By Emmett O’Connell
When the building at the current site of the Olympia Oyster House was first constructed in 1924, the neighborhood was already a thriving center of water-based businesses. In addition to the Olympia Oyster Company, the waterfront included the Capital Oyster Company and the J.J. Brenner Oyster Company next door.
In those days, the Olympia oyster — a smaller native species compared to the more currently dominant Pacific oyster — was the center of the shellfish industry. The tiny bivalves were brought to the packing plant by boat from tidelands across southern Puget Sound. They were then prepared for sale and then shipped to retailers and restaurants.
The Olympia Oyster Company plant itself was designed by noted Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb, who designed many important buildings including Cloverfields and the current Washington State Capitol Museum.
The original Olympia Oyster Company operation extended on a wharf well into the area currently used by the Olympia Yacht Club. But, as business contracted into the 1940s due to the decline in the health of Olympia oysters, the current packing plant became the last building left on the wharf.
According to E.N. Steele in his history of the Olympia oyster industry, the packing plants in Olympia were cutting edge for their time:
“The Olympia Oyster Co., Inc., from the beginning was in the front ranks in its packing house program. They owned substantial oyster beds, were progressive in the development of Olympia oysters, and operated their own boat to transport their oysters to Olympia where they had constructed an opening house on Fourth Street, only one block east of the J. J. Brenner Oyster Co. plant. Here, also, in the earlier days the water ran under their plant, which was constructed on piling. They also had their private dock for unloading their oysters. The ‘Old Timer’ Geo. W. Draham was president of the corporation. He also had dreams of having the latest equipment known to the industry for the sanitary and efficient opening, washing, and packing of Olympia oysters.”
The article continues to discuss the merits of the business.
“These dreams were realized when, in 1924, a concrete building was erected and equipped with the latest and best known machinery used in an opening plant including refrigerating rooms and a sterilizing plant.
After the inspection of this plant by the United States Department of Health, it was pronounced a model oyster opening and shipping plant. In fact, these officials told me while I was in Washington D. C. that the oyster plants here were superior to most of those on the East Coast, and that the Olympia Oyster Co. plant and the J. J. Brenner Oyster Co. plant were so well equipped and so clean that they looked more like a laboratory than an oyster house.”
So now — even while some Olympia oysters were still being served — the name Olympia Oyster House refers to the city in which the restaurant is. But at one point in our past, the Olympia in the name of the company referred to the Olympia oyster.
Due to industrial pollution from lumber mills, the native Olympia oysters eventually declined to the point where they lost their commercial value. Most of the old Olympia production was replaced by non-native Pacific oysters.
In addition to the July 2013 fire, there have been at least two other recorded fires since the building was turned into a restaurant. The first is reported to have occurred around 1946. After that fire, it was rebuilt to its previous state.
The second fire, in 1957, is much better documented than the first. From the Olympian:
“The Capital City’s most widely known restaurant, the Olympia Oyster House, was wiped out of business Monday night by a flash-type fire that started in the kitchen at the dinner hour. The restaurant’s patrons, including most of the city’s doctors who were gathered for an honorary dinner, fled ahead of the flames which gutted the masonry building at the foot of Budd Inlet.”
The same article also gives some of the history up to that point.
“The Oyster House’s building has been owned by Mrs. Draham for about ten years. She recalled … that the structure was built thirty-five years ago by the old Olympia Oyster Company to serve as a packing plant. The building has been remodelled many times since it was first constructed. The old oyster company also has changed. In October 1948 the firm was merged with Olympia Oyster Investment Company but retained the identity when the new business kept the name Olympia Oyster Company.”
The restaurant was likely the most visible establishment at that time because it was on the waterfront and along Olympia’s main east to west thoroughfare. The large number of doctors in attendance at the Oyster House that 1956 night also makes sense since St. Peter’s Hospital was then located just a mile or so away, across the bridge and up Fourth Avenue.
Throughout the decades, the Olympia Oyster House was a mainstay in Olympia. But, in the mid 1990s, the restaurant fell on hard times and closed. After an auction emptied out the old restaurant, the building sat vacant for about a year until it was sold to its current owners, the Barrett family.
From a previous piece in Thurston Talk:
In the mid-1990s, what had most recently been called the Olympia Oyster House sat empty for about a year, and was for sale.
Rich (Barrett) and his parents looked into it. “And that was that,” he says. “We went after it and we’ve had it now for over 15 years.”
The Barretts weren’t new to the food industry when they vowed to take on renovations to return the restaurant to its previous glory. Rich had done some culinary training up in Seattle and his parents had owned Dairy Queen eateries, including the one that used to be on Capitol Way. “I grew up in that business,” Rich says.
The leap from fast food to full-service dining was an eye opener. “We were very busy – a lot busier than we expected – right from the get go,” Rich remembers. “We had a lot of issues to iron out.”
But soon enough the restaurant was up and running smoothly, after opening in July of 1996.
Resources and Additional Reading:
Olympia Historical Society: Olympia Oyster Company
E.N. Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster.