"The Clam King"
Elmer Willis was born in 1905, one of the five children of Charlie and Ella Willis. In the eighth grade Elmer quit school to go to work on a fishing boat with his father. In his spare time, he studied to become a diesel engineer. Elmer moved to Ohio in 1930 and received his engineer’s license in Cleveland. He worked as an engineer in Norfolk from 1935-1939.
In 1939, Elmer and his brother Wesley started Willis Brothers, Inc. In their second year of business they began shipping bushels of clams to Baltimore to be shucked for Heinz Soup Company. After World War II, Elmer obtained an exclusive contract with Heinz to be their sole provider of clams.
In 1965, Elmer said he had sold around 40,000 bushels of clams a year for the past 20 years. That’s in the neighborhood of 240 million clams! And many of those came from Jarrett Bay.
Elmer was an innovator and used cutting-edge technology to grow his business. In 1957, he installed an evaporator to facilitate processing clams for Heinz. In 1963 he installed a blast freezer and entered the market of individually frozen seafood. His first order from A&P Food Chain was for 30,000 pounds of scallops for distribution in New York. In just a few years, restaurant chains were ordering over 200,000 pounds of scallops a year.
Elmer was also known for his generosity and community spirit. He hosted many clambakes to raise funds for worthy causes. One clambake raised enough money to build the first cafeteria at Smyrna School. In the 1950’s Down East Clambakes were a favorite dish in Carteret County and thousands would attend the events. North Carolina Governors were regular attendees at Elmer’s fundraisers.
In the 1950’s, the business continued to expand and added boat building operations with master boat builder, Elmo Wade, of Williston in charge and later Julian Guthrie of Harkers Island. Julian later purchased the boat building operation and it became Hi-Tide Boat Works. The business was sold again and became Jarrett Bay Boat Works, no longer on Jarrett Bay.
At the time of his death in 1977, Willis Brothers Seafood, Inc. was processing millions of pounds of clams and scallops a year. The business was sold after his death, but has not been operational since 1980. The building was later purchased by the Hills in 2015.