The Maine Lobster Festival was cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. If it had taken place, it would have been the 73rd year that people from near and far gathered to celebrate Maine lobster. The five-day festival held during the first week of August has grown into a multi-pronged event highlighted by the crowning of Miss Sea Goddess and a spectacular parade. Yet the festival started in 1947 with a very practical goal in mind: to support local lobstermen who needed a market for their soft-shell and, at that time, unshippable lobsters.
From mid-summer to the end of August, soft-shell lobsters comprised the majority of the local catch. Local people knew that the lobsters were sweet and easy to eat, but successfully shipping them before refrigerated trucks were common was impossible. So several Camden and Rockport businessmen and officials starting thinking of ways to move the lobsters. They ended up taking their cue from the popular lobster festival held each year in Pictou, Nova Scotia.
According to Camden historian Barbara Dyer, in the spring of 1947 nine men met at a local lawyer’s office and drew up the papers for the Lobster Festival. The corporation’s goal was straightforward: “To conduct an annual festival for the citizens of Camden, Maine and Rockport, Maine to assist in publicizing the products of coastal Maine, and devote any incidental profits, which might be realized from the activities to such public uses or organized charities as the board of directors shall direct.” They set the price for an “All You Can Eat Lobster” feast at $1.
With the bylaws settled, the board of directors got busy. Someone got in touch with Representative Margaret Chase Smith, who then contacted the Navy’s Admiral Nimitz to determine if some naval vessels could be stationed in Camden Harbor for the occasion. Admiral Blandy, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, ordered a submarine chaser control ship to Camden for the first lobster festival.
Visitors from the political world were invited to the August celebration. Attendees included Governor Horace Hildreth, Senator and Mrs. Owen Smith and Mayor Charles Nelson of Augusta as well as Rep. Smith. Perry Greene, an expert dog breeder in Waldoboro, and his Chinook dog teams joined in the lobster parade through Camden, followed by a number of fire engines and WWII jeeps. After the parade, the festival’s master of ceremonies, Pepsi-Cola Company vice-president Talbot Freeman, spoke to the nearly 10,000 people who had showed up.
The trick for the first festival was feeding all those people. Long tables were set up on the grounds of the Mary E. Taylor Middle School; steamed lobsters were served in just one sitting. Somehow 11,900 pounds of lobster were cooked and eaten over the course of a few hours, until there were no more available.
In the evening, a street dance took place near the Camden post office (perhaps to work off the lobsters and the butter) with lessons available in the waltz, foxtrot and square dances. According to local newspaper articles, festival-goers danced into the wee hours. The only negative result were the many pounds of empty lobster shells left strewn about the school grounds and town streets.
The next year, perhaps in reaction to all those discarded lobster shells, the board of directors moved the festival to nearby Rockland. By the early 1950s, the festival had grown in size and scope and All You Can Eat Lobster for $1 was a dim memory. But the parade, camaraderie and focus on the lobster fishery continued through the decades.
This year the Festival is on hiatus but we will all look forward to the next celebration of Maine lobster in 2021.