Oysters R In Westport’s Season

For months, Westporters have seen — and wondered about — the wooden structures visible at low tide in Sherwood Mill Pond.

They’re used to grow oysters. And though only those folks living on the Mill Pond — or enjoying the view there — have noticed them, they won’t be “secret” for long.

Westport oysters are coming back. In fact, they may be our town’s fastest-growing industry.

And one of our most important.

Last month, near low tide, JP Vellotti snapped this photo at Sherwood Mill Pond. The tops of oyster cages peek above the water.

Last month, near low tide, JP Vellotti snapped this photo at Sherwood Mill Pond. The tops of oyster cages (center) peek above the water.

Oysters are not new. In the mid-1800s 2 men — a Mr. Nash, and a Dr. Deifendorf — grew oysters in the Mill Pond.

The Nash family may be best known for their own pond — off Kings Highway and Woodside — but they have a long oystering history here. In 1908 — several years after Captain Walter Dewitt (“Cap”) Allen married Lida Nash, he bought a small oyster house (the first part of Allen’s Clam House), and 30 acres on the pond.

Accessible only by boat, the house had been built in 1747 with remnants from the cooper shop. It was moved to the middle of the pond at the turn of the 20th century, as the home of a guard who watched the beds for poachers.

The house had been cut into 3 pieces, then dragged out at low tide by a team of oxen. It was built into the island house by Cap’s father Samuel, a carpenter.

When Cap died, his daughter, Beulah Northrop, inherited the island house. She later gave it to her nephew, Sandy Allen, who then sold it to Jeff Northrop Sr.

I learned all this from Jeff Northrop Jr.. His father (Jeff Sr.’s) great-aunt was Lida Nash Allen. For generations, those 3 families have been intertwined.

Some of the oysters harvested last summer from Sherwood Mill Pond. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Some of the oysters harvested last summer from Sherwood Mill Pond. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Captain Allen grew clams and oysters. He ran Allen’s Clam House for several decades. He died in 1954.

The Uccellini family had been involved in the restaurant since World War II. They took over Allen’s Clam House after Cap’s death — but the clamming business ended.

During the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19, the only cure was said to be clam broth. Believing there were only enough clams to feed the locals, men with guns defended the Mill Pond from New York marauders.

Jeff Sr. was born in 1952. At age 4 he sat on Captain Allen’s lap, eating his first oyster. He lived on Grove Point, and spent summers playing at the tidal gates.

From 1957 on, the pond lay dormant. Jeff grew up, and worked in the boat business.

In 1971 — after graduating from Staples — he began growing oysters with Rand McNeill. They took their crop to Fulton Fish Market. Older buyers there immediately recognized the distinctive Mill Pond taste, from decades earlier. Eventually though, the business died.

In 2008, Jeff Sr. sold his boat company. He wanted to revive the family’s oyster business.

Automated tidal gates help drain Sherwood Mill Pond -- a boon to oyster production. Last summer, a Weston boy played near the gates -- just as Jeff Northrop did when he was a kid.

Automated tidal gates help drain Sherwood Mill Pond — a boon to oyster production. Last summer, a Weston boy played near the gates — just as Jeff Northrop did when he was a kid. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Just before his 2 million oysters were ready for their first harvest, Hurricane Sandy roared in. Sand sucked from the Saugatuck River was deposited in the Mill Pond. The oysters — planted on the bottom — suffocated.

But Jeff and his son are determined to bring oystering back. They re-examined growing techniques, and raised enough capital to do it all again. They call their venture Hummock Island.

A company studying the water called Sherwood Mill Pond one of the best oyster-growing mediums they’d seen. It usually takes 3 years to grow mature oysters. Because this pond is so nutrient-rich, oysters need just 18 months.

The Northrops now grow their oysters in bags. Placed in cages off the pond floor, they’re away from sand and crabs. Those 500 cages — in 2 rows, each 600 feet long — are visible only at low tide. They hold another 2 million oysters.

When the Mill Pond was drained last summer, the Northrops got a chance to inspect their oysters. They're grown in bags, hung from cages that are usually submerged. (Photo/Dan Woog)

When the Mill Pond was drained last summer, the Northrops got a chance to inspect their oysters. They’re grown in bags, hung from cages that are usually submerged. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Because the Mill Pond can be drained, the Northrops have a unique opportunity to work on their oysters. Every day, tidal gates allow over 2.5 million cubic meters of fresh, nutrient-rich water to enter the pond. All the conditions align for bountiful harvests, with firm white meats, beautiful shells and an intimate meroir.

Oysters are very efficient sources of protein. They’re non-polluting. They produce no waste.

Plus, they’re feeder filters. Since they started growing, the water quality of the Mill Pond has increased dramatically.

A rare view of Sherwood Mill Pond, while it's drained. The view is from mid-pond, toward Hillspoint Road and Compo Hill beyond. (Photo/Dan Woog)

A rare view of Sherwood Mill Pond while it’s drained, with the Northrops’ oyster cages visible. The view is from mid-pond, toward Hillspoint Road and Compo Hill beyond. (Photo/Dan Woog)

A special boat comes into the channel. (The Northrops own the land used to get in and out of the channel.)

