John Herrigel empties a bag of oysters on the dock at the Phippsburg wholesale operation based on his family property. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

PHIPPSBURG — The old general store was the hub of activity for generations in the village of West Point, a proud community of mostly fishing families who lived in modest homes on the eastern ledges of Casco Bay. Back in the day, men crowded on the store’s porch with their cigarettes and coffees, talking about the sea and watching the tide come in and go out.

“Dickey got four today,” one old-timer said to another, extolling the landings of a local tuna fisherman, as a young boy passed their gauntlet clutching penny candy.

The store has long since closed and most of the people have moved away from the water, their former homes now improved and occupied by seasonal residents or renters. A handful of lobster boats still operates out of West Point, but it’s not like it used to be when many more lobster boats and trawlers moored in the cove here and nearby. On any given winter night now, the lights are on in no more than a half-dozen of the 25 or so homes.

Oysters from Cape Small Oysters in Phippsburg. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

John Herrigel’s is one of them. Herrigel, 41, founder and co-owner of Maine Oyster Co. in Portland and owner of Cape Small Oysters in Phippsburg, is working to restore some of the community lost to gentrification by investing in aquaculture and the public’s growing appetite for Maine-grown oysters. His parents, who live in Bath and moved to Maine from New Jersey, own the old general store building and the wharf it sits on. Herrigel, who lives in the village, uses it as his oyster basecamp. He keeps his boats there for his oyster farm in Small Point Harbor, and sells oysters to-go, hosts shuck-and-slurp parties on the wharf in the summer, and leads hands-on boat tours of his oyster-growing operation and oyster farms in the New Meadows River.

He’s a bridge between the new and the old, with a business that’s focused on a sustainable future from a place firmly rooted in the past. In addition to selling oysters to-go in a self-service honor system out front, he’s got coffee for anyone from the community who wants to stop in and sit awhile, like the old-timers used to do, and he makes the wharf available to local fishermen, and a few others, for their skiffs. He’s not open as a store, but wants to be a gathering spot.

“I want the space to be fully utilized and welcoming, like the old general store was, first to the West Point community, and then a close second to the oyster industry and Phippsburg community, and visitors to our special space,” he said.

The pandemic allowed his vision to become reality. With the Portland oyster bar in takeout mode, Herrigel is spending all his time in West Point focusing on the bulk-sale and shipping side of the operation. Working with other members of the newly formed New Meadows Shellfish Cooperative, the Maine Oyster Co.’s latest initiative involves shipping New Meadows-grown oysters in gift packs and bulk across the country.

Business is booming. Herrigel said the just-finished holiday season was phenomenal. He didn’t want specific sales numbers published, but said he shipped fives times as many oysters in 2020 as he did in 2019, and he expects to double or triple his shipping business in 2021. “We are just coming off a fantastic shipping season and really starting to see our vision of building a true community in West Point as a core hub come to life,” he said.

Emily Johnston of Maine Oyster Co. works on a laptop surrounded by boxes at the wholesale operation in Phippsburg. The business has shifted its attention to the wholesale operation from the restaurant during the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine Oyster Co. ships in bulk (from 12 oysters for $73 to 200 f0r $355) and in variety packs, featuring oysters from specific growers in the New Meadows and Damariscotta rivers and Casco Bay. He also ships lobster rolls, caviar, accessories and apparel.

When he gets an order, he texts local growers, who bring the oysters to West Point. He cleans and repackages the oysters and ships them overnight to people and restaurants around the country. “A rising tide raises all shells,” he said. “People are fired up about the Maine oyster, and everybody is happy to be buying them. It’s an expensive product. People are spending $100 to $300 or more per order for one perishable meal.”

The growth in that aspect of the business helped offset a 75-percent decline in revenue at the Portland oyster bar, which opened in fall 2018. But Herrigel has high hopes for the West Bayside restaurant in 2021, whenever the pandemic allows, and sees both the Portland “headquarters” and the Phippsburg basecamp as offering a full-on aquafarm-to-table oyster experience that could include lodging in Portland and Phippsburg or both, a combination of chic urban and quintessential coastal.

Herrigel and his mother, Jillian Herrigel, on the dock at the wholesale operation based on the family property in Phippsburg. Jillian is an artist and has painted from the family wharf for years. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

His parents, Jillian and Rodger Herrigel, bought the old store and wharf in 2008. The Herrigels, who live year-round in Bath, have owned property in West Point for more than 30 years, moving up form New Jersey for a job at Migis Lodge at Sebago Lake and a life on the water. John Herrigel knew the store as a young boy, as a place for calzones, pizza and beverages. His grandmother had a charge account, so he grabbed snacks at will.

The store, which opened in the late 1800s or early 1900s, closed in 2002 and was converted into a restaurant that never opened. It looks nothing like it did in the old days.

The Herrigels bought the property when it was in foreclosure, because of the wharf and its water access. They had no plans for the building and its gauche interior and rooftop bar. Jillian Herrigel remembers it looking like a Long John Silver franchise when she and her husband bought it for a price affordable enough that they could justify it for water access – and even then with a wharf in such poor condition, their first act was a reinvestment in the structure. Eventually, they remodeled the building.

Many years before, the store housed a post office and phone booth, and dispensed gas from the wharf through a long black hose that was reeled down from above to waiting boats below. In its early days, the store focused mostly on the marine trade, said West Point historian Jean Scott, another of the few remaining West Point year-rounders. Over time, it branched out to include canned goods, penny candy, ice cream, steamed hot dogs and, eventually, bacon and eggs, hamburgers and pizza.

In the 1950s, there was jukebox on the porch. “We could dance and listen to music,” Scott said. “And then we would go down on the wharf and jump off and swim. They let us do anything we wanted to around there.” Also in the 1950s, somebody swam from the store wharf to Little Wood Island, a distance of about a half-mile. “He greased himself down and someone followed him out in a boat,” Scott said. “It was wonderful watching him. It was exiting for West Point.”

It might have been exciting for New York.

The store sits just a few feet above high tide, nestled among wharves owned by people who also own cottages, a few local fishermen and families with homes on nearby islands. Rodger Herrigel is a passionate proponent of the Maine Island Trail Association, and has always supported access to the water for fishermen and recreationalists. He keeps his kayaks on the wharf in the summer.

Jillian Herrigel in her studio, down the street from Maine Oyster Co.’s basecamp in Phippsburg. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A painter, Jillian Herrigel set up her easel on the wharf for many years and invited others from her plein-air painting community to do the same. She also hosted annual exhibitions of Phippsburg artists in the old store. Lately, she’s painted the oyster farmers of the New Meadows River.

For several years, the Herrigels hosted Christmas parties. They also hosted the 75th wedding anniversary of Arthur and Marita Doyle, who live in the village. Arthur’s grandfather, Herman C. Smith, built the store and ran it for years. Arthur and Marita are known as the governor and first lady of West Point.

Scott, the town historian, appreciates the life and energy of the old store and hopes it continues. She’d love it if Herrigel would open an actual store, with doughnuts and sandwiches. “We all want to see the store come alive again,” said Scott, who wrote about the community in her self-published history, “My Beloved West Point.”

That’s not in the immediate plans, Herrigel said. For now, it’s oysters and the community that comes with it.

Jillian Herrigel said it has been their ardent hope for the wharf and store to be used by the community in some way, for the betterment of all. Aquaculture is a dream come true, she said, because it involves a sustainable fishery – and her son. “He’s grown it from the ground up. Rodger and I couldn’t be more thrilled,” she said.

Herrigel heads out on a boat to check on the company’s oyster farm. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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