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Oyster Festival Captain has ties to the water on both sides of his family

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Rufus Ruark Jr. of Urbanna has been named captain of the 60th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival set for Friday and Saturday, November 3-4. Above, Ruark holds an Urbanna Brand oyster can that was used by Urbanna Seafood Packing Co., a company located in Urbanna in the 1940s and owned by Bill Jones and Boxley Baker. The oyster packinghouse was located at the foot of Watling Street. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry Chowning

The Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation has named Rufus Ruark Jr. of Urbanna the 60th Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival Captain. The festival will be held on November 3-4.

Ruark is owner of Shores and Ruark Seafood Co. and Urbanna Seafood Market & Raw Bar at 453 Johnsons Dr. on Robinson Creek, about a mile outside of the Town of Urbanna.

Ruark has commercial fishing in his blood from all sides of his family. His mother, Diane Shores Ruark of Deltaville, has ties to Tangier Island. After the August Storm of 1933, Diane’s mother and father, Edith and Elmer Shores, migrated from Tangier to Urbanna. They lived on Cottage Row on Taylor Avenue where Elmer worked the water for a living. Edith worked at the Urbanna 5 and 10 Cent Store, and made and sold some of the best Tangier Island flavored deviled crabs in the world.

On the Ruark side, the Ruark family has ties to the water through the commercial sailing business. The Ruarks moved to Deltaville in the late 1800s from Hooper Island, Maryland, and made their livelihood as sailors and owners of commercial sailing vessels. 

The late Rufus Ruark Sr. and the late Larry Shores Sr., Diane’s brother, started Shores and Ruark Seafood Co. in 1976. It was first located at the end of Lord Mott Rd. in the old Lord Mott Canning Factory building.

Ruark, 49, is a 1988 graduate of Middlesex High School and served in the United States Coast Guard for four years before returning to work in the family business.

In 1979 Shores and Ruark moved to the current location on Robinson Creek, where Ruark and Shores built and ran a wholesale seafood business with a commercial crab picking house and an oyster shucking house. “I’ve gotten away from the wholesale market and gone mostly to the retail seafood market,” said Rufus Jr. in his office on Tuesday.

Currently, Ruark leases 500 acres of oyster ground from the State of Virginia and has about 100 acres in production. He plants those grounds with spat-on-shell and most of his market size oysters are sold retail at Urbanna Seafood Market and Raw Bar, a waterfront restaurant and seafood market.

He also provides oysters in the shell for several non-profits that have oyster booths at the Urbanna Oyster Festival. “We always make sure they have what they need,” he said.

The Oyster Festival is an important part of the Middlesex County economy and it also provides income for local non-profits. Some of those non-profits, such as the Middlesex Kiwanis Club and Middlesex Lions Club, depend on the festival to generate funds that are used throughout the year.

Ruark also takes his half-shell oysters on the road to other festivals and sells from a booth. “I feel very honored to have been selected captain,” he said. “The festival is well-known all over the state and beyond. When I talk to people at other festivals, most everyone has heard of the Urbanna Oyster Festival.”

Oyster Festival Foundation chair Joe Heyman said Ruark is a pioneer in the modern aquaculture oyster business. He owned a hatchery on Gwynn’s Island and has grown oysters in cages and plants spat-on-shell on his own grounds.

“He represents the modern age of Urbanna’s oyster industry and we feel very fortunate that he is here, working his grounds and keeping our oyster heritage alive,” said Heyman.

Ruark and his wife Kathy have three children, Jack, a rising senior at Middlesex High School (MHS); Cole, a 10th-grader at MHS; and Delaney, an eighth-grader at St. Clare Walker Middle School.

Ruark’s father, the late Rufus Sr., along with the late Larry Shores Sr. were honored together as Oyster Festival Captains in 2000. “We have moved into another generation,” said Heyman. “This is the first time we have honored a father and later the son as captains of our festival.”

posted 08.23.2017

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