Over the years, my wife and I had adopted Boothbay Harbor’s annual Fishermen’s Festival as our spring tradition. This year we were excited to introduce our friend Emily to this festive, yet venerated gathering.
A former fisherman out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, we knew she would revel in the day’s festivities. But as we pulled into Boothbay Harbor on April 22, we found something out of the ordinary: desolation on what is normally a rowdy day. The town was as dead as it is in the heart of winter.
The barista at a local coffee shop informed us with a heavy-hearted, remorseful response that the festival had been “canceled indefinitely.” Apparently, the cancellation happened in January, but the website we checked for event information hadn’t been updated.
So we drove away deflated, in search of another adventure to fill this void. It’s hard to accept the loss of a tradition, even if it isn’t your town.
My wife and I are — were — outsiders to this festival. We attended this event for almost 10 years, and it represented something special. Aside from the events and entertainment that punctuated the day, or the fish fry that ushered in the hours of imbibing and live music, this gathering represented community and an occupation interwoven into the very fabric of the town.
This festival reaffirmed Boothbay Harbor’s deep connection to the perilous fishing trade. It was also the last hurrah for locals before their town was inundated with tourists and part-time workers for the few months of Maine’s best weather. Winter was over, yet summer wasn’t quite here yet, so this was their town for just a little bit longer.
Jubilant and somber
The Fishermen’s Festival began over 40 years ago, and it had never skipped a season. The events changed with the profession over the years, morphing with the evolution of the fishing trade. In recent years, lobstering was the main focus — just as it has been in Maine.
The festival’s three days included the jubilant — including the haddock dinner and Shrimp Princess Pageant — and the somber. On Sunday afternoon, the festival’s last day, a crowd would gather around the Fishermen’s Memorial on the east side of the harbor and honor those who were lost at sea — an unfortunate inevitability of any fishing village. The 229 names etched on the memorial were read aloud with a bell toll for each.
This ceremony will continue, along with the blessing of the fleet, just at a later date.
The more raucous Saturday events, however, seem to be consigned to history.
Saturday’s events began early in the morning: a pancake breakfast preceding the codfish relay races, the bait-shoveling race, head-to-head lobster trap-hauling competitions, the lobster crate race and a dory bailing contest. Throngs of spectators would line the wharfs, piers, floats and catwalks to gawk and sympathetically shiver as fleet-footed youths ran from crate to crate, braving the chill waters of the harbor.
One year, a catwalk collapsed under the weight of attendees watching the event. No one was hurt, and a big roar arose from the crowd, like those on an amusement park ride, going over the first rise of the tracks. Undaunted, the mirth carried on.
A local restaurant would open its doors that evening for the annual fish fry — tender, white, flaky, beer-battered slabs of cod or haddock, a soft bun, homemade potato chips and a dill pickle to round it all off. Mudslides would pour liberally, as would beer from the tap. This was a day of excitement and fun, of competition, and a reminder that all in the community share in this tradition one way or another. No pun intended, they’re all in the same boat.
In 2015 when my wife and I attended the Fishermen’s Festival, we noticed something different: a languid feel to the event. There just wasn’t as much enthusiasm. Our friends who live in Boothbay Harbor noticed this as well and lamented a change. Something was lacking. The streets were visibly emptier than in prior years. The events were quick because of low participation, and the mudslide machine was gone.
Locals asserted it was the long, snow-filled winter. It had inspired much of the population to escape that week to warmer weather destinations. Others simply lamented a change, without explanation. Whatever the reason, the festival was a shadow of its former self.
If we only knew then that it would be its last year.
The ‘real’ Boothbay Harbor
The January article in the Boothbay Register cited many reasons for the event’s cancellation: lack of participation, lack of support for the younger generation of fishermen, changes in the fishing industry.
It is disappointing to see something like this fade away into oblivion. I always felt like I saw the real Boothbay Harbor in those few moments, as if the curtain was pulled back to expose the wizard beneath all the tchotchkes and neon T-shirts hanging in store windows. I saw a community of residents, not a tourist destination.
Tradition is somewhat fickle. It only takes a few factors to disrupt what once was: a change in social dynamics, a metamorphosis in culture, technological advances.
Still, those changes left my wife and me with heavy hearts as we rolled into an empty desolate downtown this year, forced to say goodbye to the Boothbay Harbor Fishermen’s Festival.
Spring just won’t be the same.
David Jester is a writer, world traveler and firefighter/paramedic who lives in Brunswick. He is a guest contributor to a collaborative writing site Drinkers With Writing Problems, and he has a blog with the Bangor Daily News, “To New England…and Beyond.”