It was not too long ago that everyone knew not to eat oysters in months the names of which did not contain the letter "R." This meant that the season for the eating of oysters extended from September through March, and the height of the season was November and December. In many parts of Kansas, this was the season for the oyster feed, although it frequently took the form of oyster, bread, and chestnut dressing for the family meal (traditional Germans in much of the midwest preferred sausage and chestnut; English used a bread dressing heavily spiced with sage and, sometimes, celery; and other groups used still other combinations), while a community oyster stew supper was held sometime around New Year's.
In the community of Sigel, now seventy feet beneath the water at the north end of Clinton Dam, the festivities were organized in the following fashion. A week or so before Christmas, the men and boys of the community would gather together just before dawn and would be divided into two teams, each with an assigned territory. The two groups would hunt rabbits from first light, with the children periodically bringing in the kill to the Sigel store, where the wives and daughters of each team would skin and gut the rabbits, and stack them in a safe place outside so that they could freeze. The hunt was over at sundown, and the last members of each team had brought in their last kills by that time. The women would have made hot coffee and donuts, and everyone would sit, warm themselves, and talk about the day's adventures while two impartial judges counted up each team's total. The team who had brought in the fewer rabbits were announced as the ones to arrange the oyster feed. The rabbits and their pelts were taken into Topeka by wagon and sold to the butchers, furriers, and shippers there. The money from the pelts was placed in a local bank to be used for charitable purposes in the community, and the men of Sigel received a note of credit for the rabbit carcasses they had brought in. They immediately used their note of credit to order as many hogshead's of oysters they could afford.
One must remember that, up to the pollution of shore waters beginning at the turn of the century, oysters were extremely plentiful along the coasts of America, so much so that they were regarded as a food for the poor and oyster bars were generally found in the more rundown sections of any coastal city. Of course, there were ample oysters to ship out, and the railways annually carried hundreds of thousands of barrels of oysters to Chicago for transshipment. Laid down live in brine, the oysters could survive for quite some time in the unheated rail cars in which they were transported.
The losers from Sigel would send a wagon to the station where they were to pick up their shipment -- perhaps Topeka, Lakeside, or Lawrence -- or, during the short time that it was in operation, the rail line that ran through Sigel to the coalfields in southern Shawnee county. The losers had saved up milk, cream, and sweet butter and brought in washing cauldrons to the school house in preparation for the community banquet, while their wives and daughters spent the day before the event baking as much fresh bread as they thought that it would take. The fires were started under the cauldrons, and the men began to make their oyster stew. A long plank was set on an incline through a nearby window in the schoolhouse, while, inside, the families had settled themselves at trestle table set over the desks. It was now time for the unmarried young men and women to pair off.
Movies and novels often portray the "box lunch supper" in which the young men would bid on boxes filled with a cold supper carefully cooked by the young ladies. Each young man hoped to be able to identify the box offered by the girl of his choice and so have the ineffable pleasure of her pleasure through the evening's entertainment. At the Sigel oyster stew feed, however, there was no need for box lunches and, besides, our ancestors were not the goodie two shoes that they are often pictured as being. Every school house had a dais on which the teacher's desk stood and that served as a stage for entertainment. The masters of ceremonies at Sigel gathered the lamps and placed them at the back of the dais, and then stretched a white sheet at the front of what was now a stage. The young ladies collected back by the lamps and, each in her turn, would step in front of the lamps, and the young men would bid upon their silhouettes. This was the occasion of considerable comment, particularly when a young man succeeded in placing the winning bid for a young lady upon whom he was know "to be sweet." Someone would generally opine that the young man seemed to be remarkably familiar with the young lady's topography. About that time, the first of the oyster stew would be ready, and a large wash-basin of stew would come sliding down the board through the window, and the men of the losing team would begin carrying the basins around to serve the winners. After the feed, there was fresh coffee and mince pie (remember that, in the old days, mince pie contained meat, fruit, suet, and enough brandy -- even during Kansas' early Prohibition -- to produce a general contentment with the world.
Some times there were entertainments, often staged by the school children, or a community sing, but, if there were snow and moonlight, the young people usually would climb the steep hill behind the town, build a bon-fire there and stay up late, sledding and cuddling by the fire while the older folks cleaned up the school and headed home.
I went out to that hill last week to think about Sigel. It's not a hill any more, but a little promontory jutting out into Clinton Lake. I sat at the water's edge, on the spot where so many of the boys and girls of Sigel had sat over the years, and tried to imagine what it must have been like back then.