If you’re going to build a successful oyster business, a foundation of more than 100 years’ worth of oyster shells seems like an appropriate place to do it. The current home of Bluffton Oyster Company, constructed in the 1950s on the banks of the May River, was erected on a surface of oyster shells discarded by shucking enterprises that once burgeoned in the area. The simple concrete building is a monument of sorts to South Carolina’s once-robust oyster industry. The last remaining hand-shucking oyster house in the state, it has been operating in the Bluffton area for more than a century and holds a special place in local history.
The story of Bluffton Oyster Company is closely tied with the Toomer family, who owns it today. In the early 1900s, Simpson V. Toomer settled in the Hilton Head Island area and landed a job at an oyster canning facility. After learning the ropes, he opened his own factory and made his mark by shipping South Carolina oysters to England under his own label.
His had one of those old-school oyster operations that hummed along on the fuel of manual labor. Imagine oyster pickers – their schedules dictated by the tides – fighting the suck of pluff mud as they hammered away to dislodge oysters from their beds. Once their back-bending work was done, the harvest was hauled back on a boat to the factory, where women would shuck the load by hand in cold concrete rooms, sometimes individually picking as much as 10 gallons of meat a day.
Three of Toomer’s sons followed him into the business, and a family tradition was born. His grandson, Larry Toomer, honed his skills and was eventually hired to run Bluffton Oyster Company. In 1995, he bought the business, which had managed to survive despite factors negatively affecting the industry – everything from a 20th-century typhoid panic that scared away wary oyster eaters to the lightning growth of tourism, which lured a sizable portion of the oyster workforce with offers of higher pay and less strenuous conditions. On top of that, there was a significant dwindling of the oyster supply due to industrial contamination that crippled oyster enterprises.
Past Meets Present
Today, Larry and his wife, Tina, continue to operate Bluffton Oyster Company from the now-historic building on Wharf Street. Each day during the season, workers assemble to do things just the way they were done back in the day. Pickers harvest oysters from 30 pristine acres in the May River. The shuckers finish the job, prying the plump, glistening morsels from their shells by hand for your enjoyment.
Fresh seafood lovers regularly flock to the dock where the boat, Daddy's Girl, delivers succulent South Carolina shrimp and more to be sold in the small, no-frills factory market. Shrimp season runs from mid-June to mid-January, and oysters, clams and mussels, from mid-September to mid-May. Arrive early to peruse the day’s offerings. For a special treat, show up during the months of March, April and May when Bluffton Oyster Company harvests soft-shell crab. If you crave fresh South Carolina seafood, but aren’t inclined to do the prep and cooking yourself, visit the Toomer’s restaurant, Bluffton Seafood House, located just a few blocks away.