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Kiwanis Club proceeds benefit the community

by Larry S. Chowning

The Middlesex Kiwanis Club oyster booth was located next to the post office (above) for years, but is now in the parking lot of the Southside Sentinel.
One of the main ingredients that has made the Urbanna Oyster Festival a booming success has been the many local food booths that offer oysters raw, roasted, stewed and frittered.

Festival oyster food booths started at Urbanna Days in 1960, the forerunner to the modern day Urbanna Oyster Festival. The name was changed from Urbanna Days to Oyster Festival in 1961.

The first oyster-serving food booth was on the corner of Virginia and Cross streets across from Bristow’s Store. The Urbanna Merchants Association sponsored the booth that served three roasted oysters on a large biscuit for 25 cents each. A wood fire was used and the Rappahannock River oysters were cooked on top of bed springs.

The Urbanna Oyster Festival has grown tremendously since 1960 and so has the efficiency of serving and handling food at the event.

Several charity organizations in the county fund a majority of their annual budgets with proceeds from their festival food booths, which they have manned for many years at the festival. These booths, just like the festival, started out small, but rapidly expanded.

Today, the Middlesex Kiwanis food booth is one of the most successful at the festival, but it had a very humble beginning 23 years ago in 1985. The first Kiwanis booth was located on Rappahannock Avenue across from the playground.

“It rained on Friday, and with no tent we did not sell many oysters,” said Russ Russell, Kiwanis historian. “We borrowed a tent on Saturday from the National Guard and sold some oysters.”

In 1986 the club was assigned the space on Virginia Street between the Urbanna Post Office and the house next door, which was recently removed. “It was all a real learning experience,” said Russell. “We didn’t have a tent that year either and the muddy oysters were dumped on the back of a pickup and not iced down.

“The oysters had to be washed down before being hauled to the shucking table and roasted,” said Russell. “The roaster was a large 4-by-4-foot piece of sheet metal borrowed from the fire department and placed on cement blocks. Roy Bowman provided the wood for the fire. It was a windy day and the wind direction determined who got smoke in their face and who didn’t.”

Oysters were served on plastic food trays, which needed washing after each serving. “A major job,” noted Russell. 

In 1987 the group had the same basic setup at the booth except Dale Taylor was able to get washed oysters in boxes. “We had to pick them up from a supplier on the Northern Neck,” said Russell. “The boxes of oysters were stored outside at our booth, uncovered, and not iced down.”

imageIn 1988 the Kiwanis Club decided to serve raw and roasted oysters on plastic plates and price them by the half dozen, with no discount for buying a dozen or more. In addition to seafood sauce, they offered Texas Pete and crackers. A second shucking table had to be added that year.

During this time period the health department required that the club have oysters iced down or, preferably, in a refrigerated truck. Hot sauce had to be in approved containers. The shucking tables had to be covered. The club decided the benefits outweighed the costs and decided to start renting a tent.

“We eventually started getting oysters from Ferguson Seafood in Remlik. The oysters were in boxes covered with ice and hauled by pickups to our booth,” Russell said.

Jerry Ferguson started delivering the oysters in a refrigerated truck after this became a Health Department requirement, noted Russell.

In the 1990s, the tenants renting the house next to the post office put up a picket fence, which eliminated the regular spot for the Kiwanis booth. “We were offered space in the parking lot on Virginia Street or in the Southside Sentinel parking lot, which had several vendors that would have to be relocated.

“Since Fred Gaskins, the owner of the Sentinel, was a Kiwanian, the club decided to use that spot. Thanks to Fred we now have the best of everything; a great location, water, electricity and storage for our supplies,” said Russell.

The club lost their supplier when Ferguson Seafood was damaged by Hurricane Isabel and could no longer supply oysters. “Fortunately, Rufus Ruark of Shores and Ruark Seafood came to our rescue with a first class operation,” said Russell. “Most of the oysters are from the Rappahannock River—washed, boxed and delivered in a refrigerated truck. He provides a conveyor and truck for the shells, and will take back any oysters we don’t sell.”

“In recent years we have had large crowds and perfect weather for the festival, but there were years that were cold and windy with rain,” said Russell.

Last year the club sold 114 bushels of oysters; compared to only 43 bushels in 1987. The price of oysters has ranged from $25 to $50 per bushel. 

“While in 1987, our expenses were $2,700, last year they were $12,400. At one time we sold oysters at $3 for a half dozen and $5 a dozen. Last year we reluctantly followed the precedent set by other charitable  organizations and charged $7 a half dozen.

“In 1987, our profit was $3,800. Last year it was over $17,000. Hopefully, we will have good weather this year and a big crowd that likes oysters so we can continue to support programs for our youth in the county,” Russell said.

The Middlesex Kiwanis Club sponsors numerous activities in the schools and community to support the youth of Middlesex County.  The Urbanna Oyster Festival provides this organization and many others the ability to give back to the community.

Each year, the Southside Sentinel will feature an article on one of these charitable organizations during the week of the Oyster Festival.

posted 11.06.2008

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