Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories culled from a collection of Maine Coast Fisherman newspapers from the late 1940s through the early 1960s donated to The Working Waterfront. Dora Thompson is a recent Oceanside High School graduate who is a participant in The Working Waterfront/Island Institute’s student journalism program. She will attend the University of Southern Maine in the fall.

By Dora Thompson

ROCKLAND — It’s that time of year again, as people pour into this small coastal city like the gallons of melted butter that draw them here. Music thumps, fried dough sizzles and parking becomes scarce.

People in “Volunteer” shirts weave their way between elegant Sea Goddesses. The giant, spinning Ferris wheel is seen from across town, reminding everyone that it must be time to celebrate the reign of the red crustacean at the Annual Maine Lobster Festival.

Even in 1949 (only the second time the event was held in Rockland), folks were stunned by the turnout. Then called the “Lobster and Seafood Festival,” the three-day affair brought in 25,000 people who could buy two lobsters for  $1. By 1950, the demand for lobster was so high that event organizers had seafood platters come out on conveyer belts—the head chef bragging that he could serve 50 people per minute. 

Early festivals boasted of events such as timed baiting tournaments, sardine eating contests and square dancing (calling by Albert Haines). Firemen from around New England would come to take part in a very competitive “hand tub pumping contest.”

A thousand-pound sea turtle drew visitors from all over, and the ritual of “Returning Neptune to the Sea” was always a big hit. All of the sea goddess contestants would heave his highness off the pier as the crowd cheered.

In 1950, however, a scandal befell the ceremony when King Neptune himself “‘couldn’t swim a stroke.'” The officials became aware of this bit of information only when the king, Al MacPhail of Owls Head, was already in the ocean. Luckily, the king was rescued by a local fisherman and returned safely to shore. He claimed that he didn’t want to tell anyone because he “didn’t want to spoil the ceremony.” 

The Maine Lobster Festival was honored in 1956 when three of the five New England governors and their wives attended the festival and found it to be most entertaining. The governor of Maine at the time, Edmund Muskie, invited the important men to accompany him on a after-festival fishing trip on Moosehead Lake. Unfortunately, their official duties prevented them from going.  

Like many others, Helen Robinson of St. George grew up with the Maine Lobster Festival. She remembers going to the very first one in Rockland in 1948 with her parents. In 1952, she was a majorette in the parade, representing the St. George High School, and in the 1970s she took her daughter there, where she tried her first cotton candy.

“We had a good time. Saw a lot of people we knew, and a lot we didn’t. It was really exciting,” she recalled recently.

And the festival continues to be a draw to this day, bringing in 60,000 to 80,000 people per year, of all ages and backgrounds. Throughout its growth and changes, the annual Maine Lobster Festival continues to uphold its traditional goal: “To bring the attention of the public on Maine’s fishing industry and the quality of her seafood.”