For an astonishing 164 years now, the people of Bowers Beach have been throwing a big party to mark the start of oyster season. Here is a great description from back in the 1930s about the town, that party, and how Big Thursday came to be in the first place:
Bowers Beach is one of the Delaware Bay villages recently discovered by artists, who come to paint the scene along the Murderkill wharves: the packed masses of craft ranging from shiny new power boats to old oyster schooners tied up at shucking houses; the piles of oysters shells and the nets hung up to dry; and the tall, quiet-spoken boat captains in white caps and faded blue shirts, with fine sun wrinkles in their eyes from the glare of the water. There are also the flaming red faces of city fishermen who have sat too long on the afterdeck out on the smooth, blue bay.
“Big Thursday” in Bowers Beach has been a Delaware institution since the memorable day in 1852 when the new oyster ban was lifted. A law had been put into effect that year to prohibit the taking of oysters between May 1 and Aug. 10. The people of the county, accustomed to eating their oysters throughout the year, winter and summer alike, impatiently waited until opening day arrived.
Falling that year on a Thursday the day was a gala festival of tonging oysters and eating them raw or roasted, of fiddling and dancing, of talking and drinking and sleeping. When at last the covered wagons or hayracks departed they were loaded not only with oyster-stuffed men, women, and children but also with baskets of oysters in the shell carefully packed in wet marsh hay for storage in cool cellars for future use.
Ever since then Big Thursday has continued to be a celebration for the rural population of Kent County. … Now instead of wagons, automobiles and trucks bring farm families from nearby necks along the bay or from piney-woods regions near the Maryland Line. …
“Black Saturday” [held on the Saturday after Big Thursday] is the Negro equivalent of Big Thursday. It was set aside by landowners in 1852 or soon afterwards as a holiday for slaves and free Negroes who also wanted to celebrate the opening of the oyster season. … Men wear the latest Harlem styles or sweat-stained overalls. Women display long evening gowns all day long. Courting is usually in evidence, as at the white affair.
That is from Delaware: A Guide to the First State, a travel and history guide put together in 1938 by the Federal Writers Project, a Depression era jobs program that put unemployed writers to work on guides for every state.
Originally, Big Thursday was on Thursday–and it was in August. But the oyster season has moved around quite a bit since then. The festivities are now held on a Sunday in October–here is information on the 2018 event.
–Research & writing by Jim Duffy