Serving Oysters to Henry Flagler

The following is a post from a guest writer to the NERRds! This is the second in a five part series on oyster stories of northeast Florida! Be sure to look out for more!

dietz_kKaitlyn Dietz is currently the Coastal Training Program Specialist at the GTM Research Reserve. Kaitlyn attended Georgia College and State University for her B.S. degree in Biology (2012). Afterwards, she moved to Jacksonville to pursue her M.S. degree in Marine Science from Jacksonville University (2015). Her research focused on understanding relative foraging locations of loggerhead and green sea turtles using the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes from eggshells. She has been at the GTM Research Reserve in many capacities including being an Environmental Educator under the Education sector, the Usina Oyster Intern under the Research sector, and the Oyster Condition Assessment data analyst under the Northeast Florida Aquatic Preserves.

Stories from the Shuck and Tell.

The Usina family settled within the St. Augustine area in 1900 after yellow fever broke out in the Miami area. Frank Usina’s grandfather was a carpenter on the Henry Flagler Florida East Coast Railroad at the time and after leaving Miami, came to a small building on North Beach where he and his wife Catherine began their family. At that time, North Beach was a planned real estate development complete with a railroad, amusements, recreations, horse and buggies, and restaurants. In 1900, Henry Flagler had stopped by the Usina home and asked Usina’s grandparents to provide local oysters for himself and a group of friends from the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the Alcazar Hotel. This opportunity gave the Usina family a prominent role within the community.

frank-usina-edible-magazine
Photo of Frank Usina by Sean Kelly Conway for Edible Northeast Florida Magazine, May 2016

The Usina family began serving oysters and full meals to Flagler, guests, and more from 1900 until the Great Depression (1929). They continued serving oysters through World War II to the military families that were stationed around North Beach and to those staying in the St. Augustine hotels. Usina remembers harvesting throughout WWII to serve oysters. The oyster shells from the roasts and meals were left if a large pile at the edge of the river. At that time, oyster shells were a good hard surface. They were used for building roadways, filling in hole, making septic tanks and drain fields, and constructing homes. Today, oyster shells collected from Aunt Kate’s and The Reef (both restaurants owned by the Usina family) by the Northeast Florida Aquatic Preserves are used for oyster recycling and restoration projects.

You never knew when you needed more oysters….there was a time when all you could eat for 60-75 cents

-Frank Usina

frank-usina-1940s
Photo of young Frank Usina taken in the 1940s which hangs in his restaurant, Aunt Kate’s.

Usina’s father had manufactured oyster bins that were approximately 12-14ft by 4ft that would sit just at the low water mark. In additional to these two oyster bins that sat at the low water mark, his father also had a bin with a crank on wheels. The crank allowed for the oysters to stay in the water for about half of the tide, and if Usina’s father ever needed oysters, no matter the tide, he could crank the bed up. “You never knew when you needed more oysters…there was a time when all you could eat for 60-75 cents,” so Usina’s father was always prepared. Usina remembers people coming from the hotels dressed in better than Sunday dress, suits and ties and dresses and heels, to come harvest oysters themselves.

Usina remembers two men in particular, Willy and Leon Canova that worked for “daddy”. Willy and Leo farmed the beds all day. They would cull everything clean on the beds, only bringing back cleaned and washed oysters. Of course, they worked more beds than their leases, but they would farm them as they went. It was, and still is, important to break up the clumps because in large clumps the oysters on the inside are starved and die. Whenever Usina would go out, he harvested differently. He would use a potato bucket to wash the oysters and cull them,  cleaning and bringing back “1’s and 2’s”.

When reflecting on oyster harvesting, Usina remembers the entire shore full of oyster beds. At that time, the only boats that they had were low powered, cypress rowboats with small motors. These boats did not create the boat wake the he sees now in the water. There were many more oyster beds, more extensive, but he jokingly said that he “doesn’t have anyone else to ask” to be sure that his memory is accurate.

Salt Run is an area where oysters grow the fastest and are worked the most. Usina remembers as a child that Salt Run, remnant of the old inlet, once was all sand flats where people used to dump scallop shells. Puzzled like many other harvesters, Usina does not know why the oysters grow back so quickly in Salt Run while in other areas, oysters do not have the opportunity to grow back before being harvested again.

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