1949 Sea Goddess recalls festival pastSigne Swanholm Gardner has been selected to be the lobster festival parade marshal
Rockland — Signe Swanholm Gardner, the 1949 Sea Goddess, has been selected to lead the 2012 Maine Lobster Festival parade. This is her second nomination. During her first parade as grand marshal, she facetiously requested a "good-looking redhead in a blue Corvette" as an escort and was not disappointed. "That was something else," she said. This year, she would like to ride in an antique car. "I was born in 1931, so a nice '31 Woody would be nice," she said.
Gardner said her selection as parade marshal is an honor that gives her great joy. The festival, she said, has grown in volume and organization since the early years. "People look forward to it," she said. "It's one of the best festivals in the nation."
Gardner was born in Thomaston on Thatcher Street, where she played baseball with neighborhood kids and her family didn't own a car. "Things were quite different, we entertained ourselves," she said. "We were taught to be totally responsible for our actions. It gave me a great deal of independence. It was the Scandinavian attitude," she said.
Gardner's parents were Norwegian immigrants that met in Rockport.
Growing up in Thomaston during World War II, Gardner said families used blackout curtains to block the light. Wardens would walk the streets to check that houses were sufficiently dim. "We had food stamps, gasoline rationing, no butter and little sugar," she said. There was a manufactured product made to resemble butter the family used. "You would put it in a dish and dump in yellow coloring to make it look like butter," she recalled.
"What was most interesting was that my father's family was still in Norway," she said. The Germans occupied Norway during the war. "There was a lot of trauma. They [her parents] would receive letters and cry. My mother would try to send special things and care packages. We were more involved than most people," she said.
Gardner can read Norwegian and traveled there in her retirement to visit cousins, 71 cousins in all who were eager to host their American relative, shuttling her around the country. "It was just fascinating," she said. "I traveled almost 6,000 miles from the southernmost tip of Norway to the north." Her parents, however, didn't teach their children Norwegian, feeling it would set them apart from classmates. "When they spoke Norwegian, you knew it was something you weren't supposed to know," she said.
Her father was a carpenter and Gardner wanted to be an architect. "But, that was not allowed in those days. Girls had to be a housewife or a teacher, not an engineer," she said. So she's always considered herself a carpenter of cloth.
Gardner said the reason she won the title — called Miss Maine Seafoods in 1949 — is because she made her dress, and that impressed the judges. "I had always been sewing since the seventh grade. It has always been an interest of mine," she said. The dress was white eyelet, with a sculptured top and a huge full-length skirt. "It took me an hour and a half to make, I'm very fast," she said.
Gardner said the experience was fun until she became embarrassed from the attention. "It took me a long time to get over that feeling," she said. The prize for winning included a trip to Virginia for the Eastern States Seafood Festival and another festival in Massachusetts with the potato queen, blueberry queen, apple queen and Miss Maine. "I've got a picture of all of us in suits, no see-through stuff then. Probably 90 degrees in the shade," she said.
Gardner's sea goddess legacy still trails her. Last year at a concert, somebody asked if she was the sea goddess in 1949. "It wasn't somebody I knew, he wasn't a classmate," she said.
Gardner, the only person in her class of 25 to attend college, was accepted to study at the University of Maine at Orono, where she spent two years. She planned to study clothing design and still has the tuition receipt for $400.
She married and had a family shortly after her two years at university.
While raising a family, she started a tailoring business, making slipcovers and tailoring clothes at home so she could spend time with her four daughters. Gardner also did custom work and interior decorating for Margo Moore in Camden, where her clients included celebrities.
Eventually, Gardner went back to school and finished her degree. For 12 years, she taught kindergarten through third grade in local schools. "I enjoyed it so much," she said.
Gardner has always been an active philanthropic citizen, volunteering in a variety of ways through her church and Beta Sigma Phi, a social sorority she's been a member of for 56 years. "I'm trying to be helpful to other people, sharing my abilities and talents to contribute," she said.
Gardner has 10 grandchildren and one great-grandson. "We have a huge family that keeps us very busy," she said. "I call it life on life's terms, never a dull moment."
She said she's been fortunate to pursue her many interests. "It keeps me young at heart," Gardner said.
The lobster festival parade will be held Saturday, Aug. 4 at 10 a.m. The parade starts at the high school on Broadway and travels down North Main Street onto Main Street and ends at the main entrance to the festival. The 2012 Sea Goddess Coronation is scheduled for Aug. 1 at 8 p.m.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-440 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.