Founded in 1886 by William McNasby Sr., the McNasby Oyster Company began as a single storefront on Compromise Street. The business continued to grow until it became necessary to expand to a packing plant on 723 Second Street in the neighborhood of Eastport, a community in Annapolis. Today this same historic structure is home to the Annapolis Maritime Museum. The McNasby Oyster Co. left a lasting impression upon Eastport, and a legacy that the Annapolis Maritime Museum continues to uphold in telling the stories of our local seafood industry and all of its facets.
The McNasby family took root in the United States when John McNasby immigrated to the United States from County Armagh, Ireland. He worked as a machinist in Baltimore where he met his wife, Isabel, and they had four children together.
These four children were William Joseph (later known as William McNasby Sr.), Kate Beene, Alice Lapson, and Jennie. John would pass in approximately 1884, and Isabel in 1899.
William Joseph McNasby Sr. was a furniture dealer who lived in Baltimore. Advertisements of the time list a company called “Fritter and McNasby,” with a William McNasby running the Annapolis office.
William McNasby Sr. and Mary Elizabeth had ten children together, but only five would survive to adulthood. These five were Jennie Irene, Isabella Crowley, Robert Emmett, William Joseph Jr. (“Mac”) and Justus (“Chuck”).
William Joseph Sr. started the McNasby Oyster Company in 1886, the same year his son William Joseph Jr. was born. William Jr. would join his father in the family business when he turned 18 in 1904, following his high school graduation.
The company became well known for their ‘Pearl Brand Oysters’, named for the wife of William McNasby Jr., Pearl McNasby. William Jr. married Pearl Sherbondy on June 14, 1926, in Akron, Ohio.
Pearl was active in the business, as evidenced by newspapers published during their time crediting her with ideas such as shipping oysters by dirigible (a type of airship) in 1929.
In 1919, William Jr. established a distribution center in Akron, Ohio, to accommodate the growing demand for McNasby’s oysters across the continental U.S..
The McNasby Oyster Co. was given a 97% by the Department of Health, the highest rating in Akron. When the eighteenth amendment was repealed, the distribution center expanded its business into the distribution of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
William Jr. sold the Akron distribution center to Harry Meltzer, owner of Summit Fish Co., and moved all business operations to Annapolis. A notice posted by William Joseph McNasby Jr. in the Akron Beacon, December 13, 1954, announced the sale to the public and thanked patrons for their business. He made clear his intention to continue shipping across the U.S. as well as into parts of Canada from the Annapolis packing plant, located at 723 Second Street.
Sadly, Pearl McNasby passed a mere three weeks after she and William Jr. moved to Annapolis, on August 29 of 1959. Workers at the McNasby packing plant like Lyle Smith, an oyster shucker, recall William Jr. focusing almost entirely on his business after the death of his wife. Oral histories in the museum’s collection mention Mac’s dedication, working until he was no longer capable.
McNasby’s hired both black and white employees, men and women alike, when many businesses would not hire black workers. All shuckers pictured above appear to be black men.
Interviews with former employees of the company describe a thriving business and focal point of the community. Many local children who ‘weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty’ would work at McNasby’s to earn pocket change, and would swim off the docks in the summertime.
Workers were not segregated and and majority were African Americans who lived in Eastport or who were from the eastern shore, staying in the area for oyster season and returning to the shore to work in canneries. Eastport locals would work summers preparing the McNasby building for oyster season, or would find work in boatyards until winter came again.
For a few summers, the McNasby Company tried crab processing, but this only lasted a few seasons before it stopped altogether.
Shuckers at McNasby could accumulate discarded shell over two stories tall in just 3 short days. Discarded shell was often sold back to the City of Annapolis to be used for paving roads, building structures, and more.
As the oyster populations in the Bay continued to decline, state programs would work with watermen to replenish and replant oyster beds with discarded shell. Oysters are broadcast spawners meaning that sperm and egg meet in the water column and the resulting larvae attach to shell. Without replenishing shell on oyster reefs, larvae have limited surfaces on which to grow.
In 1973, William Jr. willed the business to his friend John W. Turner and his wife Mary Lou, having not had children of his own. Mac passed on April 14th, 1973 of heart failure.
H.L.P. Incorporated planned to tear down the historic structure and replace it with waterfront condominiums. Before this could happen, the City of Annapolis established a Maritime Zoning District to protect maritime businesses from development pressure.
The city purchased the property from H.L.P. for one million dollars in 1989 and leased it to the Waterman’s Seafood Cooperative, which dissolved in 1994 due to a competitive market. Two private seafood processors attempted to run wholesale/retail businesses in the space and failed, including the Eastport Seafood Company opened by Doug Orr.
In 2001, the Annapolis Maritime Museum leased the property from the City of Annapolis for fifty years, and subleased seafood retail and takeout business opportunities to the owner of Davis’ Pub.
Hurricane Isabel damaged the McNasby building in 2003 with an eight foot tidal surge. While raising funds for reconstruction, the museum’s offices and exhibitions were located at 222 Severn Avenue. Renovations were completed in 2008 and the museum opened with the “Oysters on the Half Shell” exhibit.
AMM’s current permanent exhibit “Our Changing Waterfront” was completed in 2020 and opened in 2021 due to the evolving situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.