The History of the St. Mary's County Oyster Festival
(Adapted in 2021 from the 2010 St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival Guide)
The story of the Oyster Festival, now in its 55th year, is so interwoven with that of the Lexington Park Rotary Club that it's difficult to remember which came first, the hen or the egg. The idea for the festival was first hatched back in 1967 when the club was looking for a project in which all the members could be involved and would be beneficial for all concerned - the community, the club, participants and attendees.
In addition to member participation, the festival had three main objectives:
- to promote a festival celebrating fun, food, and fellowship.
- to attract visitors from near and far by promoting the bounties of life in this Land of Pleasant Living - especially St. Mary’s County oysters
- to raise funds to benefit charities that the Rotary Club of Lexington Park supported as well as those of the various service and civic organizations who participated as food vendors at the festival.
The first festival was held on Saturday, October 7, 1967 at the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds from 3pm until 9pm. A charge of $2 for adults, and $1 for children was collected and the advertising read: “Delicious bivalves served raw, steamed, scaled, fried with traditional trimmings and all you can eat”. A little under a thousand visitors came out that first year. Over the years attendance steadily grew and so did the festival. In 1974 it was turned into a two-day event and was moved from the first weekend in October to the third. The later was a result of historical weather data analysis on which weekend in October had the least rainfall. This study was necessitated after three straight years of inclement weather on festival day. The analysis showed that the third weekend in October was 32% less likely to have rain than the first. The festival weekend has remained the third weekend of October ever since, and was cancelled only once - last year due to COVID-19.
In the mid-1970's, the festival blossomed from expanded public relations campaigns and being managed in a more business-like manner. By the late 1970’s, attendance averaged about 25,000 for the two days. The year 1982 saw one of the largest crowds ever with attendance for the first weekend estimated at over 32,000. Today the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival averages around 22,000 visitors over the two fun-filled days, and it has become one of the Eastern Seaboard’s leading folk life festivals attracting visitors to St. Mary's from across the country.
The first Festival was co-sponsored by the St. Mary’s County Watermen’s Association. David Sayre, their president for more than 15 years, played a big part in helping to get the first event off the ground. As the Festival grew, Rotary and the Watermen’s Association yielded much of their role as food vendors to other civic groups. Today, there are over 20 civic and service groups participating as vendors in the Oyster Festival and many of them rely on the festival as their primary annual fundraising event. The 1999 menu had over 34 lines of foodstuffs. Oysters are still the main feature – fried, stewed, scalded and “nude”- but crab cakes and soup, clam chowder, shrimp, fish sandwiches, locally famous St. Mary’s County Stuffed Ham, barbecued beef, chicken and pork, and even polish sausage make it a difficult for even the most picky eater to not find something to please their palette!
THE NATIONAL OYSTER SHUCKING CHAMPIONSHIP CONTEST®
The first shucking contest at the festival took place in 1969 when it was known as the “Chesapeake Bay Oyster Shucking Championship”. In those early years it was local watermen competing for small prizes and a trophy. Competitors had to shuck only 12 oysters, the rules were few, and speed was the only determinant. The first champion was James “Golden” Thompson with a recorded time of 80 seconds. In 1972 there were 28 contestants registered with a $1.00 entry fee, and there were 3 prizes of $100, $45, and $25.
The year 1975 saw the first contest with women competing against women and then the battle of the sexes (this was the year after the famous Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs "battle of the sexes" tennis match). That year Bernice Newton of St. Mary’s County was the first women’s champion and Cornelius Mackall of Calvert County was the men’s champion and the first designated "National Champion". The following month he went to Ireland and won the International Championship. That was the first time an American placed better than third in the international competition and It would be over 30 years later before a USA competitor won the title again. In 1978 Heidi Ho of Florida became the first female National Champion. Following her trip to Ireland, the contest here was changed to 24 oysters (in Ireland they use 30 but theirs are smaller), and the rules were revised and updated to conform more with theirs too. More emphasis is now placed on “presentation” rather than raw speed.
After a contestant shucks his or her 24 oysters, judges inspect their oysters and add seconds to each shucker’s time according to the following table:
- Oyster not cut completely from its shell (add 3 seconds)
- Oyster presented on a broken shell (add 1 second)
- Oyster presented with grit, blood, or other foreign substance (add 3 seconds)
- A cut oyster (add 3 seconds)
- Oyster not placed properly on shell (add 2 seconds)
- Missing oyster (add 20 seconds)
Other milestones in the contest evolved as the term “National” took on a truer meaning, and in 1984 a trademark on the wording NATIONAL OYSTER SHUCKING CHAMPIONSHIP CONTEST® was obtained by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park.
A list of contest winners going back to 1980 is available on the Oyster Festival website at www.usoyterfest.com.
