Throwback Travel: Maine’s Lobster Kitsch

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Summer, 1952. Beauty contestants on the rock-ribbed Maine coast claw their way through a still-new summer celebration then called the Camden-Rockland Lobster Festival. The event dished up a mix of crustaceans, cheesecake, and ballyhoo and debuted the world’s largest lobster kettle, capable of boiling 100 of the bottom feeders at a time in 1,000 gallons of water in 15 minutes.

The combination of self-promotion, innocence, and melted butter seems just right for New England’s self-proclaimed “Vacationland”—a slogan stamped on Maine’s license plates since 1936. The metallic motto and the feast—now called the Maine Lobster Festival—still draw them Down East.

Here’s a brief look at the famous festival through a throwback lens:

  • Lobsters aside, Rockland is celebrated for its Farnsworth Art Museum—opened in 1948, the same year the lobster festival was moved from Camden (which hosted the feast in 1947 and ended up losing money, having advertised “All the lobster you can eat for $1”) to Rockland—and its extensive collection of works by Andrew Wyeth, his father N.C. Wyeth (who painted a series of murals for National Geographic that still hang today at the Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.), and other artists connected to Maine.
  • viral meme shared on social media claims lobsters are immortal. They aren’t. Like many crustaceans, lobsters keep molting (a process called ecdysis) and growing until death—a process called “indeterminate growth.” The end usually comes when they lack the energy to shed their shells (a process that becomes more onerous with each successive molting).
  • In 1977, the largest lobster ever caught (on record) was picked up off the coast of Maine neighbor Nova Scotia, weighing in at 44 pounds, 6 ounces, and measuring 3.5 feet long.
  • Rockland is the birthplace of Jazz Age poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her middle name is an homage to New York City’s St. Vincent Hospital, whose doctors saved the life of her Uncle Charlie just prior to her birth.
  • Then a young girl, celebrated sculptor Louise Nevelson called Rockland her first American home when her family left Czarist Russia for Maine in 1905. Nevelson’s first contact with art came at age 9, when she encountered a plaster cast of Joan of Arc in Rockland’s public library. She was also the local high school girl’s basketball captain. The Farnsworth features her work.
  • Each year since 1948, Rockland has chosen from among 18 young ladies to become Maine Sea Goddess to represent the town and lobster industry. Barbara Ilvonen Lindquist was 1952’s marine divinity. Last year’s goddess was Abby Megan Hersom, a 2014 grad of Oceanside High. A new goddess will take her place during the 2015 Maine Lobster Festival (July 29 through August 2).
  • Sardines are also celebrated at the festival. Sardine canning was one of Maine’s biggest industries in the 1960s and 1970s. In a 1972 competition one Rita Willey was named “world’s fastest sardine packer” after she packed 85 cans in 10 minutes. Afterwards she appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
  • In fact, organizers recognized the fish’s importance by changing the event’s name to the “Maine Seafood Festival.” When canned tuna replaced sardines in American lunch boxes, the sardine industry collapsed and the festival name became “Lobster” once more. The last Maine sardine cannery closed in 2010.
  • The song “Rock Lobster” by the 1980s new-wave band The B-52s has nothing to do with Rockland, Maine. Lead singer Fred Schneider stopped eating crustaceans after watching them boiled alive at age 4.

Andrew Nelson is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow his adventures in wanderlust on Twitter @andrewnelson.

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