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Travel and Culture: Fishermen's Festival in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

By Cornelia Seckel
ART TIMES May online 2013

Cornelia, Jacky, Jörg, Raymond on the deck at Welch House Inn
Cornelia, Jacky, Jörg, Raymond on the deck at Welch House InnWelch House Inn Boothbay Maine
The Welch House Inn, Boothbay, Maine

When we arrived in Boothbay Harbor, Maine to spend a few days with our friends from Berlin, Germany, I had decided that this would really be a “time off”. Well that didn’t last that long as I became immersed in the festivities of the 40th Annual Fishermen’s Festival which culminated with the Blessing of the Fleet. Jacky & Jörg visit Maine (as well as spending time with us in our home) each time they come to the US. Aside from Jacky’s love of lobster, they just love the Maine Coast and the ambiance of the Down Easter milieu.

We stayed at the Welch House Inn, a lovely old rambling home built in the 1870’s that has had boarders since 1922. Michael and Susan, our hosts, did everything they could to make our stay a pleasure. Breakfasts on the terrace (it finally was warm enough to sit outside on our last morning), relaxing with a glass of wine in the comfortable “living room” while enjoying the view of Boothbay Harbor, the comfort of our room and the friendliness of other guests made this a delightful getaway.

Welch House Boothbay Maine

Cornelia eating oysters
Oyster Shucking Contest
Lobster eating contest
Lobster Eating Contest

Fishermen’s Festivals aren’t unique to this fishing village. A quick look at a google search shows Festivals in Seattle, Washington; Bodega Bay, California; Astoria, Oregon; in Massachusetts: New Bedford, Gloucester, Boston and many more. Most likely, every fishing village has some festival. The idea is to celebrate the commercial fishermen: to honor and bless them, as they are the center of the community. These festivals are very much community-based, often with only visitors from nearby communities — we were just fortunate to be there.

Friday began the Festival and scheduled for early evening was a Shrimp Princess Pageant at the High School, an event for girls 9-12. All the proceeds of the various events went to the Fishermen’s Memorial Fund. Saturday morning events included a Pancake Breakfast, Cod Fish Relay Race, Bait Shoveling Race, Trap Hauling Competition, Chalk Art, an Arts and Crafts show, Lobster Crate Running & Tug of War. For the Lobster Crate Running, children ran along lobster crates that were tied together and secured on 2 different docks. The children that fell into the water were quickly scooped out and rubbed down with a warm towel. We all had lessons in Oyster Shucking and I participated and was not quite the last to shuck 6 oysters in one of the contests. It takes a lot of practice and focus. It was great fun.

burnt Island Lighthouse
Burnt Island Lighthouse The Muise daughters in their home on Burnt Island
The Muise Daughters in the Kitchen

After an excellent breakfast at the Welch House we were able to secure tickets on the boat Novelty and went to Burnt Island to tour the lighthouse and learn about the life of the lighthouse keepers. The town of Boothbay—originally known as Townsend and encompassing an area that now includes the towns of Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, and Southport—was a center for shipbuilding, gristmills, and fishing in the 1700s. The lighthouse was built in 1821 and a dedicated group of volunteers have worked to restore the house and grounds so that they are an exceptional educational facility. Interpreter-actors portray a lighthouse family (Joseph and Annie Muise and their 3 daughters) who lived on the island in the 1950’s. The girls talked about taking a boat to the mainland for school and staying with their grandmother during the winter months. The mother was wearing an apron so reminiscent of the sewing project I did in the 9th grade. Before there were roads, up to 200 boats might come into the harbor each night. It was a great responsibility to keep the kerosene container filled and as I recall, the lighthouse keeper would have to get up every 4 hours to replenish the fuel tank. In April 1962, Burnt Island Light became the last lighthouse in New England to be converted from kerosene to electricity. In 1988, it became one of the last Maine lights to be automated. Today light is produced by a modern 300mm lens.

Fishing boat procession
Procession of the Lobster Boats Blessing of the Fleet boothbay, Maine
Area Clergy Blessing the Fleet

After the tour of the lighthouse we re-boarded the Novelty and motored back into the harbor. 30 or 40 commercial fishing lobster boats passed us and lined up outside the harbor for the procession preceding the Blessing of the Fleet. A memorial service was held, reminding us of the dangers of this work. The names of lost seaman are read as a bell tolls. The boats circled the harbor passing the Fishermen’s Memorial and navigated past a dock where several local clergy tossed holy water on each boat in this moving Blessing of the Fleet. After all had been blessed, lobster fishermen joined together at one of the local watering holes for tall tales from anyone willing to tell a good fish story.

I was encouraged to return to Boothbay for Windjammer Days held at the end of June. Windjammers sail into the harbor and this year will mark the 51st Anniversary with a street parade, craft show, fireworks, antique boat parade and waterfront concerts. In the winter, the Harbor Lights Festival takes place on December 7th with usual winter/ Christmas activities. Early in April is the Annual Maritime History Symposium. Of course I also explored the arts and met up with several artists and learned about the plein air painters groupfrom Corinne McIntyre whose lovely gallery was along a fabulous scenic ride to Ocean Point. Corinne said that one of the reasons the group is so successful is that there are no rules, dues or expectations. Word goes out that a group will be painting on a given day, and whoever wants to, shows up with their paints. The Boothbay Region Art Foundation Gallery offers classes and workshops and has 4 exhibition spaces. This is a membership gallery that began in the 1960’s and continues to grow with over 200 members. The Annual Photography Show was hanging and the work was quite excellent. I visited Gleason Fine Art and saw some very fine work. This is quite a classy gallery and I was pleased to spend a bit of time with Dennis Gleason, one of the owner/ directors. There weren’t many other galleries open as we were a month away from the “season”. As with most arts communities there is a “First Friday Art Tour” which seems to run most of the year. There are theatres with performance, music festivals and concerts. We were just too early to visit the Botanical Gardens.

Taking a look at the Maine Gallery & Studio Guide ( published by Anthony and Suzanne Anderson clued me into the vast number of artists in Maine as did, an online resource for artists. This isn’t a surprise, what with Skowhegan, an intensive nine-week summer residency program for emerging visual artists established in 1946. Monhegan Island, a small, rocky island ten miles from the nearest mainland and scarcely a square mile in area, is accessible only by boat and there are no cars or paved roads on the Island. For more than 100 years, Monhegan has been a summer haven for artists who appreciate its isolation, the beauty of its wilderness areas, its quiet, relaxed atmosphere, and unhurried pace. The gorgeous coastline and splendid light is a paradise for artists and surely for the rest of us who just love the quiet, the ocean views, the rocky coast, the lobster and the ease of living.

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