THE NATIONAL OYSTER COOK-OFF®
A major addition to the Festival in 1980 was the addition of the National Oyster Cook-off®. It all started at the 1979 festival when Lucy Wing, then Food Editor of Good Housekeeping Magazine, told Buck Briscoe, then working with the St. Mary’s County Economic Development Commission, that the festival needed a cooking contest. His office joined forces with the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maryland and the Home Economics heads from the Maryland Department of Agriculture and Seafood Marketing. The Cook-off was quickly popular and now a typical year counts over 350 recipe submissions from over 30 states.
Usually held on the Saturday of the Festival, the Cook-off today features 9 finalists who compete for prizes in 3 categories – main dish, hors d’oeuvres, and soups and stews. The top winners in each category are then judged for the best overall recipe and the winner receives $1000, a trophy and, since the year 2019, has been invited to compete in the World Cooking Competition. Festival goers have the opportunity to watch the cooking contest and “taste test” each contestant’s recipe and vote for the “peoples’ choice” award winner. Returning Cook-off winners and well-known chefs are on hand after the competition to demonstrate how they prepare their favorite oyster dishes and talk to the crowd.
To learn more about the Cook-Off, visit www.usoysterfest.com
FAMILY FUN, LIVE ENTERTAINMENT, EDUCATIONAL EXHIBITS, ARTISTS AND CRAFTS VENDORS
A family-oriented festival, the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival is noted for its emphasis on food, the shucking and cooking contests, and quality entertainment. Lots of exciting attractions are featured over the two days of the festival. Of particular note is the “Kid’s Korner” where families can enjoy carnival games and rides, pony rides, free balloons and face painting.
There’s always something for shoppers in the crowd as well. Three buildings are dedicated to displaying and selling local arts and crafts in conjunction with the Craft Guild of St. Mary’s County and the St. Mary’s County Arts Council. Always a crowd pleaser, exhibitors are restricted to local artisans and Women’s Club organizations to preserve the local flavor of the festival. Over the years, local commercial vendors have been added to promote their services and products, and more local historical sites, museums, and tourist attractions are also on hand to promote the many wonderful places and activities to enjoy in St. Mary's and Southern Maryland.
Continuous live music is provided throughout the weekend at three locations on the festival grounds making the Oyster Festival one of the most popular and entertaining weekends for music goers of the year. Performers range from jazz to blue grass, classic rock to barbershop quartets and more.
Entertaining and educational exhibits sponsored by county, state, and private community organizations are also present at the festival. A fascination for many is the building filled with exhibits of old farming and watermen’s implements. These exhibits celebrate the heritage and history of the local area where once upon a time most folks made their living along the shores and waters of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
A YEAR APART.
Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Rotary Club Oyster Festival Committee had to pivot the planning process and, with the support of many loyal community and competition partners, figured out a way to host the Shucking and Cook-off competitions as virtual exhibitions to keep the festival spirit alive. It was a painful but necessary decision to cancel. Many of our members have been working the festival for over 30 years. With true bivalve grit and determination, these fine folks managed to massage a pearl around an obstruction, aka the coronavirus epidemic. A virtual shucking competition took place with competitors Zooming in from New York City, Baltimore, Washington DC to talk about their craft and perform the first ever (and hopefully last) virtual shucking event. The results were inconclusive to say the least but brought a bit of fun and fellowship and got some of us out of our shells, literally and figuratively. The 2020 National Oyster Cook-off was held at a small venue with only one winning recipe being selected from the main dish category. The chef prepared the dish in a very strict setting for a small audience at No Thyme to Cook in Solomons Island, MD.
The Festival has come a long way since 1967 when that stalwart bunch of Rotarians worked night and day to stage the first event. A recent cross section survey of festival attendees shows about 80% are from outside the tri-county area. Each year the festival administration gets inquiries from all over the country and many attendees travel to St. Mary's every year to attend. The shucking and cooking competitions have grown and nurtured their own loyal followers, and the weekend often feels like a family reunion of every sort of bivalve aficionados imaginable.
And what about the objectives the founders had in mind when dreaming up this festival almost 60 years ago? Over the years, as the last visitors depart and the sun sets on the midway at the fairgrounds, and the long clean up and accountings begins, we weary Rotarians take a moment to reflect: after all this time, those core objectives remain the same but have brought so much more than originally anticipated.
But more than anything, this festival is about “People. People helping people.” The Festival embodies the Rotary creed of “Service Above Self” with not only Rotarians at work, but so many others too. All coming together and working, serving food, entertaining, sharing ideas, raising funds for local charities, bolstering tourism, preserving and celebrating local heritage, and creating community.
So join us this year and for years to come. We welcome you to the Oyster Festival Family!