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 (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)
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. (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)
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, 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!)