For those of us growing up in Rockland in the late 1940s through the ‘50s, the Maine Lobster Festival was the premier event every summer. From the crowning of the sea goddess to the appearance of King Neptune, the Saturday morning parade, the consumption of lobsters from the world’s largest lobster cooker, and the growing variety of other activities at the public landing — the festival was essentially a volunteer-produced celebration of Rockland as what was known as the lobster capital of the world that brought the community together and poured lots of people from around the state and from away into the city as well. When the festival was in the black, proceeds helped to fund a variety of community projects and organizations. While the inaugural Lobster Festival was held in Camden in 1947, the event shifted to Rockland the following year. Rockland has been the festival’s home for an unbroken string of 62 years.

However, in 1990 it appeared that the unbroken string might end at 42. On March 1 of that year came the announcement from the festival board that the upcoming Lobster Festival would be canceled “for lack of community support.” In explaining the board’s decision, President Frank Smith noted that the festival had lost money the previous year and thus lacked the funds to pay the startup costs for the 1990 undertaking. In addition, he lamented that the pool of volunteers required to handle the festival’s many chores had diminished to an unacceptably low number.

The announcement was greeted with shock and surprise and immediately produced an outcry to reverse the decision. The Courier-Gazette was a central chronicler of the community’s conversation on this emotional topic. A brief sampling: “If the festival is gone even for one year, it is gone forever.” … “How could they do this to Rockland?” … “‘The Lobster Festival is dead; long live the Lobster Festival!’ may indeed be an accurate description of the rallying cry that went out around Rockland following announcement [of the board’s decision].”

Within two weeks it became clear that a grassroots effort to save the festival was firmly under way and that the show would go on the first weekend in August as it had since moving to Rockland in 1948. As reported in The Courier-Gazette in mid-March, “The festival’s board voted unanimously [to reverse its earlier decision and] to hold the event in 1990. The vote, which came without debate, followed an hour-long meeting attended by about 100 area citizens and the Rockland Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.”

And go on it did, producing this headline and comment in The Courier-Gazette in early August: “WHAT A FESTIVAL: ATTENDANCE. LOBSTER SALES BEAT ALL RECORDS … A renewed spirit of volunteerism and sunny skies resulted in a smashing success for the 1990 born-again Maine Lobster Festival. ‘It was super, the best one in years,’ said long-time festival vice president Alice Knight.”

What the people involved in the 1990 effort could not know at the time was that in the succeeding 19 years the festival would become bigger, better and substantially more widely known — resulting in national media attention, attendance growth from about 20,000 to close to 100,000 people annually, and the bottom-line revenue to make gifts totaling more than $600,000 to an impressive variety of community enterprises cumulatively over that span of years — including major improvements to the Public Landing/Harbor Park, the location for the Lobster Festival and other major community events and the gateway to Rockland’s proud harbor.

Many community members share in the revitalization of the Maine Lobster Festival. As Alice Knight said, “When the crisis hit, it seemed like over half the city came out to help keep the festival going.” One of those people wanting to help was Joanne Billington, who noted that “many people asked what they could do and took on jobs that matched their skills and talents.”

To name everyone who played a significant role in this success story risks omitting one or more people. However, this story cannot conclude without singling out the person who was recognized by his peers as the galvanizing leadership force behind the spectacular resurgence of the Maine Lobster Festival — native son and local auto dealer Ed Kolmosky. When asked why he stepped forward, Ed said, “Growing up my family and friends looked forward to the festival every summer and to celebrating Rockland as the lobster capital of the world. I wanted that community celebration to continue.” It was Ed who rallied his friends to attend the emergency meetings that led to reversing the board’s original decision and who then enlisted them to play major volunteer roles in both the 1990 and subsequent festivals. Ed served as president of the festival board of directors for 10 years between 1992 and 2004, and remained involved as a volunteer well beyond that time.

“Ed was the driving force behind the turnaround,” said veteran board member Gil Merriam. “His network of contacts locally and around the state proved invaluable. He led by example. No one worked harder than Ed, which in turn inspired others to do the same. And he made it fun! I’ve never been involved with an organization that had a better esprit de corps than the group of volunteer leaders that coalesced around re-energizing the Lobster Festival. Ed Kolmosky set the tone.”

Dedication to the Lobster Festival runs in the Kolmosky family. Ed’s daughter Tammy has been on the board for 18 years, serving as president in 2009. The current president is Ed’s son-in-law Tim Carroll.

In an effort to promote Rockland as “the coolest small town in America” in 2008, Gov. John Baldacci said, “[Rockland] has become a cultural destination, its residents and community members care for each other and give back to the area in which they live.” Ed Kolmosky and all of the other people who played a part in saving and revitalizing the Maine Lobster Festival epitomize the governor’s remarks and are hereby saluted as local heroes.

John Bird is a retired independent school educator and leader and nationally recognized consultant to nonprofit organizations who grew up in Rockland and now lives in Spruce Head. He currently serves as board chairman of the Island Institute and as a board member of several other organizations, including the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education.