The night before we visited 101-year-old Virginia Oliver at her home in Rockland, the state’s oldest licensed lobster harvester — and newest celebrity — had a Zoom call with a young reporter from Greece. “Young girl, nice-looking girl,” Oliver said the next day, sitting on a folding chair in her garage and chuckling. As for why she wanted to talk with an old woman who traps lobsters in midcoast Maine, Oliver couldn’t begin to guess. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think I’m anything too special.”
CBS Sunday Morning disagrees. So does the Boston Globe and NPR and the Associated Press and a host of other outlets that turned up this summer to chat with “an absolute legend,” as several Twitter users described Oliver during the surge of online adoration that followed the monsoon of media coverage. “Protect this icon at all costs,” one tweet implored. “I want to be this woman when I’m 101,” another declared. “The Force is strong with this lobsterwoman,” Star Wars actor Mark Hamill tweeted.
For Oliver and her 78-year-old son, Max, who lives down the block and hauls traps with his mom three days a week, it’s all a little perplexing. They seem neither flattered nor put out by the sudden burst of publicity, just wryly amused. Oliver started fishing daily with her late husband, Bill, in the early ’70s. She started going out with Max in 2005, after Bill retired from it and shortly before he died at age 90. Over the last few years, she and Max have gotten some local news coverage here and there, but this season was the first time they’ve had more than a half-dozen photographers and video crews joining them on their 34-foot boat.
The boat’s called Virginia, and it’s tied up in Spruce Head, three-ish miles across the Muscle Ridge Channel from an island called The Neck, where Oliver, born in Rockland, spent summers growing up. The Neck is connected at low tide to larger Andrews Island, part of the Muscle Ridge islands, and it’s where Oliver’s dad caught lobsters with wooden traps when she was a girl. When she was all of seven or eight, she learned to haul and pilot a boat from her dad and brother. During the school year, she lived with an aunt in Rockland, on the same street where she lives now, but for as long as she can remember, she always loved being on the water — helping her dad on the boat never felt like a chore.
These days, she and Max fish three days a week, May through November. They get up around three in the morning (“I try to get to bed by 10,” Oliver says), then load up the truck and drive eight miles to Spruce Head, Oliver often behind the wheel. (Next to her in the garage was a ’76 Oldsmobile Cutlass, covered with a drop cloth, that she says she drives to Belfast once a year or so, ceremonially.) They load up gear and bait (pogies), step into their bibs, and head to the fishing grounds, Max typically at the helm. He pulls traps (they each have their own, plus a tank with a partition to keep their hauls separated), while Oliver preps bait and works the sorting table: measuring bugs, tossing back shorts or notched ones, notching any egg-bearing females. The most stoic of sternmen might nonetheless acknowledge that this can be monotonous, uncomfortable work. Not Oliver, though.
“It’s really not work to me,” she says. “It’s just what I do. I like to do it. I wouldn’t go if I didn’t want to.”
For years, she worked at home, raising four kids, until the youngest was nine, then she put in almost 19 years at a Rockland printing plant, hoisting 55-pound cartons around the factory floor. “I got tired of that,” she says. “Decided lobstering, I wouldn’t have to work half as hard, and I could be my own boss.” She left the plant one day and was at home when Bill came in off the water. “He said, ‘I thought you went to work?’” she remembers. “I said, ‘I did. I just quit. I’m going with you.’”
Lobstering hasn’t fundamentally changed in the nine decades she’s been doing it, although Oliver is no longer as conspicuous an outlier as a woman in the industry. “A lot of women go out now,” she says, “but when I started, no women were going except for me.” And did any of the men on the waterfront ever give her or her husband a hard time about it? “Nah,” she waves away the thought. “I’d have told them off if they did.”
Rockland has changed around her, of course. The fish-processing plants are gone. Oliver remembers when the town seemed bursting with mom-and-pop businesses — five shoe stores, two or three hardware stores, department stores downtown — all since replaced. “Can’t buy anything in Rockland these days,” she shrugs. “It’s all art galleries.” As for the town’s future, she doesn’t hazard a prediction.
“Oh god, hard tellin’,” she sighs. “Everything changes all the time. It’s always going to. Doesn’t bother me much one way or the other, really.”
In general, she doesn’t spend much time pining for the old days or indulging in nostalgia. Point out to her that plenty of folks her age find comfort reminiscing about how things used to be, and she only laughs. “Yeah, well, I can’t bother with that,” she says. She’s slightly more reflective about changes she’s seen in the lobster fishery. “Not a lot of lobsters now — used to be a lot years ago,” she says. “It’s all a gamble — you never know if you’re going to get any. I think it’s a poor business for anybody to get into now.”
All the same, her one piece of advice for the generations behind her — which she will only offer if really, really pressed — is that a person has to get into something. And if it’s something they love, then so much the better. “You just better work hard, not just sit around doing nothing,” she says. “You know, if you don’t keep moving, then you’re not going to be able to do nothing. And that’s not even living.”