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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Norwalk is a coastal city of 84,000 people in the US state of Connecticut. It is about 40 miles northeast of downtown New York and is regarded as part of its metropolitan area. The Norwalk region originally belonged to the Norwalke or Norwauke Indians. In 1640, land to the west of Norwalk River was bought by Daniel Patrick. A year later, Roger Ludlow purchased the land east of the river from the local population in exchange for items of clothing, tools, and other oddments. Settlers arrived in 1649, pursuing various agricultural and pastoral activities, and the town was incorporated in 1651.

The city has a long association with oysters. It is quite possible that the resourceful pioneers of the mid 1600s collected and ate oysters, and perhaps even sold some to settlers further inland. The industry may have started at this time. Oyster farming has been practised since ancient times when the Romans cultured oysters in England and shipped them back to Rome. Certainly since the 1700s, Norwalk has farmed and harvested oysters. There was a plentiful supply in all the estuaries along the northeast coast from Delaware Bay to Massachusetts.

The people of Norwalk and other coastal areas consumed large quantities of oysters in the early 1800s. However, with the increase in population in the following decades, depletion of readily available supplies resulted in oyster prices soaring. Soon only the wealthier classes could afford oysters. Demand for Norwalk oysters increased in the mid 1800s when the expansion of the railways across the US opened up new markets. At the same time, improvements in oyster farming technology as well as in canning and preservation methods further boosted demand.

Eventually, prices fell and by the 1880s, oysters were cheaper than meat, poultry, or fish, and production surged. By then, Norwalk was the largest producer of oysters in Connecticut and had the biggest fleet of oyster boats with steam power in the world. Norwalk became the oyster capital of the US and became known as “Oyster Town”. The boom lasted for several decades, into the early part of the 20th century.

The downturn in the Norwalk oyster industry started in 1906 with the Pure Food Laws. The new legislation brought sweeping changes to the food business in general. For the oyster industry, it meant a complete change in processing and shipping methods. A lack of cleanliness in the industry was taken up by health officials and the newspapers. The adverse publicity led to people eating far fewer oysters. A typhoid outbreak in 1924 as well as pollution of the harvesting areas exacerbated the problem. It is doubtful that Norwalk encouraged its “Oyster Town” tag at all in these years. Consumption continued to decline. The local industry took a further blow in the 1950s when oyster beds were devastated by storms and hurricanes. Many people left the industry or moved into areas such as clams.

In 1972, brothers Hillard and Norman Bloom bought Norwalk’s leading oyster company Talmadge Brothers Inc, originally formed in 1875, and started rebuilding oyster beds still ruined since the storms of the 1950s. It was hard work. The brothers had been in the clam industry for 25 years and, although clamming requires long hours, clams set naturally and it is a matter of finding them. Oysters, however, need to be farmed. The shells are vacuumed and put on land. When the oysters spawn, the shells are returned to the water. Within a few months, baby oysters set in the shells. Close to a year later, they are moved to the growing area, where it takes a further four years before they are ready to harvest.

In recent decades, the industry has turned itself around and once again Norwalk is happy to be called “Oyster Town”, although the name doesn’t seem to be used as frequently as in the industry’s heyday in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. Talmadge Brothers Inc. promoted their oysters at trade shows and participants always held Norwalk oysters in very higher regard, apparently preferring them to the product of other areas. The company was split into Hillard Bloom Shellfish Inc. and NRB Corp. by the children of the now deceased brothers in 2001. Hillard Bloom is the largest oyster company in the US.

Demand for oysters has increased despite their high price. The city remains Connecticut’s largest producer of oysters. The industry is still not without its problems though. In recent years, warm winters have kept the water temperature high and warm-water diseases have migrated north and killed many oysters.

Since 1978, the city has celebrated its oyster heritage with the annual Norwalk Oyster Festival in September, the weekend after Labor Day. It is like a state fair, with over 90,000 people attending each year to try the vast array of seafood on offer, including of course local oysters. Entertainment is provided by top performers such as the Village People, Willie Nelson, the Monkees, Little Richard, and Blood, Sweat and Tears. The festival is conducted by non-profit organization Norwalk Seaport Association and each year contributes more than $5 million to the local economy. Norwalk no longer tries to shake off its nickname as the “Oyster Town”.

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