Hummock Island oysters are on the menu at restaurants like Pearl at Longshore. They’re available in local stores.

You can’t see the oyster beds, except at extreme low tide. Most Westporters don’t know they’re there. (Many don’t even know about the magical Mill Pond.)

But — just like years ago — the oyster world knows Westport.

(More exciting news: Tours of the oyster farm are in the works!)

28 responses to “Oysters R In Westport’s Season

  1. Rod Hurtuk

    Thanks, Dan. A great history!

  2. Rindy Higgins

    This is an exciting come-back story, with a new twist regarding the cages.Oysters and clams are also more traditionally commercially harvested from the mouth of our precious Saugatuck River as well as other areas in Westport waters. The shellfish resource has been so important for this town; in fact the very first Westport ordinance involved shellfish. How many residents know that there is a recreational program in town? A permit from the Conservation Dept. can put 1/2 bushel/day on the table!

  3. Great story! Good luck to our local oystermen!

  4. Diane Cady

    love that story!

  5. Bonnie Bradley

    The story I know about the Mill Pond: In the mid to late 1950s the State and Federal gov’t were building 95 through Westport and they wanted to dump the “spoils” (rocks, contaminated dirt, broken up local roads, trash and everything useless to road-building) into the convenient Mill Pond rather than truck it all away to a suitable dump site. As a teenager then, I didn’t particularly pay attention to town affairs but someone, concerned citizens, the town fathers probably, brought suit to stop this careless destruction of our beautiful, and even then historic pond. My father, attorney J. Kenneth Bradley represented the town and/or these people in the lawsuit and won the case for the town. Although he rarely talked about his cases to our family, I vividly remember how passionate he was and how determined to save the Mill Pond.
    My brother, Jim Bradley, when he owned a dock company, rebuilt the tidal gates which I believe still stand today.
    When I was a little girl my grandfather, James P. Bradley, on a sunny afternoon would rent a wooden, flat-bottom rowboat from Capt. Allen and he and I would drift around the pond catching big blue crabs with our nets and my grandmother would cook them up for dinner. Growing up in Westport…!

    • Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

      Bonnie, I am Mary Lou Cookman, sister to Corky and Carol, Granddaughter of Ella Otis. I hope you bring this information to the meetings about saving Saugatuck and the Bridge Street Bridge. Those of us who know and love Westport need to share the stories of who and what made Westport what it is today. Your Parents and Grandparents made huge contributions to “our town”. Best to you and yours

  6. Dana Kuyper

    (More exciting news: Tours of the oyster farm are in the works!)

    Thank you – I was wondering about this as I read your very informative
    post ! We saw Hummock Island oysters on the menu at Pearl and asked where Hummock Island was. The waiter said it was in Long Island Sound off Westport somewhere. It’s unclear to me – is it an actual island or just the name of the Northrops’ venture? The oysters were great!

  7. Morley Boyd

    Wow, now that’s how you start a week off right. Superb story! Go Westport!

  8. Scoot MacPherson

    What a great story. And, ROCK ON Jeff Northrup! Such admirable vision, priorities and guts for making the leap the way he has. Cool in every way. If possible I’d like to correspond/talk with him to hear and see more of what he is doing.
    Thanks for such a relevant and interesting article.

  9. Robert Mitchell

    For further information on the Mill Pond, see Judith Katz’ lovely book, “the beautiful POND” and the companion exhibit currently running at the Westport Historical Society. And check the WHS website for related activities this summer, including walking tours of the Compo Cove area and lectures on oystering.

  10. Fred Cantor

    Very cool story. And I think a lot of people are glad Jeff didn’t stick with his plans he described in our Coleytown Jr High yearbook: “wants to get out of Westport.” Great stuff Jeff!

  11. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    This is a win win report. It highlights the history of the town and supports the need for conservation and preservation.
    I love this story and remember much of what is reported and also the conservation fight that Bonnie Bradley mentions when I95 was built. It is important to keep in mind that contractors, developers and even state regulators are looking for the most cost effective and quickest means to an end and that end may not be what is best for residents or the environment

  12. William Camp

    Dan, great article, I spent countless Summer’s swimming off the “gates” at old mill pond. My first job was a dish washer at Allenstein Clam House!

