If you’ve listened to Bruce Vogt tout the quintessential oysters produced by his company, Big Island Aquaculture, you might figure he’s been doing this all his life.
Chances are if you’ve eaten oysters in Virginia, you’ve experienced his.
Yet, no matter how comfortable Vogt looks in a t-shirt expressing devotion to love, peace and oysters and accompanying ballcap, he didn’t always dress down on Fridays. Once he was an executive on the corporate fast track. Suits, ties and days that started with abandoning the panoramic view and salty smells of his coastal home were typical.
Fresh seafood, and the lifestyle required to harvest it was on the radar for someday.
Back in the ’80s, he and his wife, Cathy, migrated south from Northern Virginia after his promotion to district sales manager.
House shopping, the Vogts followed the York River and pulled up to a property in sparsely populated Gloucester.
“I wanted land and I wanted waterfront; that was hard to find,” Bruce says. “So, we’re out here looking at a plot. It hadn’t been mowed. Hot day in July. Mosquitos.”
But the 40 acres offered ample room for their horses and the 3,500 feet of shoreline overlooking Mundy Creek, the Chesapeake Bay and Mobjack Bay.
Swatting the bugs, Bruce breathed in his idea of perfect.
Bruce stood on the pier, surprised when a boat suddenly pulled up. A fast-talking Pepsi guzzler introduced himself as Harry Truman Smith, a Guineaman from the marshlands known as Big Island, a peninsula Bruce could see fully from the shore.
The fellow, nicknamed Goat, spoke in a cockney dialect and goaded Bruce into a tour.
Bruce had never met a Guineaman before.
“I could barely understand him,” he recalls. “But he was such a friendly fellow.”
When the Vogts bought the place, the men became unlikely friends. Bruce read up on the Guinea culture inherent to his new home. Generations of Guinea watermen revered this land and an unspoiled way of life.
“He and his wife, Edla, they had a batch of kids living on the island,” Bruce says. “Cathy would take them to the doctors’ office and to get their groceries. He would bring us clams and fish and stuff like that.”
Sometimes the men went crabbing, a 4 a.m. wakeup call. Out on the water one day, Truman Smith started talking oysters.
“Best tasting oysters in Chesapeake Bay come from right here,” Vogt says, imitating that tricky accent. “Right here. That’s where the best tasting oysters are.”
“OK,” Bruce shrugged. Vogt ate oysters once at an Ocean City restaurant.
He watched Truman Smith collect a handful of shells and pull out a pocketknife after having forgotten his shucking one. Vogt stared uneasily as Truman Smith shucked the oyster with the same hand he had just used to supply bait fish for the crabs pots.
“Try this!” Truman Smith exclaimed, handing off the shell. “Here.”
Now Vogt’s no germophobe, but “Gross!” he thought. Yet he didn’t want to decline.
“I ate it,” Vogt says. With one bite and a hard swallow, he thought you know what? That’s pretty good!
Big Island Aquaculture — known for salty, sweet and buttery oysters harvested from the optimum waters of the York River, Chesapeake Bay and Mundy Creek —draws its
name from Guinea watermen like Truman Smith, who prided themselves on long days farming, fishing, and tonging the plump, springy shellfish.
“We wanted to honor and respect the Guineamen who lived and worked in that area, so we named our company Big Island Aquaculture,” Vogt says.
The local treasure plants more than 1 million oysters annually and sells its harvests named Pearls, Powhatans Power and Pocahontas Secret — each with a unique profile — to restaurants in the Commonwealth and beyond, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and upstate New York and Massachusetts. Middle Peninsula farmers markets and other retail outlets also carry them.
Now experiencing a raw oyster certainly didn’t fast track Vogt into starting a seafood business. That took time. Initially, the water was mere playground for his three sons
Vogt renewed the eight oyster leases that came with the property but did nothing with them for years.
It took cajoling from his eldest son, also named Bruce, before he began to consider it as anything more than a hobby.
“Dad, you’ve got a beautiful spot to grow oysters,” Bruce Jr. would repeat regularly.
Bruce Jr. would go on to earn a scholarship to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, where he learned to appreciate the value of harvesting oysters to sustain not just the Bay but the environment.
While Bruce Sr. considers himself an environmentalist, another idea motivated him to start Big Island Aquaculture, and it involved his youngest son, Daniel.
Daniel Vogt is nothing like Bruce, today a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Daniel isn’t much for college and books.
But Cathy confides he might be her smartest son.
“I love listening to Daniel speak about the changes in the water and the things he sees,” Kathy says. “I only see water and clouds. He can talk about the currents and which way the wind blows and the changes in the season. He knows if a storm is coming in. He’s got all the awareness he needs to run this business.”
Now operations manager, Daniel handles much of the labor required to maintain the cumbersome floating cages on the surface waters in the backyard of the family home. The method, which also requires multiple tumbling, prevents mud and sand from interfering with taste.
“We love this approach because it simply produces a better oyster,” Vogt says, a gesture to the nearby marsh grasses that further complement the unique taste. “You don’t get that metallic taste that comes with all that grit.”
The business will belong to Daniel one day, though it’s hard to imagine his father slowing down any time soon.
Bruce Vogt is 72, though he rattles his mind before revealing that.
“Age — just a number,” he scoffs.
He uses the word “retired,” which prompts Cathy to roll her eyes. Still, nobody would forgive him if he never left the second floor of their three-story home built to replace the one destroyed by Hurricane Isabel. While a 65-inch screen is a respite for indulging in his favorite, romantic comedies — the view from the oversized windows offers a better show.
Sitting on the sofa where a throw pillow proclaims, “The world is your oyster,” Vogt points to Mundy Creek. The Chesapeake Bay. The lights from Cape Charles. Sometimes what looks to be a parade of boats off in the distance near the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel sparkle, too.
Big Island, uninhabited today and part of a nature conservatory, will always remain special.
Truman Smith has long since passed away. But the memories of that friendship and its impact are as fresh as a Big Island Aquaculture oyster plucked from the sea.
“I like ’em roasted,” Bruce says. “Pair them with a bottle of wine, and I’m happy just sitting here.”