The Auburn Lobster Festival Sure Seems to Have Legs

The idea for a celebration of Maine's famous crustacean in the inland city began as an April Fools’ Day gag in 2021.

Lobster claw with a stack of pictures of the Androscoggin River
By Joel Crabtree
From our May 2024 issue

Auburn is at least half an hour’s drive to the coast, and its economy was long tied not to the ocean but to the tumbling Androscoggin River, which powered all sorts of mills, from textile to brick to furniture. For the first half of the 20th century, the city was known for making shoes, at one point producing as many as 70,000 per day. Nowadays, it’s home to an attractive downtown with a nice smattering of restaurants and a pleasant riverfront trail. At no point in its history was Auburn ever connected in anyone’s mind with Maine’s most famous product: lobster. That fact, however, didn’t stop the inaugural Auburn Lobster Festival from launching last year. 

a lobster roll with french fries and lemon wedges
“Love that landlocked river lobster!” a commentator joked on Auburn’s official Facebook page, where the idea for a lobster festival in the inland city began as an April Fools’ Day gag in 2021. Photo by Danielle Sykes

Considering how unlikely a host Auburn seems for a lobster festival, it’s probably not a big surprise that the event started as a joke. On April Fools’ Day, in 2021, the city’s director of communications, Liz Allen, thought a fun gag would be to post an announcement on Auburn’s official Facebook page for a local lobster festival happening that summer. She included an altered photograph that showed a lobsterboat puttering along near the falls between Auburn and Lewiston. “We’ll be serving up local lobsters fresh from the mighty Androscoggin River,” the post teased. “Let’s get crackin’, Auburn!”

Things snowballed from there. City officials wanted to introduce a new anchor event to the community anyway, and in brainstorming sessions, joking around about the fictitious lobster fest gradually grew less jokey. Auburn downtown coordinator Jennifer Boenig says she was skeptical at first. A lobster festival in Auburn would make about as much sense as a potato-blossom festival in Portland. But she came around. “Why can’t we do this?” she remembers thinking. “We’re not trying to replicate or take away from any of the other coastal events that occur, but there’s no reason why central Maine can’t celebrate too.”

Last spring, 4,000 people came out for the first Auburn Lobster Festival — not the tens of thousands that attend Rockland’s long-running Maine Lobster Festival, but hardly a bottom-feeder on the events circuit, especially in its first year. In addition to plenty of steamed lobsters and lobster rolls (including a seated, ticketed lobster dinner put on by the local Exchange Club), the fest featured live music, food trucks (serving more than just lobster), pours from local breweries, and a buoy-painting contest. 

This spring, the festival is returning with a similar lineup, plus some additions. Representatives from University of Maine’s Lobster Institute will be bringing a tank of off-the-menu lobsters, to use for educational demonstrations about lobster anatomy and behavior. Lobster-claw headbands will be handed out. Someone will be hanging out in a full-body lobster mascot costume. No word yet on whether any vendors will serve what are sometimes affectionately known as Lewiston Lobsters — the famous Maine hot dogs made with snappy natural casings dyed an unnatural shade of red, but it sure seems like a good idea (note: those hot dogs get their own festival later in the summer, in Dexter). 

People have occasionally asked Boenig where the lobsters come from for the Auburn Lobster Festival. “I tell them the Androscoggin,” she says. “But we get the lobster where everyone else gets lobster: the ocean.” Cheekiness seems baked into the local government. Since 2021, the city’s official Facebook page has continued with April Fools’ announcements. Last year, a post touted a new plan for “Adventure: Auburn,” which would involve a zip line that spans from one bank of the Androscoggin to the other. It sounds like a far-fetched idea, but then again, so did a lobster festival.

The second edition of the Auburn Lobster Festival takes place May 11 at Auburn’s Festival Plaza. Admission is free, but lobster is not. 112 Main St., Auburn.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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