A mystery bag, a blizzard, and a tradition is born

Almost a hundred years ago, Charley Wakely was a young man and kept a sweetshop on the main street of Lisbon Falls. The community was as prosperous as Maine villages went in those days, and while Charley had a good thing, he was by nature easygoing. His was to remain a one-man business.

He owned the only marble sody-fountain in town, with the wire tables and chairs du jour. He served banana splits and "frappes" in genteel style. "Coke" may have been known then, but not in Lisbon Falls, and Charley offered "five fruit," a beverage using five fruit flavors. A dash of the syrup in a glass of carbonated water was a five-fruit unless you asked for a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it, and then you had a Buffalo Cooler.

I emphasize that these were the good old days, a century ago. Charley made various candies, also cream puffs and bismarcks that he served from the fountain. He didn't serve meals, but would sometimes make a sandwich if you asked pretty-please.

Not every Saturday, but sometimes, Charley baked beans, and sold them to take out in the same waxed containers he used to sell ice cream. Charley had a very secret recipe for tutti-frutti ice cream that he froze by hand-crank, and it was the favorite throughout the land. You couldn't get it anyplace else.

And one late February day, nigh a century ago, Charley opened as usual. The wind backed in Northeast, and the weather shut down for a storm. By noon it was snowing hard.

Brittle, stinging snowflakes scraped at the big front window, and Charley could scarcely see halfway across the street. The thermometer went kerplunk. It was no day to sell ice cream, and Charley thought he might as well close early, before things got hip deep. With this in mind, he was tidying his little pantry and setting dishes in the cupboard when somebody opened the shop's front door off the sidewalk and stuck in his head.

Charley couldn't see, as he had his head in the cupboard. He didn't recognize the voice. It was somebody who knew Charley well enough to call him by name. "Charley!" the voice said. "All right if I leave this here till car time?"

Maine was once crisscrossed by electric trolley lines, and Lisbon Falls had a car each way every hour on the Androscoggin & Kennebec. Charley said, "Eyah," and knew somebody about to take the next trolley had left a bundle to be picked up later. Whoever it was, he never returned. Charley finished in his pantry, got into his boots and mackinaw, and was about to lock up when he saw the burlap grain bag.

That's what the man had left. Curious, Charley looked inside, and the bag had maybe two dozen live lobsters, running, Charley guessed, about 1-1/2 pounds apiece.

Live lobsters are perishable, and these could not be left on the floor of a warm sweetshop overnight. What to do? Where was the man? Who was he? Charley squinted out the door into the storm and saw nothing but snow.

He did the decent thing. He took the bag into his back room, lit his kerosene stove, put on his biggest kettle, and cooked off the orphaned lobsters. He drained the kettle and set it in a cool place. Tomorrow would be another day. Charley waded home.

The next day was beautiful. A foot of new snow made the world clean, and a clear sunrise made everyone glad. When Charley got to his shop, the other storekeepers were shoveling their sidewalks, and he joined them.

Then Charley had to do something about them-there boiled lobsters. Somebody had to pick out the meat. The man, whoever he was, would sure be grateful to Charley for the favor.

Two-dozen 1-1/2-pound lobsters make a considerable bowl of picked-out meat. It was going on noon when Charley finished and wiped his hands. He hadn't been interrupted because the new snow kept folks under cover, and it wasn't a day for dipping ice cream. He wished the man would come and get his lobster meat. It would soon spoil unless....

Just short of noon, Charley Wakely went next door to the Heistermann market to get milk and butter to make a lobster stew. When he got it mulling, he went up and down the business section to invite the storekeepers, the lawyer, the post-office crew, and a few others to Wakely's Sweetshop for noonin' with lobster stew.

This was hard to resist, and nobody tried. Charley told them to bring chairs if they wanted to eat sitting down.

So that morning after the snowstorm, lawyer Louis A. Jack said to Charley, "Charley, we'll chip in and buy the lobsters any time you want to do that again." This was the beginning of the Lisbon Lobster Club (No. 1), and it has met on the last Friday of every month since.

In my time I became a member and (as I was never expelled) I still am, albeit removed and inactive. The sole purpose of the club is the gastronomic extinction of the Maine lobster. While this has not been accomplished in the first century, inroads have been made and the future promises success.

The membership has been limited to 30, and vacancies are filled in about two minutes. It is easily the oldest of the meet-to-eat sodalities, with several years on Rotary. There has been a ladies' offshoot, called the Lobsterettes, which functions from time to time, and I don't know what they do.

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