Ace Reporter Covers The Lobster Wars

THINGS have changed in the Maine lobster fishery, too, and I'll explain as I go along. I haven't had word of an out-and-out lobster war for some time - such as erupted now and then in the golden years. Lobster fishers aren't the kind to bring their problems into court, and sometimes they didn't even bring them ashore. It was in 1928 as I recall that a fuss over the rights to Major Razor Island waters erupted and set brother against brother, so to speak, and left heads cracked and hearts broken and gear fouled all up and down the bay.

As often happened with these animosities, everybody soon forgot what started the ruckus, but the exercises went on and on. The Sea & Shore wardens were trying to sort things out, but warring lobstermen are hard to pin down as to what goes on ``down below,'' and the general carnage continued.

I had my summer job with the Porland Evening News, and Dr. Ernest Gruening was the editor. Later, he went to the Virgin Islands as governor, and after that to Alaska, and he was Alaska's first senator after statehood. He had a ``style sheet'' for the News - a list of rules to give consistency to the reporters' writing.

Dr. Gruening was an ``upstyle'' rather than ``downstyle'' - we wrote Main Street instead of Main street, and Sebasticook River rather than Sebasticook river. And we always wrote ``automobile.'' In the other papers people rode in cars, but in the News they always drove automobiles.

Dr. Gruening had me in his office one morning and asked me to go to Major Razor Island and look into the lobster war. I had read ``A Message to Garcia'' by Elbert Hubbard, so I said yes-sir and took off. I had no idea where Major Razor Island was at or how to get there.

It is what Mainers call a ``rock,'' and nobody really lives there. The waters around it are fished well for lobsters and shrimp, and for groundfish, and there are small buildings to stay in and house gear, but the people involved are from ``the main'' and come and go. There are wharves, and a great many lobster cars in which the crustaceans are stored until a smack comes to buy them.

Those were the days of ``well smacks.'' The planking of a smack would have holes in it so ocean water could enter, and with a hold full of live lobsters off the smack would go to Boston, Portland, New Bedford. The huge slatted cars floated a short row from the wharves, and at times tons upon tons of stored lobsters would wait for the well smacks to come. Sometimes a well smack was called a wet smack.

I had some trouble finding a lobsterman who would take me out to Major Razor, as none wanted to get mixed up in the hassle, and when I did get out to the island I stood on one or another lobster car trying to tease stories out of the embroiled fishermen, who were pleasant enough but close-mouthed. I never heard ``Well, I dunno ...'' said so much before or after, and while every lobsterman knew perfectly well none of them would say more than I-dunno.

I never missed a meal while I was there, and got more invitations to share than I could take on, but if I tried to turn the remarks to the lobster war I would see jaws set, and hear ``I dunno.''

I had expected to get my stories back to the mainland by the kindness of a lobster smack or some fisherman going in for a night with his family, but I found a ham radio operator who had his ``shack'' over the wharf where he bought lobsters for Consolidated - the big city buyer of those days. Sure, he'd be glad to get my stories to the News.

He transmitted, he told me, by the same thing as a 10-meter ground wave and the power from the battery in his boat. He didn't get much distance, but the inspectors from the Federal Communications Commission couldn't hear him and didn't know he was on the air. He had never bothered to take out a license.

So the stories arrived, one a day, in the News office through another ham at Pemaquid who intercepted and forwarded. Whatever the 10-meter ground wave may have been, it worked well, and I was on the front page of the News every afternoon that week. It was a strange kind of fun to handwrite each day's article and then sit in kerosene lamplight and watch my story being dotted and dashed - ditt-dah-ditt-dah-dah-ditt. Quite an experience for a young college kid.

The lobster war subsided soon after that. There were some further incidents, but nothing that needed the attention of a trained-seal journalist from the big city. Some trap warps cut, and a head or two peened, but no permanent casualties. I said farewell and caught a ride to Rockland on a well smack. Dr. Gruening said he was pleased, and I found all my lobster cars were changed to automobiles.

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