Oysterman 

Bowens Island owner Robert Barber reflects on history, tradition, and a legacy worth keeping

What does Bowens Island Restaurant mean to me? That's what the editor wanted to know when she asked me to write this piece. The quick answer is quite simple: it's a living legacy.

I am extremely fortunate to have become a steward of a grand family and Lowcountry tradition that reenacts the primitive practice of consuming oysters in their simplest form. And even though the old restaurant was mostly destroyed last fall by an accidental fire, we intend to rebuild the place as best we can and continue a fine tradition.

Meanwhile, we're now serving out of our new kitchen every Tuesday through Saturday, so stop by and see us. At Bowens Island Restaurant we roast or steam our oysters slightly and equip our customers with a knife, a clean rag, saltines, and a thin, homemade cocktail sauce so that each can eat until his or her heart is content. Indeed, Bowens Island Restaurant and oysters are synonymous in the Lowcountry. Our fried shrimp and fish are pretty well known too.

My grandparents, May and Jimmy Bowen, along with cook John Sanka and oysterman Ben Richardson, began the tradition more than a half-century ago. They started in a one-room cinderblock building overlooking Folly Creek. It was a fish camp, actually, connected to Folly Road by a quarter-mile-long causeway.

My grandparents moved out there from Charleston to get away from the world. They made a little extra money by serving fresh-cooked seafood to anybody who happened to be around. The menu included plentiful fresh oysters, which were gathered faithfully by their neighbor, Ben Richardson. He and "Cap'n John" Sanka would meet at water's edge and count out the number of bushels Ben had gathered that day and piled in the bottom of his small wooden boat. The fresh oysters were then placed in the water next to the bank until it was time for cooking them in the open air by the bushel or the peck, depending on how hungry the people might be.

That was in the late 1940s, when premium beer was a quarter and a side order of shrimp with all the fixings a mere $1.25. Their first customers were fishermen, mostly, and it didn't matter much who they were -- as long as they were respectful of my grandmother May, who, shall we say, was rather curt in manner. Those of you who knew her understand exactly what I mean.

The number of customers grew steadily through the years into the thousands, and even though my grandparents and their friends who started the place are dead and gone, their aura has somehow remained. There is a mystique about the place, something one might describe as enchanting. And there comes with it oh-so-many memories:

The long, bumpy ride from Folly Road through a forest of mossy oaks and palmetto trees.
A cinderblock building that served the freshest seafood around.
Five tunes on the jukebox for a quarter.
A birthday celebration with family, friends, and anybody else who happened to show up.
A first date, a marriage proposal, a high school reunion.
A seat in the booth by the wall, not far from the kitchen.
An interesting collection of black-and-white TVs, some of which still worked.
Red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
Candles and oil-burning lamps.
Old newspaper covering the oyster tables and lots of articles about the place scattered around.
An old fishing dock, a pavilion, and a boat landing.
A gorgeous sunset over the marsh.
A full moon rising.
A spring tide that often covered the road.
Live local music and dancing, often to raise money for a charitable cause.
... and handwriting all over the walls.

Bowens Island means all this and more to me. It is, to say quite simply, a Lowcountry legacy worth keeping.


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