A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Northrop family’s new venture.
Westport’s premier oystermen were planning tours of their admired-from-afar-but-seldom-seen-up-close operation on Sherwood Mill Pond. It was a chance to watch a very cool (and nationally known) business in operation — and to visit the mysterious house out on Hummock Island.
Last week, I took the tour.
I joined Jeff Northrop Jr. and his dad, Jeff Sr., plus a longtime Westport couple and a girl who just graduated from Staples.
It was high tide. On the Mill Pond that’s only 18 inches to 2 feet deep. But it was perfect for the boat. The weather was outstanding too.
As we headed out, Jeff Jr. said that his father’s great-uncle had dragged the 1747 house — originally built as a cooper shed next to a grist mill — across the 83-acre Mill Pond by oxen, at low tide, around 1850.
The pond was originally a tidal stream. It was dammed up to provide power to turn the water wheel that ground grain.
Jeff Sr. lived in the house during his high school years (he graduated from Staples in 1971).
A caretaker then lived there for decades, until he was 83. The next year, Hurricane Sandy devastated the house.
The Northrops painstakingly restored it. They did so well, it’s earned a Fairfield County preservation award.
It sits now on a tiny spit of land. But the island was once much bigger. In fact, Jeff Sr. said, the town still insists he has 5 1/2 acres there.
Jeff Jr. pointed out 2 machines. One separates oysters into 3 sizes. The other cuts them down to uniform shapes. In 1 hour, it does what once took a week.
Oysters must be separated, because smaller ones won’t grow in the same cage with larger ones.
The Northrops farm 4 million oysters at a time, below the surface and in floating bags. The Mill Pond is so nutrient-rich — and the water so pristine — that they take just 18 months to mature. Nearly everywhere else, it’s 3 years.
The Northrops supply wholesalers, including Pagano’s of Norwalk. From there they’re distributed all over the country. The 3-inch Hummock Island oysters are the highest grade — a delicacy prized by oyster lovers everywhere.
Next to the house is an equipment shed: the “Oysterplex.” Though it looks like another house, it’s actually a boat. (Jeff Jr. called it a “giant catamaran.”)
The Northrops hauled all the materials across the Mill Pond, and built it from scratch. When town officials questioned whether it was a structure or a boat, father and son rode it all around the island. It’s definitely a boat.
The Northrops are well known for their oysters. But there’s 30 more acres behind the Hummock Island house. Just as they’ve done with oystering, they’re now revitalizing clamming in the Mill Pond.
The tour over, Jeff Jr. and Sr. took us back across the Mill Pond. We passed a stick they’d found and planted. Instantly, Jeff Jr. said, ospreys and hawks found it.
The Northrops’ love for the Mill Pond is palpable. They know its history, its rhythms and its secrets.
Now the secret of Hummock Island is out.
And it — at least, its tour — is yours for the taking.
(The Northrops’ tours run through August. Times vary, depending on tides. For more information, click here.)