  13. Sally Kellogg Deegan

    I saw your comments, Bonnie Bradley, and decided to put add my 2 cents worth. I think your grandfather, James Peters Bradley was one of the 8 or 9 children of David and Jane Eliza Peters Bradley who were my great grandparents Now that i am in the “ole folk” category (90 years old the end of this week) of this family, I’d love to hear from you. sjdeeagn28@aol.com. I remember going to Allen’s Clam House with my Dad Major (aka Sereno) Jacob. He would take my younger brother there in the early 30’s to have clams on the half shell. I can still see Captain Allen behind the counter skillfully opening the clams with his knife and we would “slurp” the clams right out of the shells. (On occasion, I think Captain Allen would serve clam chowder.) I’m afraid that my Dad sensed that the lack of enthusiasm my brother and I had for this treat, and our visits ceased (not his). Sally Jacob Kellogg Deegan

  14. Virginia R. Clark

    My name is Ginny (Hamil) Clark, Staples ’60
    As an 8 year old, I learned to swim in the Mill Pond when Marie Dimond had her swim classes there. The water was always fresh and clear. We took lessons there two summers. My father and I gathered oysters and also gathered mussels off of Compo point around the cannons. My father gave me my first oyster to eat when I was about 4 or 5. (It “stayed down”) and I’ve been eating them ever since. These are fond memories of the times spent at the Mill Pond. Thanks so much for the history and the story. I remember Jim Bradley through sailing. Thank goodness Mr. J.K. Bradley won the case for the town. Protect the Mill Pond!

  15. Jill Turner Odice

    Great story! I remember back when I was at Staples, we would wade out to that island at low tide. I am pretty sure Jeff was living out there then …Many summer days were spent swimming and playing by those tidal gates 🙂

  16. What a great story highlighting an important industry for our community as well as a valuable local ecosystem! Protecting water quality and the health of the Mill Pond is critical and I am excited to see the Northrups’ business continue to grow.

  17. Jacques Voris

    It is all relative(s):
    While not the most well known of the old Westport families, the Allen family was formerly the largest. For the 1850 census it was the most common surname in town, 4.45% of the people in town had the last name “Allen”. They have been around these parts for some time.
    Benjamin Allen lived off south Compo, near Narrow Rocks Road. A story that was passed to me is the the reason Tar Rock Road is so named is that he had covered a boulder there in pine pitch, to be set alight should the British ever land a Compo. That probably came in handy in 1777.
    From George Penfield Jennings “Greens Farms, Connecticut, the old West parish of Fairfield”:
    “Captain EbenezerAllen ran the schooner Remsen
    between Southport and New York in the market trade
    starting about 1883. This old schooner finally was
    allowed to rot on the mudflats just below the Sauga-
    tuck carriage-bridge; its hulk can still be outlined in
    the mud at low tide.”
    Captain Walter Allen’s father was Samuel Allen. Samuel’s sister Damaris married one Joseph Mills. Their son was George Walter Mills, one of only three officers ever killed in the line of duty in Westport. (https://06880danwoog.com/2016/05/19/its-national-police-week/)
    Joseph’s father was Samuel Mills, he of the recently feature houses on Center Street (https://06880danwoog.com/2016/04/26/center-streets-retirement-homes/)
    Remember the houses on Roseville Road (https://06880danwoog.com/2016/01/06/roseville-roads-civil-war-connection/)? Well, William Batterson, the first owner, his mother? Sarah Allen. His wife? Louisa Allen. When his daughter Phoebe married Benjamin Brotherton his grandmother was the same Sarah Allen that was the mother of William Batterson.

  18. Rindy Higgins

    This is so much fun to see these stories! I love you, Westport, old and new! Thanks, Dan, for bringing out our heritage and, thank you, many others, for elaborating!

  19. Dorothy Fincher

    Winner, winner, oyster dinner !!! What a scrumptious story, thanks again, Dan, for this fascinating historical perspective.

  20. Wendy Cusick

    Thank You for a wonderful story and all the added history in the comments above. I’m really enjoying it. I have been watching the little house in the middle of Mill Pond for years and then see the remodeling project plus the added little house on a barge attached to it.

  21. Mary Schmerker

    Thank You Rindy.
    What a treasure trove of information you provided and the posters are beautiful! I saw these yesterday, when Dan added a link to the earlier 06880 piece on your posters. I was on a mini vacation and could not enlarge them on my “little device”! Looking them on a full computer screen is amazing. You are very talented. I hope that you are on the e-,mail list for the Westport Preservation Alliance and getting updates on the Bridge Street Bridge and other possible planned development for Saugatuck. Your information is vital and important.What a wonderful gift you have given to Westport.

  22. Bonnie Allen

    Kudos to Jeff Northrop Sr. and Jr. for continuing the Allen legacy of farming the Mill Pond! Cap Allen was my grandfather, and my grandmother was Lida Nash Allen (not “Lydia”). After his years as a Merchant Marine, Cap saved his money and purchased the Clam House and the Mill Pond plots, farming the pond for lobsters, crabs, clams and oysters, and selling them out of the Clam House shack. When we visited as children we often climbed down from the open deck and walked along the borders of the big square floats that contained crabs and lobsters. From time to time one of us would fall into the pond and have to be fished out. My favorite thing was getting an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola out of Cap’s coke machine – for only a nickel! Many years later, my mother Mary Allen, and my cousins Phoebe and Bobby Burr Northrup, sold the Clam House property to the town in order for it to remain as a nature preserve. Jeff and his family have done a wonderful job renovating the Island House – a very special spot!

  23. Westport Oysrers are featured on the menu at “Jumbo Seafood” in Clark’s Summit, PA.

  24. Evan Stein

    I recognize that this is an old school return to oyster harvesting but do the Northrups have a website to tout where to find there bivalves?