The Urbanna Oyster Festival's main venue will be preserved thanks to an open space grant. Photo: Urbanna Oyster Festival

Nation’s Largest Oyster Festival to Keep its Venue, Thanks to Open Space Grant

Oyster lovers have gathered at the Urbanna Oyster Festival on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula each fall since 1958. After 62 years of fun and food, the festival came dangerously close to losing a critical part of its venue in 2020. However, quick thinking by the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation and a state agency have guaranteed that the festival has a home forever.

An estimated 50,000-plus people attend the festival each year, making it the largest oyster festival in the United States. You can slurp oysters from all over the region, raw or cooked almost any way imaginable.

There is other seafood as well, especially some incredible crab soups. The non-seafood types can dine on turkey legs and fried Oreo cookies. A Grand Marshall is chosen each year, along with an Oyster Queen and Little Miss Spat. Spat are baby oysters. The winner of the oyster shucking contest is
crowned Virginia’s state champion.

The event takes over the entire town for the first weekend each November (except, of course, for 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the festival into a virtual celebration.)

While the whole town gets involved in the annual festival, center stage has always been a vacant 3.5-acre lot. This is where artists, chefs, brewers and cookie fryers sell their creations. This year, the owners of the otherwise-vacant lot wanted to sell. The price was $140,000. The property would be likely to sell quickly because of its location, prime for development. The loss of this venue would have been crushing for the festival.

Managers of the nonprofit Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation realized the lot is too important to lose, but it would take some major fundraising to save it.

Joe Heyman, chairman of the foundation, assumed it would take several years to raise the sum of money, and they might not have years to wait. Heyman decided to seek assistance from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a government agency that offers grants to protect open space. “I hoped that they would cover the entire amount, because our lot fit so well with the VOF goals of preserving land in municipalities as well as more rural areas.”

Heyman got his wish: the VOF provided a grant for the entire $140,000. The VOF grant came with a few conditions that no one could object to. The land can never be developed, and it has to be open to the public forever. With the lot secured and vaccinations rolling out, the prospects for the 2021 festival are looking bright.

“We intend to be back to normal with a terrific festival in 2021,” said Heyman. For more information about the 2021 festival as planning gets underway, check

-Kendall Osborne