David Lauderdale

Toomers celebrate a century of Lowcountry being their oyster

Courtesy of morguefile.com

We just cracked open a new oyster season, and the Toomers will celebrate Sunday night on the May River.

Larry and Tina Toomer are inviting everyone to the Bluffton Oyster Co. at the end of Wharf Street in Bluffton to mark the 100th season Toomers have been pulling oysters, shrimp, crabs, clams and mussels from the mud and the briny waters of Beaufort County.

They'll be selling steamed oysters by the bucket, steamed shrimp, fried shrimp, Lowcountry boil and barbecue sandwiches. There will be music and a bonfire.

The celebration helps usher in the eighth annual Historic Bluffton Arts & Seafood Festival, Oct. 14-21. After an artists' showcase on Calhoun Street, a boat parade on the May River, a blessing of the fleet and gospel singing -- all to be enjoyed from the bluff at the Church of the Cross -- the Toomer "oyster fest" starts at 5 p.m.

I have a book that says that Larry Toomer's grandfather -- Simpson VanderHorst "Cap" Toomer -- came from Thunderbolt, Ga., to work in L.P. Maggioni's Jenkins Island steam oyster factory in 1913. He set up his own place in 1914 on Jarvis Creek, where the Crazy Crab restaurant stands today.

He had a house full of kids, a general store, a boat-repair business and "within a few years, he was running one of the biggest steam factories on the East Coast, with Savannah brokers selling his oysters all over the United States and Europe," writes Fran Heyward Marscher in her book, "Remembering the Way it Was at Hilton Head, Bluffton and Daufuskie."

"Cap" Toomer's son, Billy, operated that oyster factory until 1972, and later opened a seafood restaurant there named The Boiler after the factory's big iron boiler that children play on today.

His son, S.V. "Chief" Toomer, shrimped and had an oyster factory at Buckingham Landing. Son Hilton owned a fleet of shrimp trawlers in Key West. Son Frank ran the Hilton Head Seafood Co. on Squire Pope Road for many years.

Frank's son Frankie was shrimping until the day he died a couple of months ago. And his son Larry operates the Bluffton Oyster Co. -- the only commercial shucking house left in South Carolina. He also shrimps, crabs, sells seafood wholesale and retail, and runs a catering business and a restaurant in Bluffton.

In the next generation, Larry has three nephews -- Kemp, Jeff and Skippy Toomer -- running shrimp boats full-time. Jamie, his 19-year-old beauty-queen daughter, was out pulling crab pots this week.

"Most people are gone," Larry said, "whether it's rules and regulations, the labor force, water quality, imports, the list goes on and on. People want to bail out because things are rough, but I call it staying the course. You don't give up, you don't look back, you don't worry about bad years and you sure don't stop working when you have a good season. You stay the course."

As the sun melted into a big bend in the May River Thursday evening, Tina Toomer said, "I just think we're really blessed. God's been good to us with this river. We work hard, but we've been blessed."

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