Location: 320 4th Ave W
Diversity: Japanese, Native Americans; Wohleb
Olympia Oyster Company around 1924, photograph courtesy Washington State Historical Society
Oyster House in 2012, photo by Deb Ross
The oyster industry has been important in Olympia since early days. Originally harvested and sold primarily by Native Americans, the industry became of larger economic significance after statehood, when both Indigenous Americans and non-Indigenous Americans were permitted to file and protect oyster claims. Several oyster companies came into being around this time. The Olympia Oyster Company was at this location, adjacent to the J.J. Brenner Oyster Company. At first, the companies cultivated the tiny Olympia Oyster, which went into steep decline through pollution and overharvest. In about 1918, oyster hobbyist E.N. Steele and others introduced the Pacific Oyster to the area, which is the oyster variety now most commonly found here, although the Olympia oyster is staging a minor comeback.
This building was designed in 1924 by architect Joseph Wohleb as a packing and storage facility for the Olympia Oyster Company. As can be seen from the photo at above left, other buildings associated with the company extended down a long wharf, which no longer exists. This is the only remaining building from Olympia’s oyster industry left in downtown Olympia. It is now the site of a popular seafood restaurant. The front part of the building burned in 2013 and was restored in 2014.
Oystering in South Puget Sound has long been associated with Japan: many oyster workers were Japanese-Americans, who supplanted the largely Native American oyster workers in the early 20th century. Japanese-Americans were also key to the introduction of the Pacific oyster to our area, after the demise of the native Olympia oyster.
The Cultural History of the Olympia Oyster, by historian Ed Echtle
Washington State Historical Society (enter the following catalog numbers in Collections Search box), C1950.8.11, C1950.8.8 (canning facility adjacent to packing facility)
Article, “The Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster,” by E.N. Steele
Copyright © 2022 Deborah Ross