by Cesca Janece Waterfield
In Middlesex County, about an hour east of Richmond, sits a stunning cultural pearl. While it’s normally nestled quietly along the waters of the Rappahannock River, once a year, it stirs up a succulent commotion, drawing nearly 75,000 people. And it’s all because of a gnarled bi-valve. This year it happens on Nov. 7 and 8, when the charming town of Urbanna hosts the Official Oyster Festival of the Commonwealth, the 51st Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival.
This tradition began modestly in 1957, when a few local residents established “Urbanna Days” as a way to show off their antique cars in a parade, bring together the tiny community, and support local merchants. Urbanna has built much of its economy from its bountiful waters, especially from oysters. So in 1961 the name for the event was officially changed to the “Urbanna Oyster Festival.” In 1988, the General Assembly of Virginia designated it Virginia’s Official Oyster Festival. In 1991, the non-profit Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation was established to produce and manage the annual event. In 2006, Coastal Living Magazine named the Festival one of the “10 Fabulous Festivals on the East Coast.” After 51 years, the Urbanna Oyster Festival continues to honor and preserve the unique cultural heritage of an important part of Virginia.
Weekend of Activities
The Saturday Oyster Festival Parade sponsored by the Virginia Lottery has grown to become the exciting climax of the weekend. It’s an extraordinary affair, and includes marching bands, the U.S. Continental Army Band, antique cars, floats, and the renowned Khedive Temple Shrine Club of Norfolk. Begins at 2 p.m.
But there’s even more, including 125 food and arts and crafts booths, street sales, a Fireman’s Parade featuring about 80 engines of every size and type, waterfront educational activities, a schooner deck tour, and the Oyster Shucking Contest. Enjoy live music the entire weekend, including jazz saxophonist, Keith Anderson at 12 noon both days. Model Boat Builders will display their crafts in the Old Tobacco Warehouse and Visitors Center.
The State Oyster Shucking Contest will take place on Firehouse Stage. Professional shuckers from around Virginia will battle for the Championship. The winner will travel to Maryland to compete in the National Championship.
How are Shuckers judged?
Speed is key, but there are other factors on which the contestants are judged, including number of shell fragments, clean separation of the oyster, and amount of damage to the oyster meat.
In the Festival Village and in the town of Urbanna, you’ll find handmade furniture, stained glass, wood carvings, sculpture, pottery, leather goods and jewelry, weaving, candle making, photography, bake sales, and raffles. Festival Village is sponsored by GEICO Insurance. Virginia artists are featured in an art exhibit and sale is held at the Middlesex Woman’s Club. Also visit Prince George Street Community Row, Middlesex County’s representation of civic and church organizations and craft demonstrators.
Young at Heart
A Children’s Activity Area sponsored by The Allen Group will keep kids busy throughout both days. Just a few events for the whole family include Magic & Juggling by Jonathan Austin, Hysterically Correct Pirates Show, both in the Children’s Area and at the Waterfront, and the Jesse & James & Mutts Gone Nuts Comedy Dog Show.
Kids will also find plenty of rides, clowns, games, arts and crafts, educational activities by the water, entertainment stages, and plenty of food. World Champion Oyster Shucker Deborah Pratt says, “They have a lot of stuff for kids. There’s a lot of places to eat. And Moo Moo the cow, he has all kinds of ice cream for the kids.”
More than fifty vendors are serving delicious food. Of course, oysters will be available in a variety of ways: raw, steamed, roasted, fried, smoked, in fritters, and in stews.
There are also clams, crabs, shrimp, hamburgers, hot dogs, Philly cheese steaks, French fries, Asian specialties, roast beef, Brunswick stew, desserts, and much more.
Although the proximity of Urbanna to Richmond makes it the perfect day-trip, you may want to extend your visit. The area offers plenty of Beds & Breakfasts, Inns, and franchised hotels nearby. In an area known for its natural beauty, there are also several camping options. Deborah Pratt recommends, “Beth Page Campground, that’s one of my favorite places out there.” Visit the Festival Website for more information www.UrbannaOysterFestival.com.
The Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation, Urbanna, VA 23175, 758-0368
Schooner Deck Tours
The Schooner Alliance is a 105’ 3 masted gaff topsail owned by Yorktown Sailing Charters. In the spring and summer, she docks in Historic Yorktown and is available for public cruises on the York River, corporate functions, and private parties. In the late fall, she sails south to the Caribbean where she offers eco-adventure trips in the Islands for the winter season. This season, the Alliance will sail to the Virgin Islands, and then to the San Blas Islands in Panama. During the Oyster Festival, the Alliance will be open for deck tours from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. www.SchoonerAlliance.com
Oyster Festival Education Day
Oyster Festival Education Day is Thursday, Nov. 6 and allows area schools to visit the exhibits. It is presented in cooperation with the Marine Science Legacy Program, established in 2007 through a grant by Dominion. The Legacy Program works to elevate understanding about the ecology, history and future of the Chesapeake Bay to students in Middlesex County by involving them in active environmental learning via local field trips and classroom enrichment. The waterfront will be open to the public during the entire festival.