Jack Brenner had come from the woods of Wisconsin to seek his fortune in the developing region of the Pacific Northwest.
After purchasing some prime waterfront property to develop into an oyster farm, he traded an old horse to the Native Americans for some floats of oysters to seed the beds. Having no horse, Jack walked twelve miles each day to and from the oyster beds. Each day he rose at 4 am and returned home after dark. His dedication and hard work eventually paid off. By building a reputation for consistent quality, Jack Brenner became known as the father of the oyster industry in the Puget Sound region.
The year was 1893. Grover Cleveland was president, the islands of Hawaii had been declared a republic, and Henry Ford had just built his first car. It was in this same year that John Joseph ‘Jack’ Brenner founded J.J. Brenner Oyster Company in Olympia, Washington.
Founded over 100 years ago, J.J. Brenner Oyster Company is one of the oldest harvesters and shippers of oysters in South Puget Sound. Today, the company is in the hands of the fourth generation of the Brenner family. We are very proud of our heritage, but we’re also a modern wholesale company. For the next 100 years we look forward to not only growing the finest shellfish in Washington, but also delivering our sweet product to other clients who enjoy delicious shellfish.
Olympia – Diminished by a series of strokes, the times are precious few when Earl Brenner, 77, can talk about his life as a South Sound commercial oyster grower.
Luckily for those who care about the history of the state’s commercial shellfish industry, Brenner maintained a family scrapbook that spans six decades. Who better to chronicle the successes and travails of family-based aquaculture than the grandson of John Joseph ‘Jack’ Brenner, who founded the J.J. Brenner Oyster Company in Olympia in 1893. It’s the longest standing oyster company in Puget Sound, presided over these days by Earl’s son, Bruce Brenner.
Earlier this week, Bruce presented the Brenner family scrapbook – handsomely bound by the Washington Sea Grant Program – to the University of Washington Fisheries-Oceanography librarian Pamela Mofjeld for safekeeping. The brief ceremony took place – fittingly – at The Oyster House in Olympia.
The 275-page scrapbook provides a vivid look at the historical, cultural, economic, and environmental highlights and hard times of what today is a $40 million oyster industry in this state. “Very few of the old-timers are left who remember fighting the pollution battles and the legal battles and seeing the technology change,” noted Duane Fagergren, who was born into the tight-knit family of South Sound oyster growers 50 years ago.
Bruce Brenner realized about four years ago that his dad’s scrapbook was a precious collection of newspaper stories, photographs, advertisements, and correspondence, buried in a closet at the family home. “The oyster industry doesn’t have a historian, so I thought I better get the scrapbook preserved,” he said.
The Shelton mill shut down in 1957. But by then, the native Olympia oyster was barely clinging to life. Today, it’s no longer the backbone of the South Sound shellfish industry, replaced by Pacific oysters and Manila clams. However, the scrapbook is full of advertisements and stories about when the Olympia oyster ruled the oyster world. “Olympia oysters – the world’s daintiest and most delicious oyster,” a 1930s ad regaled. “Remember, the iodine, iron, calcium, phosphorus, and other ocean salines in Olympia oysters are vital health food – vital for nerve and brain and gland! Another ad, even more to the point: “Eat Fish – Live Longer. Eat Oysters – Love Longer.”
The news photographs are a visual treat as well. There’s Gov. Al Rosellini in October 1957, ankle-deep in Oyster Bay mud, eating Olympia oysters off his fingertips. There are four, fifth-grade students from Baltimore, their facial expressions ranging from apprehension to delight as they slurp down raw Olympia oysters.
The scrapbook has its somber side as well. The November 1957 kitchen fire that destroyed the original Olympia Oyster House is displayed in word and picture.
Sitting quietly in a wheelchair, Earl Brenner this week watched the scrapbook received the recognition it deserved. He sipped a glass of champagne, ate a raw oyster, and assumed his rightful place as a grand old historian of the South Sound oyster industry.