By Matt Sabo
March 22, 2010
Eldridge Cook bought his first truck to deliver seafood at the age 17, running oysters on routes from Gloucester Point to the Northern Neck.
That was 1932. By 1940, he had formed a company transporting Chesapeake Bay seafood, and a decade later expanded into processing.
After more than 70 years, the man known as "El" to his friends has idled the processing plants and piers at his 10 acres in Bena on Sarah Creek. After cleaning up the property, he plans to sell it.
Cook reckons he paid around $3,500 for the waterfront property in 1939.
"That was a lot of money," he said.
At the age of 95, he figures it's time to walk away while he still can. He's been winding down the seafood plant operations over the last decade before reaching a decision to close it.
He doesn't have family to take over the business or other plans for it. He still owns storage units in Hayes and other properties to keep him busy.
"I've reached the time where it's time to get out of it," Cook said. "At 95, you don't need a whole lot to do."
The grandson of slaves, Cook was born Feb. 14, 1915. He remembers when noted businessman T.C. Walker, the first black lawyer in Gloucester and twice elected to the Board of Supervisors, would stop in at the high school he attended in Gloucester.
"He'd lecture us twice a month," Cook said. "Keep us on our toes."
Cook had plans to enter the oil business out of high school. Oil was cheap and people were using more of it and he saw opportunity. But another market beckoned.
"I had some trucks and all and started hauling seafood to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Savannah," he said.
Cook never got into the oil business. He soon expanded his fleet and his trucking routes, eventually shipping seafood across the country to California and overseas to Europe and even Turkey.
He formed Cook's Oyster Co., also known as Cook's Seafood Co., and in the 1950s started processing seafood. In its heyday, Cook's company employed up to 250 in the processing plants and related work.
His philosophy was simple.
"I enjoyed doing something we could make a profit on," Cook said.
In 1996, the Daily Press named Cook as one of the top 100 influential community leaders in the region, lauding him not only as a businessman, but for his work to encourage economic development in the county. Among other things, Cook served on the Gloucester Planning Commission.
Word has spread quickly that Cook has retired, effective last Monday. He's fielded phone calls — "People are wondering where they're going to get their seafood," Cook said — and has received cards.
One friend in the business from North Carolina sent a note telling Cook it had been a pleasure doing business with him since 1970.
"My wish for you," wrote Harry Taylor, "is good health and the opportunity to enjoy your time without the stress that the seafood business brings."
Eldridge Cook• Born on Feb. 14, 1915
• Age 17, buys first truck to deliver oysters from Gloucester and Mathews to shucking houses in the Northern Neck.
• In World War II, Cook's now fleet of trucks haul lumber for wartime use.
• Early 1950s, starts Cook Oyster Co. Eventually becomes a major supplier of seafood in Tidewater.
• Serves on Gloucester Planning Commission and is appointed by L. Douglas Wilder to Virginia Marine Products Board.
• In March 2010, El Cook retires at the age of 95.
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