In early January of 1909, the Hunter Herald printed this announcement, one welcome to the citizens of Arthur, North Dakota: “Capt. John McFall and his jolly hunters will entertain Capt. Collins and his merry crowd Friday evening, Jan. 15, with an oyster supper and a dance.” Afterward the same paper recounted, “One of the pleasant social functions of the season was the oyster supper and dance given Friday evening by John McFall and his able aid de camp. . . . The best of everything was spread before the guests. . . . Following the supper the dance began and all had a merry time. . . . Not until the strains of Home Sweet Home were played did the crowd commence to disperse.” That was well after midnight, I’m sure.
In the cluttered calendar of fall food events we see these days, the fish fries and turkey dinners and lutefisk feeds, oyster suppers no longer figure. For plains folk of the late 19th century, they were commonplace. In fact, historian Paul Hedron, writing in Montana Magazine of Western History, says that oyster suppers “were something of a mania.”
When I first began to encounter references to such events in prairie newspapers, I presumed they were talking about canned oysters, but not so! In the 19th century oysters were in abundance on the east coast—practically a mandatory item for hors d’oeuvres, and cheap enough for working class people to eat commonly. Out west, people wanted the product, but shipping costs drove up the price, so that an oyster supper was considered a special event.
Moreover, the logistics of shipping oysters on ice to the prairies posed certain limitations. I made a search for newspaper references to oyster suppers, and discovered two things, both quite logical. First, oyster suppers prevailed in the states from Kansas north, and second, they took place in the winter, October to February.
Sometimes an oyster supper was a truly elegant event confined to the wealthier citizens of the town. The Abilene Reflector of Kansas in 1888 described one such occasion at which, after the oysters, “a few hours were spent over cigars in conversation and amusements.” The names of the guests were printed with pride.
In other cases the democratic mass of citizens was invited to partake. In 1882 the Methodists of Dodge City gave an oyster supper in the Ford County courthouse. A similar supper in Nemaha City, Nebraska, in 1899 seemed less subject to disruption by exuberant cowboys. “The Methodist Sunday School will give a fresh oyster supper at the Minck Hall Saturday night of this week—December 9,” it was announced. “A lunch of cake, pie and coffee will be furnished those who do not want oysters. Proceeds to apply on pastor’s salary. Lunch, 10 cents; supper, 15 cents.”
Country folk shared the same tastes as townspeople. I read in an 1879 edition of an Iola, Kansas, paper that two gatherings of country people—one over on Deer Creek and the other west of town—had oysters for New Year’s. In the latter case the bivalves must have been well lubricated, for as the paper reported, some of the boys afterward “got lost on the prairie and froze some of their toes.”
I really doubt any such thing happened following the November 1901 wedding of Miss Mary Jane Goodman and Mr. John Daniel Greene in Sheldon, North Dakota. There the happy couple entered the family parlor, decorated with carnations, to the tune of Mendelsson’s wedding march, and after an hour of cordial visiting, “a dainty oyster supper was served.”
I’m thinking the oyster supper is the sort of winter event ripe for revival in the 21st century. Make mine Kilpatrick.