Maine Lobster Festival head lobster cooker Peter Smith unloads a basketful of steamed lobsters August 1, 2012, in Rockland.

ROCKLAND, Maine ― What started as a way to support local lobstermen during the crustacean’s shedding season has now morphed into one of the largest festivals in Maine.

The 71st Maine Lobster Festival gets underway in Rockland this week for five days of all the lobster you can handle plus events including lobster crate races, a codfish carry competition and live entertainment.

“A lot of people might come down and beeline it right for their lobster dinner, but then they’re going to walk around and see something else for them,” said Celia Knight, a member of the Maine Lobster Festival board of directors.

Every year around the first weekend of August, the Maine Lobster Festival draws upward of 70,000 people to Harbor Park in Rockland. In its 71 years, the festival has grown into a draw for tourists and locals alike, bringing name acts such as Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks to Rockland, a city of about 7,000 people.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Lobster Festival

But the festival has humble beginnings, rooted in supporting local lobstermen who were in need of a market for soft-shell lobsters by offering a lobster price that was hard to turn down: $1 for all you could eat.

From about mid-July to mid-August, soft-shell lobsters are abundant in Maine waters, Knight said. While these lobsters are loved for their sweet meat, finding a market for them in the era before modern refrigerated transportation was difficult.

“The lobstermen were getting all these shedders and they couldn’t ship them,” Knight said. “[The Lobster Festival] was a way to get rid of the lobster.”

So in 1947, the first Maine Lobster Festival took place in Camden, offering attendees all the lobster they wanted for just a buck. Knight, whose mother was one of the founders of the festival, said in that first year, “it was just some people on the seawall eating some lobster.” However, from the beginning, the Lobster Festival always featured a parade and the Maine Sea Goddess coronation.

In 1948, the festival moved to its permanent home in Harbor Park. By the early 1950s, the festival had grown to a multiday event and moved away from the “$1 all you could eat” model. But the festival’s charter still maintains that the festival’s parade takes place on the first Saturday in August, keeping the festival forever rooted in the heart of shedder season.

Credit: Ashley L. Conti

“It was a way to promote the lobstermen, help them out and try to get a community effort back together again because it was just after the second world war,” said Cynthia Powell, the president of the Maine Lobster Festival. “It’s important that we continue to support the hardworking folks who farm the seas for this bounty.”

And it takes a big bounty to meet the lobster needs of the Maine Lobster Festival. Last year about 21,000 pounds of lobster were served at the festival, entirely sourced from Knox County haulers.

To get all this lobster out to festival goers, the festival boasts the world’s largest lobster cooker, a standing recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records, according to Powell. Running at maximum capacity, the lobster cooker can cook about 1,600 pounds of lobster at a time.

Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Lobster Festival

While the lobster might appear to be the star of the show, Powell and Knight are quick to say it’s the massive volunteer effort behind the Maine Lobster Festival that really embodies the spirit of the event.

The festival averages about 1,300 volunteers each year. They work for two weeks to get the show up and running. Some of these people use vacation time to volunteer for the festival.

“Our team of people gives a tremendous amount of time to make this work, and to give back [to the community,]” Powell said.

The Maine Lobster Festival begins Wednesday in Rockland, with gates opening at noon. A full schedule of events and entertainment runs through Sunday. Festival staples such as the arts and crafts tent and the seafood cooking competition are, of course, included in the line-up, and organizers noted that attendees will notice some new attractions this year.

The U.S. Navy’s USS Hue City will be anchored in Rockland Harbor for the duration of the festival, with tours of the ship being offered. And unlike previous years, all of the musical acts performing at this year’s festival are also Maine-based musicians.

“We really want to promote Maine,” Powell said.

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