An oyster festival in the Mason County area was natural and inevitable. The area has lots of clean saltwater shoreline and native tribes, including ancestors of the current day Squaxin Island and Skokomish tribes, had harvested oysters in the region for many years. As pioneers reached the West Coast of America, they too discovered the oyster as a delicious food. In 1890, Taylor Shellfish Company began to grow oysters and it has grown to be the largest oyster producer in Mason County and arguably the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the United States. Many other oyster growers joined over the years. Hama Hama started selling oysters in the 1950’s, followed by Salish Seafood by the Squaxin Island Tribe in the 1970’s. The area was ready to celebrate its bounty of the sea and its accomplishments in developing the shellfish industry in the area. It was ready for someone with a vision to start an OysterFest.
That person turned out to be Dick Oltman who in 1982 came up with a detailed plan for such a festival. He offered that plan to several groups until finally the Shelton Skookum Rotary Club, which had limited success with previous fund raisers, said “Why not, let’s do it” and with enthusiasm and lots of work the OysterFest was born.
Oltman’s vision was to create an event that would bring people to our community after the summer high season, extending the economic benefits of tourism for the entire community. He planned the event to showcase Mason County’s treasured oysters and aquaculture industry, throwing a spotlight on the fact that the shellfish and timber industries can and do coexist successfully. From the beginning, the centerpiece was to be the official West Coast Oyster Shucking Championship.
This plus 100 food vendors and exhibitors, all of whom are local, nonprofit organizations using the festival to generate funds for their mission-driven operations in our community, has turned OysterFest into the largest annual fundraising event in the county, Other popular elements of OysterFest include the Seafood Cook-off, the Washington wine tasting hall, the microbrew tent, and the live entertainment stages. Through all of these activities, a great deal of education is provided by exhibitors who showcase best practices about maintaining clean waterways, shellfish habitat and recycling. The event is made possible by hundreds of volunteers who run every aspect of the festival and promote the Rotary ideal of service above self. Money raised at the festival by the Skookum Rotary Club and the non-profit vendors goes to provide scholarships to local students, education activities like the annual Science Fair, support of food banks, Excellence in Education Program (that recognizes the achievements of the top 10% of 8th graders in Mason County) and other social service organizations to improve the lives of people living in Mason County. In addition, during the past years, the Rotary organization has supported the construction of a YMCA in Shelton and has participated in eradicating polio around the world. The date for OysterFest was selected in considering weather history, the oyster spawning cycle, and timing so that the West Coast shucking champion could attend the Nation competition in Maryland.
In 1983 Members of Skookum Rotary traveled to Olympia to meet Governor Spellman in a rather unique way traveling nine miles by rowboat to meet the Governor and get his proclamation. Today, OysterFest festivities are traditionally launched with a “Washington State Oyster Week” proclamation by our Governor.
During OysterFest’s history many things have changed but the original plan has remained the same. Some activities like the Art & Photography contests have come and gone, and admission fees have increased from $1 in 1982 to $7 in 2019. The popular Cook-off has not been held in the last couple of years. Shucking Competition, entertainment, education, wine tasting, microbrews and food, food and more food have been the foundation. Arguably, OysterFest has the widest selection of raw and prepared seafood dishes in Washington state, as well as other choices to please a variety of tastes.
From the first OysterFest in 1982 to 2014 the OysterFest thrived at the Mason County Fairgrounds. However, due to FAA regulations and requirements, the Fairground had to be vacated. Fortunately, Port of Shelton agreed to rent the old runway for the new and current location. That was quite a change.
At the Fairgrounds there were buildings, all the utilities, fencing as well as bleachers for the shucking competition audience. At the runway, Skookum Rotary had to build everything; rent and set up tents, run in water lines and electrical connections for lighting and vendor use, bring in sanitary services, rent and set up a security fences, and set up a communication system, All this added considerable cost and effort.
However, in spite of the challenges and accompanying concerns, the Skookum Rotary lived up to its reputation as a club that gets things done and pulled off many successful events at the new location.
We look forward to seeing you October 1 and 2, 2022.