An old-fashioned “r” month view. The location of modern-day Crab Claw on Navy Point in St Michaels, Maryland, 1907. Collections of Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
There’s an old saying around the Chesapeake: “you only eat oysters in R months.” These ‘R’ months (the coldest of the year, from September- April), are the Bay’s prime oystering time, as the delicious mollusks recover from their summertime spawn and fatten for the winter. Historically, as the seasons changed, watermen would store their crabbing gear away, readying their dredges, tongs and workboats for the icy, muddy work of harvesting oysters.
“R” months meant plump, sweet oysters- and they also meant less spoilage, as the cold temperatures kept the oysters fresher for longer once they were loaded into the decks of skipjacks, shucked into bightly-colored cans, and shipped north, west, and south, to a public clamoring for the Chesapeake’s oyster bounty.
Another view of Navy Point, 1907. Collections Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
A sure sign of the beginning of the “R’ months and the real start to oyster season was the piles of oyster shells that would start to accumulate near packing houses in towns like St Michaels and Crisfield, where the oyster processors and cheek-to jowl log canoes jostled for real estate along the harbor front. By deep in the winter months, the piles could get several stories high- towers of shell testament to the mighty oyster, keystone of the Bay’s cuisine, culture, and the very stuff its small towns were built on.
Oyster shells, Dorchester County, 1930’s. Collections of the Library of Congress.
Oyster pile, Hampton, Virginia, 1915. Collections of the Library of Congress.