‘Oyster Sisters’ Carry on Beloved Family Tradition

Plying Great Bay for Maxwell Shellfish
By VICTORIA FORD | Jan 16, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Bridgitte Bliss (left) and her sister Gretchen Maxwell, are proud to call themselves sixth-generation baymen.

Out on the water, each Maxwell sister has her own worst-case scenario that she tries to keep out of the way of their productivity.

For Gretchen Maxwell, 29, “I just think of all the millions of ways my fingers could be cut off.”

For Bridgitte Bliss, 28, “I think about how my hair could be ripped out of my head.”

Dodging the dredge, fighting merciless gnats and greenhead flies, enduring the smell of shellfish in the sun, solving the occasional mechanical problem – these are parts of the job they take in stride, all in the name of upholding a longstanding family tradition.

The Maxwell Shellfish family business, based in Port Republic, started with Curtis Maxwell, whose name lives on in the 42-foot wooden boat his grandson John and great-granddaughters now use to grow and harvest oysters in Great Bay. But their ancestors have been working the bay since the 1830s.

Gretchen and Bridgitte, 14 months apart in age, are proud to call themselves sixth-generation baymen. They grew up in Germania, five minutes down the road from the shellfish facility, a wholesale and retail market located on the east end of Wilson Avenue at Nacote Creek, a tributary of the Mullica River. There, they cultivate, buy and sell oysters, clams and other seafood.

They were featured in Oak Leaf Media’s locally produced documentary “The Oyster Farmers,” released earlier this year. The film, along with a boost in marketing, has helped build their audience.

“We keep having new people come in every week,” they said. Customers arrive from Barnegat, Toms River, even New York, discovering the operation for the first time. The sisters’ youthful perspective on a generations-old legacy has created a momentum they intend to nurture to the fullest.

Because oystering is not exactly a typical “woman’s job,” some people are caught off-guard, they said. For some reason, the retail market customers tend to give them a harder time than the wholesale customers, they noted. But they wouldn’t say they have faced any real gender discrimination.

Coincidentally, the Chestnut Neck boatyard a short distance away up Route 9 is also run by two sisters.

“Mostly, people are just worried about you hurting yourself when you lift something,” Gretchen said.

The Maxwell sisters grew up watching and learning from their parents, John and Kim. Dad always had an “insane work ethic” that got him up and out in the wee hours of the morning; and Mom ran the retail portion of the business, which is now doing so well the sisters have decided to keep it open year ’round.

As kids, the girls would run clams, help out with the shop, anything they could do to contribute. They lived by the rhythms of intensive seasonal work – planning every day by the tide; ever at the mercy of the weather; knowing vacations were always tentative until the last possible moment.

When they finished school, at their parents’ urging, they explored different fields. Gretchen went into marketing and Bridgitte worked for a bakery. But they both found their way back home, to the industry that is in their blood. Now the sisters have been running the show together fulltime at Maxwell Shellfish for a little over a year.

Their job titles change by the day, the hour, or the task at hand: retail manager, wholesale manager, director of marketing or director of operations.

Bridgitte said it was a crash course, although “most of what we’ve learned has been passed down.” Gretchen said it’s been humbling, coming from a different perspective and playing catch-up, because her sister got involved sooner than she did. But their combined skill sets, and closeness as sisters, make them natural business partners.

“I feel like I’m getting away with murder, that we get to do this,” Bridgitte remarked.

John and Kim are glad their daughters are interested in the family business but they never wanted them to feel obligated to take it on. Still, Gretchen and Bridgitte said they feel a certain responsibility to prove themselves, to make their parents proud, and to honor the history behind them.

“You don’t want to disappoint,” Bridgitte said.

John Maxwell took over the business in 1981, in his mid-20s. From ’84 to ’87, the clam business was booming, at the height of which, he opened the current Maxwell Shellfish facility, built in 1985. For about 14 years he was in the business of little clams. Today, the two big company boats are named for his grandfathers, the 42-foot Captain Curtis Maxwell and the 30-foot Captain Joseph Dayton. Both John and his father, Don, are past winners of the Hurley Conklin Award, which recognizes the untiring dedication of men and women living in the Barnegat Bay tradition.

The company’s wild harvest oysters are Graveling Points and Crab Islands, known for their larger-than-average size: “selects,” good for chowders and frying. The more popular Graveling Points are generally plump with “a fresh, light taste with a thick and hearty shell.” They are grown in a reef bed of oyster shells and harvested at 15 to 24 months old.

Slightly saltier and richer-tasting, Crab Islands have a longer, thinner shell and are grown on a firm, sandy bottom. They are faster growers, so they are harvested at 12 to 18 months.

The process starts with loading shell onto the deck of the Captain Curtis Maxwell and then shoveling it off into the Mullica River. Two years later, they dredge it up as seed, in clusters; the seed is broadcast and bottom-planted in the tidal estuaries of Graveling Point and Crab Island, promoting rapid growth and exposure to rich and dynamic flavors. A year or two later, they’re ready to be harvested with an iron dredge.

Deep cups hold the “liquor” of the oyster, which is where the flavor lives; the taste varies according to the oysters’ location, their position in the water column, water flow, diet, and more. One oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day.

The women explain all of this with an ease and familiarity that lends itself well to educational presentations they give at local schools; shucking demonstrations, film screenings and other public events they offer at the dock; and programs for Girl Scouts and other community groups.

Bridgitte said she loves being able to educate customers on the importance of the industry. “There really is a story behind each oyster,” she said.

The job can be scary at times, the women admit. They’re barraged with a constant influx of information, plus the work of minding and maintaining a flock of floating machinery. They have to make tough decisions sometimes about whether going out in less-than-ideal conditions is worth the risk; if they don’t go out, they don’t get paid.

They’ve learned some lessons the hard way, such as “Rule No. 1 – never walk on a shell pile after you’ve moved a board,” Bridgitte said, referring to a time Gretchen nearly slid off the side.

Being on the water didn’t come naturally to Gretchen. She has developed a love for it over time.

A typical day, if there is such a thing, begins with a conference call with Dad before the sun comes up, so they can discuss the tide, the weather forecast, and the game plan for the day.

In the summertime, if they’re going out on the boat, the earlier the better to beat the heat. Prepping the boat means checking the oil, gassing up, greasing the winders, double checking personal items are packed, most important of which is Dad’s lunch. (“You don’t want Dad hungry.”) Then it’s a 30-45-minute boat ride out to the lease grounds.

In nice weather, they cull, or sort and count “on the boat as we go.” Otherwise, they wait to get back to the dock. Once everything is counted out, it’s washed and bagged.

For Bridgitte, the best days are the ones when they make precious memories out on the water. Before her wedding last year, she and John practiced their father-daughter dance on the boat. She also fondly recalls moments she has spent with her grandfather, listening to his stories as they watch the sunrise over the marshlands. She loves the dock work and is even happy to spend a day painting the boats and learning how to use new tools.

Gretchen loves to pilot the smaller boat and have fun “playing with the dredge,” blaring Christmas music, and singing with their dad.

By contrast, she said, “shelling days are brutal,” starting at sunrise and demanding every ounce of strength until the work is done. But they both enjoy the physical benefits of their toil.

“We flex a lot, in the summer,” Gretchen said. They laughed and mimed poses they might admire in a mirror.


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