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Razor Clamming for Survival in the 1920s and 1930s

When Ella and Vernon Worthington passed away, both over 100 years old, they left a largess to ocean environmental organizations. But they left another kind of wealth as well, the story of their lives as scrappy, frugal dairy farmers who grew up, met and married on the Long Beach peninsula not far from the Pacific Ocean.

That history is invaluable.

As denizens of Long Beach, near some of the best razor clam beaches in the world, their lives unavoidably involved razor clams and razor clamming. In an interview from 2011, Ella recalled her childhood. Her words witness how razor clamming was at times been essential for survival. From a May 14, 2018 story in the Chinook Observer:

“There were no jobs in the 1920s and 1930s,” Ella said. “We worked in the cranberry bogs, dug razor clams, and Vern worked on the oyster beds and I worked in the steam canneries. We didn’t have time to feel sorry because we were poor. We were too busy and having too much fun with our friends.”

Said Kolb [a relative], “Aunt Ella once told me she had dug over two tons of clams in her day. I remember going clamming with her when I was a kid. She always dug in the surf and, man! Was she quick! She’d have her limit before most of us had our first clam!”

The ninth of 10 children, Ella moved to the Peninsula from Moundsville, West Virginia when she was five years old. She recalled digging “hundreds of clams” before going to school each morning but, even so, by ninth grade, her father told her she’d have to quit school and enter the local workforce to help the family make ends meet.”

The clams she dug before school were presumably sold to the local canneries.

Gorgeous Clamming March 16th, 2018 at Copalis Beach

Beach near Ocean Shores, 6:30 PM.  Easy digging, gentle surf, good-sized clams, and plenty of happy people.  Photo credit David Berger

This was Friday just before St. Patrick’s Day. The low tide was at 7:00 PM. I hit the beach at 5:30 PM and the sun was still high in the sky because daylight savings time had just started. So, no headlamp needed.  Surf was calm and everybody remembered just why they like razor clamming so much. I was using a shovel. I found one clam right away, I could see its siphon level with sand. I spotted several others, but couldn’t put them in the net despite a substantial effort digging around with my hand.  That was tiring. The clams were darned deep. Then I got dialed in. I had a limit within an hour.

Fish and Wildlife counted nearly 2,000 diggers in the Copalis management area, which includes Ocean Shores and extends up to the Copalis River. Nearly everyone had a limit, and some 28,000 clams were harvested. On Saturday there were about 3,200 diggers, and 47,000 clams harvested.

It’s Not Always Easy

A lot of people can show up on a good clamming tide, as this cartoon captures. And a lot of vehicles! Bob McCausland was the artist. He cartooned at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for decades before retiring to the coast where he continued to capture local foibles with pen and ink.

This dig was at Twin Harbors. That location is somewhat notorious for fickle clams. It’s frustrating not to get clams when you know they are there. “Am I losing my touch?” you might wonder.  “Have I forgotten how to dig?” You  pound the beach with shovel or tube, trying to force a show, but the clams are off partying. Guess that meal of fried clams will have to wait.

Happy razor clamming after WWII

 

Smiling teenagers after a day of razor clamming, circa 1947! Razor clamming has helped define who we are in Washington State in every decade. Notice all the bare feet.

The photo is courtesy of Jaime Johnstone. Her family lived in Centralia at the time. That’s Jaime’s mother on the left, a decade before Jaime was born.

“Clamming was a fun event, as you can tell from the photo of my mom and her friends, all teenagers at the time,” Jaime writes. “I remember going clamming with my family from a very early age (well before I could contribute to the digging!). It was a bonding event, as everyone contributed to the digging in whatever way they could, and we each were invested in every person getting their limit. And somehow, the messy task of cleaning the clams didn’t even seem to be a chore, because everyone chipped in with that too. My mom was a child of the Depression, and clamming served a very practical purpose at times, of putting food on the table. But really, the most important thing was the collective fun with family and friends.