennis. She won eight MIAA medals in Tennis Women’s Singles throughout her years at K, one silver and seven gold, all but one of which are in Kalamazoo College archives. She credited her father with teaching her how to play and notes elsewhere that he was “an instigator” of building the tennis courts at Kalamazoo College.
Lillian Claire Wight was born in South Dakota in 1894, but moved to Kalamazoo, where she lived on Ingleside Terrace with her parents when her father was appointed to minister at First Baptist Church and later Bethel Baptist Church.
“Women lived in the Ladies’ Hall at that time,” says Murphy, “but Claire would have lived at home since she was from Kalamazoo. The men lived at Upper Hall.”
During Wight’s years at K, Herbert Lee Stetson was president; she writes in her diary at times about her friendship with his daughter, Elizabeth, who was also a student at that time. The student body included 253 students; some 22 were women members of the senior class. A master’s program was available, but with only one graduate student attending. Two students from Egypt attended Kalamazoo College during the same years.
“Reading these diaries is a great way to get an idea what K was like a century ago,” Murphy smiles. “I can identify with some of the pressure she feels about doing well in class, her panic over exams, and how busy she is. Like Claire, I had a professor tell me that I can do better.”
In an entry dated December 6, 1913, Claire writes:
“Well diary I’m going to College and we do have the parties and spreads and receptions and stunts that you read about and I guess I’m in my share all right but somehow it’s different from what I supposed it would be. I think the books of college stories hide the hard work of college life too much because really most of the time we’re working away at our books and recitations and then too [it] isn’t just having a banquet but we have to get busy and wash the dishes same as ever and sometimes I get so tired out that I feel like the old woman… but I love college just the same and we do have grand times.”
All in all, Claire seems to have done well in her studies, although she was not beyond playing occasional hooky. She was also apparently popular with the boys, although one in particular, Ralph Payne ’15, was most attentive and persistent. Claire wrote about his frequent attentions, as he often asked her to go walking with him, or to attend various events or parties.
“She kept writing in her diary that she had doubts about her feelings for Ralph,” Murphy concedes, “but as often as she went walking with other boys, she kept coming back to Ralph. Eventually, in July 1917, she married him, and she writes in a note later that they had a good marriage for 59 years.”
The diaries illustrate a time very different from today in terms of women’s rights and choices of lifestyle. Claire writes on February 11, 1914:
“This evening Helen and I and Mother and Gene & Mrs. Weaver went to a woman’s meeting at the 1st Baptist Church and heard Evangelist Drum speak on the subject ‘How to chose[sic] a husband.’ It was a fine address but I thought it was more of a womans duty than a man’s to talk of such things and while the address was helpful and good I wish a woman had given it. I’ll jot down some of the points that appealed to me. Have the home tidy when your husband returns. Always be tidily dressed and dress young and wear a bit of color. Get what you want done by your husband by indirect suggestion. Don’t tell your Mother the faults of your husband. After the lecture Mother & Helen & I stayed down town to see the new gas lighting system, chester lights, turned on. It was beautiful and a pine tree in the park was all wired with red, white and blue lights and flooded with water so it was just a mass of sparkling icy crystals when it was turned on the display of soft and sparkling light was beautiful and wonderful.”
While writing that she worried if it was “sinful” to attend the theatre, Wight several times remarks, “but it doesn’t feel sinful.” She took roles in several plays staged at Kalamazoo College. Murphy has found her name listed on theatre programs, including playing the part of Queen Elinor in a production of “Sherwood” in 1916, staged in the woods rather than on a stage.
In an alumni survey, to the question “Who was the most significant and influential College person in your own Kalamazoo College experience?” Wight answered: Lemuel Fish Smith, a chemistry professor. She writes of other transformative experiences, too, such as hearing Helen Keller speak, attending many concerts, and enjoying many cherished friendships with fellow students. And pranks, too …Wight relishes writing about freshman boys who crawl through stealthily opened windows to steal ice cream from school freezers, and sophomore girls who sneak into the dorm rooms of freshmen girls to steal all of their clothes.