ROCKLAND — It was just going to be a simple video for historical purposes. A Rockland lady, aged 99, still lobstering. No one expected the story to gain much interest beyond the small project. Instead, it went viral and international. With a new picture book about her out this week, and a National Geographic “Tools of the Trade” spread on newsstands using pictures of lobster gear owned by the family, 103-year-old Virginia Oliver has no idea how much of a celebrity she has become, according to Wayne Gray. But, the Rockland Historical Society has a pretty good idea.
“We thought we were doing this for her,” said RHS president Brian Harden. “It turns out, she was doing this for us.”
Tuesday, June 6, RHS celebrated Oliver’s birthday number 103 (June 6, 1920) with a lobster themed cake and plenty of flashing cameras.
Oliver, who has a lifetime membership to the Historical Society, flipped the pages of the new book for the first time during the party. Published by Random House, the book not only tells the Lobster Lady’s story in greater detail than the first picture book, it depicts the old post office and other recognizable Rockland landmarks using colorful illustrations.
Oliver’s story begins when she is 7 or 8 years old, lobstering with her father – not another female in sight. She held jobs on land well into adulthood and marriage life until one day she simply quit and eventually made her way back to the sea. These days she goes out three days a week with her son Max, who is one of her four children.
The ocean is her home, but she’s there to work. Even her straight-forward talk carries a no-nonsense approach. When asked today what her favorite part of lobstering is, she doesn’t mince words.
“I like to go by everybody. Don’t stop,” she said. “Wave. Keep going. No lingering around.”
Harden calls Oliver an emblem of the hardworking people of Maine. Her 95 years of off and on lobstering has been duly noted.
Emblem, she has become.
The original video produced by Wayne Gray and Dale Schierholt when Oliver was 99 led to a spot on NewsCenter Maine’s “207” with Beth McAvoy, who had been trying for two years to get an interview before Gray suggested the story to the station. Next came CBS Sunday Morning with Steve Hartman; the Today’s Show (who came here, interviewed her in Gray’s home, and filmed her as she rode in the Lobster Festival Parade); then Boston’s Channel 5. She’s also been featured in Down East Magazine.
The real surprise came when a German television network contacted Gray and asked to interview Oliver. The German producers flew to Maine and spent several days with her, filming her one day at a lobster bake near Crescent Beach. That filming, which required translators for both Oliver, Max, and a narrator, was watched by a million people in that country.
In the beginning, it was simply a notion. John Ware was aware of a lady in the South End who was still lobstering at age 99. Dick Carver knew the lady personally and was recruited to break the ice and ask if she’d do the Historical Society video.
To the surprise of the RHS film makers, she agreed.
And the eyes of the world zeroed in on little Rockland, Maine.
“I never expected this,” said Oliver.
Note: At this time, the Historical Society does not know where the new books are being sold. The copy that Oliver perused was sent directly to Gray from Random House. The previous book and original video are available for purchase at RHS during their regular hours of operation: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 12 - 5 p.m.
Reach Sarah Thompson at email@example.com