Report: Friends of the Hunley Oyster Roast, October 23, 2009

By John Harkness
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The Friends of the H.L. Hunley held their 5th Annual Oyster Roast in Charleston, South Carolina on October 23, 2009 from 7-10 p.m. as their major annual fundraiser to support conservation of the raised Confederate submarine. CCWRT member John Harkness and his wife, Marguerite, are members of the Friends of the Hunley and drove to Charleston to see what this event was all about.

This was our first (but won’t be our last!) “oyster roast.” You can keep your puny Yankee clam bakes. A meager dozen clams — hah! This was downright filling & FUN!!

The event was held in the downtown Charleston Visitor Center’s Tour Bus Shed. The location is a restored 19th century building that was once perhaps a steam railway train shed or streetcar barn. A brick building houses the Visitor Center offices & ticket windows, and behind it is the attached covered bus shed — a couple of football fields in length, and at least a ball field wide, under a trussed roof, but otherwise open at both ends and along the full far wall. But who cared? The weather was fine, with a temperature in the 80° F range. Ample parking was available in adjacent garages, a short block away. All surrounding downtown streets were choked with strolling tourists and college students out for fun (& having a lot of it).

The all-you-can-eat event cost the astronomical sum of $25 per person, with parking at $2 for the night. The two cash bars offered wine at $3 a glass and beer at $2 a bottle. Outlandish prices!! But there were also 50 major corporate sponsors, and all wine/beer was donated by local distributors. All bar sales were thus total cash to the Hunley project. Organizers told us that at least 700 tickets had been sold in advance ($25 each). We observed about 500 guests in the bus shed at any one time while we were at the event.

Horace Lawson Hunley and his submarine from a 1902 illustration

So … what was it like? A fabulous live band greeted guests at the entrance — playing rock & roll and country hits. Against the far long shed wall near the band were about 18 tables displaying many silent auction items — unique Hunley art prints, sporting event tickets and memorabilia, other art, unique pottery, you name it. Next came two stations with whole BBQ pork carcasses, with platters of pulled pork — combined with baskets of sandwich rolls, bowls of baked beans, tubs of cole slaw, and selections of sauces — vinegar, spicy vinegar, and sweet and sour mustard. I vote for the spicy vinegar, myself!

Further down the barn bay came the oyster roast serving stations. First came tables dispensing cotton gloves and oyster knives (one each per diner), plus cocktail sauce in plastic cups and numerous choices of hot pepper sauces to liven things up. They also had hand-wash fluid and paper wipes — which would come in VERY handy later. Then came two parallel rows of plywood table-tops on saw horses, each about 50 feet long. At intervals in the table-tops were one-foot-diameter holes (for the shells), feeding into garbage cans below. Just beyond these tables were propane-fired steamers that (more or less) cooked the oysters in the shell, and at the far entrance was a pressure wash station for the incoming fresh oysters.

Periodically, two-man crews brought long metal tubs of steamed oysters to the tables and dumped them in long piles about 6-8 inches high, down the length of the tables. Guests STOOD lining both sides of the table-tops, hungrily grabbing hot, clumped oysters with their gloved hand as fast as they could and splitting open each individual oyster in the clump with the stubby knife provided, then tossing the empty shells down the nearest hole in the table-top. Then — grab some more! We lost count of how many we ate — and we had never eaten an oyster in the shell before that night! The locals were definitely faster at this ritual than were we!!

Last year they raised $50,000 in one evening at this event. The 2009 ticket sales exceeded last year. In conjunction with the Oyster Roast, special “Friends of the Hunley Members Only” tours of the Warren Latch Conservation Laboratory in the old Charleston Navy Yard were offered on Friday the 23rd and Saturday the 24th. Members were given closer access to the conservation tanks where the submarine is displayed and were permitted to see artifacts recovered from the hull that are not on public display. Interestingly, the event coincided with the “Ring Day” ceremony for graduating seniors at The Citadel military academy in Charleston. Our hotel was filled with Citadel cadets in full dress uniform, their gorgeous girl friends in fancy dresses, and their proud families.

This is one l–o–n–g drive! We drove from Lakewood, Ohio to Beckley, West Virginia on Thursday, arriving about 7 p.m. On Friday we drove from Beckley to Charleston, arriving at our hotel about 6 p.m. We raced to freshen up and got to the Oyster Roast about 7:30 p.m. (No need to dress up … it’s all messy food anyway). After a brief stop at the Conservation Lab the next morning, we drove back to Beckley on Saturday, arriving about 8 p.m., and then to Lakewood on Sunday the 25th, returning home about 3:30 p.m. A couple of neat, non-historic stops along the way: check out the J-R Outlet at Statesville, North Carolina — tons of linens, towels, jeans, wine, perfumes and men’s colognes, party decor items, and a prime cigar shop not to be believed, all discounted heavily. In Beckley, see Tamarac, a conference center and West Virginia artisans’ showcase — wood carvers, potters, painters, sculptors (in wood and bronze), blacksmiths, quilters, weavers, and books on area flora, fauna, and geology.

Related links:
Friends of the Hunley
The Life and Death of H.L. Hunley
A Visit to the H.L. Hunley and a Dose of Southern Culture
One Scientist May Have Figured Out Why a Civil War Submarine Sank
The New Explosive Theory about What Doomed the Crew of the Hunley