This weekend, Ashleigh and I spent the three days in Bushwood, Maryland, celebrating my cousin’s wedding. Bushwood is a small rural town located in St. Mary’s County’s seventh district. Which, if you’re from Southern Maryland, you know has a rich and unique culture. While my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Donald aren’t originally from the area, they moved there in the 1970s. The home they purchased is unique: it was built in the early 20th century, and is both a residence and the post office. Across the street, on their property, sits a grist mill, that was constructed circa 1910 by the man who lived in the post office, Richard Ellis. My aunt and uncle have restored the mill, and added a covered porch to the back. It was here that my cousin was married, and where, on Sunday, we carried out one of the longest of Maryland traditions: oyster shucking.
Since the wedding was a big occasion, Lucy and Donald ordered three bushels of oysters…which is a lot of oysters. One of my favorite activities is to shuck oysters with my two uncles, Donald and Mark, and it is a regular occurrence during the fall months. Mark and I tackled some of these oysters raw, while Donald got things set up to steam them.
The set up is pretty simple: you need a pot, a mesh container to set in it, and a flame. The only concern this day was wind, but we managed to keep the flame lit for the entire evening. Cooking oysters is not too tricky, either: oysters are placed in the mesh container, dipped into the boiling water, and they sit for around ten minutes. When a few of them start to pop open, the mesh container is pulled out, oysters are dumped on the table, and you begin shucking!
My Uncle Mark, a woodturner from Baltimore, Maryland, cracks into one of the raw oysters while Donald gets things set up. Cracking an oyster is a delicate and potentially dangerous endeavor. The oyster knife is wedged into and worked around the seams of the oyster. For some that is near the joint, while others prefer tackling the oyster from the edges. All agree on one thing: point the knife away from your hand. The oyster is a bumpy and frustrating beast, and the knife can easily slip. Once you see little bubbles around the edges, you can start to pry the shell apart, revealing the delicious center.
The mill has been used for quite a while as a space for oyster eating, and a nice midden of shells has built up around the deck’s perimeter. The mill itself was built in a complex of other buildings: Ellis intentionally crafted the grist mill and the saw mill near his post office in order to create an economic and social center for the town. Farmers could come gather and send mail, get their corn milled, and lumber sawn. The grist mill still contains a number of the old tools, and while the parts are not currently operational, the mill stone, conveyor, and line shafting are all still in tact, making it a fantastic historical example of what a mill would have looked like during the period. Lucy and Donald have gone to great care to maintain as much historical integrity as they could.
The deck addition, however, was not original to the building. It is likely that this was where the saw mill was located. However, the addition of the back has allowed one component of the mill to remain: it is now, once again, a social center for the residents of Bushwood. The Bushwood Mill is host to concerts, movie nights, oyster shucking, and hosted the celebration of the post office’s 100th operational year. The wedding only further indicated that the Mill has fantastic potential as a social area.
The oyster has been part of Chesapeake cuisine for thousands of years. As an archaeologist, I am well aware of this fact: oysters appear in larger quantities than just about any other artifact. What can often be lost, however, when we excavate these shells is that the act of eating is more than just part of fueling our body. It is also a social endeavor, that incorporates family, friends, and community. An added layer is the importance of having a space to regularly congregate, to eat, drink, and laugh. This weekend, at the historic grist mill, we were able to carry on an ancient Chesapeake tradition in a historic, special place in a town called Bushwood.
All images are taken by the author, and protected by a Creative Commons License. You can see more photos at Flickr.