The Oysterville Baptist Church was built in 1892 so that the town’s founder, R.H. Espy, would no longer have to host services for the town in his living room. Baptisms, though, continued to take place in nearby Willapa Bay, because the church was built without a baptismal font. That was about to change. A font had been installed under the church’s dais, and Oysterville parishioners were busy getting ready for their town’s first indoor baptism. Hundreds of gallons of water were carried, bucket-by-bucket, from the town’s well to the church – a task that took the better part of the morning. The child was baptized, refreshments were served in the parsonage, and the Baptist Church had a new official member. All was right in Oysterville. That is, until the cleanup crew realized one fatal flaw in their baptismal font: it had no drain. And then, the same folks who’d spent all morning filling the font spent the rest of day emptying it. Bucket by bucket. This was the first and last baptism ever to be held in the Oysterville Church baptismal font.
Sydney Stevens, great grandchild of R.H. Espy and co-chair of the Oysterville Restoration Foundation, told me this story as we stood in front of the town’s historic church this week. As I reflect on my visit with Sydney, I realize that this isn’t just a humorous story about an ill-fated baptismal font. In many ways, this is the story of Oysterville itself.
For those not familiar with this small town, Oysterville used to be the County Seat of Pacific County, Washington state’s southwestern-most county that serves as the gateway to the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. The town is the northern-most town on the bay side of the Long Beach Peninsula, facing Willapa Bay to the east. Oysterville’s most reported claim to fame is the fact that its hold on the county seat was wrested away on February 3, 1893, when residents from across the bay stole the county records and returned to South Bend, which was to become the new county seat.
Oysterville’s future wasn’t determined by the midnight raid on its records house. Its fate was sealed by geography. As railroads started to crisscross the Northwest in second half of the 19th century, the location of depots had a huge impact on whether a town thrived. One look at a map of the Long Beach Peninsula is all you need to decide it’s probably not worth it to lay tracks all the way to the tip. The furthest north the Ilwaco Railway ever reached was Nahcotta, four miles south of Oysterville.
Despite its proximity to Willapa Bay, Oysterville was just as difficult to reach by water as it was by land. The bay’s original name was Shoalwater Bay, indicating to sailors they should steer clear unless they wanted to run aground. Half the bay’s water leaves it at low tide. Needing to wait for high tide, it was difficult for ships to navigate to the shores of Oysterville.
One of the few road signs in Oysterville
Due to its geographic challenges, even its one-time booming oyster industry wasn’t enough to attract enough people to turn Oysterville into the size of town that R.H. Espy probably once dreamed it could be. I imagine R.H. having a “no drain” moment as he came to grips with the fact that his town was out of reach for the main modes of transportation of his day.
With 14 residents (30 if you count the part-timers), Oysterville is better described as a neighborhood that has some really interesting history. It’s primary industry? Storytelling. It’s Chief Storytelling Officer? Sydney Stevens.
When I asked Andi Day, Executive Director of the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, whom I should contact to get a good local history lesson, she immediately pointed me to Sydney. She lives with her husband, Nyel, in the house her great grandfather bought to use as a parsonage for the Oysterville Church. Hanging on the wall of the house is the deed for the land on which the house sits, which was signed by Abraham Lincoln. Since retiring as a teacher, Sydney has become an incredibly prolific author about all things Oysterville and the Long Beach Peninsula. Beyond her numerous books on the area’s history, Sydney posts every single day on her blog, sydneyofoysterville.
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln signed the deed granting land on which the old Espy House sits
The stories started from the moment I sat down on Sydney’s couch. She’d read my post on Colfax’s haunted hospital, which sparked her first tale about the wife of Oysterville’s first preacher, who mysteriously drowned in Willapa Bay – most likely due to foul play by the preacher, Josiah Crouch. Sydney, who doesn’t really believe in ghosts, is pretty sure Mrs. Crouch maintains some kind of presence in her house. I was so interested in the story, I bought Sydney’s Ghost Stories of the Long Beach Peninsula book on the spot. After reading it, I definitely plan to buy more.
Sales of Sydney’s books are probably the single biggest contributor to Oysterville’s economy. That, and sales of burial plots in the cemetery, which Sydney also happens to manage. Demand for space has slowed as the town’s population has dwindled. “We still have lots of room,” joked Sydney, as she told me about how the cemetery was doubled in size (from one acre to two) in the 1970s, before cremation gained in popularity.
Sydney Stevens, telling one of her many stories inside the Oysterville Baptist Church
As we talked outside the church, over walked Tucker Wachsmuth, one of Oysterville’s 14 residents, and his cousin Cory Schreiber, from Portland. Both are descendants of another one of Oysterville’s early inhabitants. Tucker’s wife, Carol, in her early sixties, is the youngest resident of the town.
Realizing that the average age in Oysterville is probably north of seventy, I asked Sydney what she thinks will happen to the town in the future. “Well, my only son just turned 60; he doesn’t have children, and I don’t expect that to change,” she said. Though it’s clear to me that Sydney, at 80, has many more good years in front of her, it’s not entirely clear what will happen to this little community with such a rich history once she “shuffles on.” Sydney has done an amazing job of documenting the area’s stories. Somebody needs to step up to continue the good work she’s done.
When I asked Tucker Wachsmuth what he’d like to see happen to Oysterville, he said: “I’d like to see more young families move here.” I agree that’s probably the best way to ensure Oysterville’s population doesn’t continue to shrink. If that’s what the town agrees should happen, it might be time to install a drain in the baptismal font.
Cory Schreiber, Sydney Stevens and Tucker Wachsmuth, all relatives of Oysterville’s original residents