Like many people, Patrick Sikes loves the beauty of Sherwood Mill Pond.
Like many too, he’s fascinated by Hummock Island: the oyster house that sits in the middle of that vast body of water.
The Mill Pond is one of Westport’s most photographed locations. Sikes’ images are particularly good. They should be: He’s a professional photographer.
Recently, he turned some of his Hummock Island shots into unique greeting cards. He posted them on Instagram, where they caught the eye of Jeff Northrop Jr., an owner of Hummock Island Oysters.
He invited the photographer out. Sikes captured the feel of the oyster house: the equipment, the machines, the oysters themselves.
Oystering equipment … (Photo/Patrick Sikes)
His images — black-and-white and color, framed and printed on metal — now hang on the oyster house wall. (Jeff Northrop Sr. made sure that, as a historic building, no new nails were driven into the wood.)
… and oysters. (Photo/Patrick Sikes)
It’s a unique “gallery.” There’s no electricity, so the photos are seen in natural light.
The other evening, 60 or so oyster-and-art-lovers took the quick boat ride from Compo Cove to Hummock island.
Heading to Hummock Island. (Photo/Patrick Sikes)
They admired the photos. They ate the Northrops’ oysters. And they browsed what is now — thanks to Sikes — a unique gift shop. In addition to greeting cards, he’s created coasters and cutting boards, with his photos and the Hummock Island logo.
Eating oysters outside the Hummock Island house and “gallery.” (Drone photo/Patrick Sikes)
Hummock Island is a special Westport story.
Thanks to Patrick Sikes, it’s now told in striking photos too.
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.
Jeff Northrop Jr. readies his boat.
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.
A photo showing the grist mill and adjacent cooper shed — now the Hummock Island house — hangs on the wall inside.
The pond was originally a tidal stream. It was dammed up to provide power to turn the water wheel that ground grain.
Relics inside the Hummock Island house include timbers from the original Allen’s Clam house. They came from the schooner Remson, built by the Sherwood triplets. The abandoned vessel is still visible at low tide, in the Saugatuck River near the William Cribari/Bridge Street Bridge.
Jeff Sr. lived in the house during his high school years (he graduated from Staples in 1971).
The Hummock Island house (left). On the right is an equipment shed/boat, added a couple of years ago.
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.
The Hummock Island house.
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.
The view to the back of Sherwood Mill Pond — toward I-95 and the train tracks — from the Hummock Island house.
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.
Hummock Island oysters.
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.
Jeff Northrop Jr. shucking oysters.
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.
Jeff Northrop Jr., inside the Oysterplex equipment shed/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.
A clam rake.
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.)
You’ve eaten them at local restaurants (and all across the country).
You’ve stood by the Sherwood Mill Pond, gazing at the island house and wondering about the long, black contraptions running out to it.
Next month, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Hummock Island oysters, and the beds where they’re grown.
The Northrop family — who revived and revitalized the industry here in Westport — are offering tours of their Hummock Island oyster farm.
You’ll travel by boat across the Mill Pond. The Northrops will describe the history of oystering in Connecticut, show how oysters are grown, and end with oyster tasting on the front porch of the private island house.
It’s fun, educational and exciting for oyster lovers of all ages — including kids, and those who have never even tasted one (an oyster that is, not a kid).
Tours run June 8 through August. Start times are tide-dependent.
Claus Meyer is a world-famous food activist, cookbook author, professor and TV host. A founder of the New Nordic cuisine philosophy, his Copenhagen restaurant Noma was rated the Best in the World 4 times (!) since 2010.
So it was pretty cool the other day when he showed up at Sherwood Mill Pond. He visited the Northrop family’s Hummock Island house, accessible only by boat — the base of operations for their famous oyster farm.
He and a few of his chefs sat with the Northrops, discussing the finer points of oystering.
Claus Meyer (left) and Jeff Northrop Jr. at Old Mill Beach, before their oyster farm tour and tasting.
But that’s not the whole story.
Meyer invited Jeff and his son (Jeff Jr.) to be part of his food operation in Grand Central Terminal.
That’s the 16,000-square foot Great Northern Food Hall in Vanderbilt Hall, which has taken the historic landmark by storm.
Which is why — all week long — commuters, other travelers and food lovers of all kinds have been stopping in at the Hummock Island Oyster pop-up bar.
Pat Hanna and Kenny Varyruardrok of Hummock Island Shellfish opening oysters from Westport for the hungry masses.
They’ll be there through next Thursday (December 22) tomorrow (Friday, December 16) from 4-8 p.m.
That’s good news for Westporters heading home via Grand Central.
But if you’re not — heck, even if you are, but you love Hummock Island oysters — you can get them at Pearl at Longshore, any day of the week.
Yesterday’s thunderstorm knocked down several tents at Compo Beach. Three people were injured.
Folks wondered if the damaged tents would force cancellation of Saturday’s Lobster Fest — a major fundraiser for the Westport Rotary Club, and the town’s 2nd-largest community beach party (after the fireworks).
Have no fear. Tie those bibs. The Rotary Club promises that Lobster Fest is “100% still on.”
The tents are being fixed today (and the hundreds of chairs underneath them righted). Supplies arrive tomorrow. The fresh lobsters will come moments before they’re devoured.
Also featured at the 5th annual event: Jeff Northrup’s Hummock Island oysters; Baxter Urist and Bill O’Brien’s Beaver Beer, live music and more. Over 1,200 seafood lovers are expected to attend.
Lobster Fest hopes to raise $75,000 for local, regional and international causes. The Westport Rotary Club does plenty of good, for plenty of folks. They’ve got a big tent, both figuratively and — now that it’s back up at the beach — literally.
The weather forecast for Saturday is clear, with a high of 76. Perfect lobster-eating weather!
(Lobster Fest is set for Saturday, Sept. 17, from 3-7 p.m. at Compo Beach. Click on www.westportrotary.org for more information, or to purchase tickets — they will not be sold after Friday. Parking is free for all attendees. )
A large, boldly patterned bird, the American Oystercatcher is conspicuous along ocean shores and salt marshes. True to its name, it is specialized in feeding on bivalves (oysters, clams, and mussels) and uses its brightly colored bill to get at them.
The woman who spotted it adds: “It’s really beautiful, with an unusual high- pitched loud tweet.”
Here’s a better photo (from Wikipedia, not Compo!):
If you see one, tell us.
Better yet, tell Jeff Northrop, over at Hummock Island Oysters on the Mill Pond.
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!)
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