YARMOUTH – They sprout each year in neat little rows along Main Street, sometimes in pairs, seldom alone, lined up arm to arm.
For weeks before the first helpless bivalve is breaded and deep-fried, Yarmouth Clam Festival preparations begin with an invasion of lawn chairs that line the Friday night parade route.
“We’ve seen chairs out in January and February, just to remind people that summer’s coming,” said Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper, tongue planted in cheek. “Every year, it grows.”
This weekend, before as many as 100,000 hungry visitors descend on the temporary wooden stalls, carnival rides and craft fairs that have made the charitable festival a raving success for nearly half a century, local residents have taken to staking their clam-festival claims earlier and earlier.
There are reclining chairs and beach chairs; chairs of plastic and chairs of wood; folding chairs and camping chairs; plaid chairs and chairs with stripes. Some chairs sport cup-holders, while some are armless. Chairs sit nestled in the shade; chairs are tied to telephone poles or lashed to other chairs baking in the sun.
Miniature chairs await miniature parade-watchers. Some chairs are upside down; other chairs have name tags. Everywhere, chairs, chairs, chairs.
The ritual of marking one’s territory with lawn furniture is neither unique to Yarmouth nor particularly unusual, yet residents here have a deep respect for the unwritten code of chair civility. Hundreds of people follow the golden rule of parade seating: Don’t mess with my chair, and we won’t mess with yours.
“If (the town) held off on letting people put (out) chairs, there’d be chaos,” said Mark Harlow, 41, a longtime Yarmouth resident and parade-watcher. “I think there is method to this madness. It’s been an ongoing joke for years.”
Michael Leonard, who teaches photography and photo editing in his spare time and helps produce advertising material for the festival, took the gag one step further. During a snowy February day, Leonard set out some seats, waited for the powder to accumulate, and started snapping pictures.
The joke seats were out there for “no less than four hours, and people roll down their windows and say it’s too early for the parade,” Leonard said. “I knew I was onto something.”
Now he sells prints of those pictures at frame shops in town, although he said photos of the summertime festival have been better sellers.
There are analogous practices, like the seat-saving at the seasonal L.L. Bean concerts. Concert-goers and sports fans engage in some of the same rites and rituals. After snowstorms in Boston, where narrow streets become parking quagmires, spaces are saved with sometimes-unusual inanimate objects. But none of those practices are as visible, or as lengthy, as Yarmouth’s.
Tupper has grown to accept the shenanigans as part of the tradition. He said he even likes to traipse the parade route, dumping any rainwater from the vinyl seats before the crowds arrive.
“I try to make myself useful,” he said.
The weekend festival draws hordes of outsiders, so the chairs also serve to mark the locals’ claim to the parade as their own celebration.
Not every chair belongs to a Yarmouth resident, however.
Pamela Dean, 59, of Xenia, Ohio, was helping her sister, who lives in Freeport, make room for a few more seats Tuesday outside the Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street. She was introduced to the ritual last summer, and said she was shocked that the chairs did not draw more vandalism or thefts.
“I said, ‘You’re going to put chairs up and no one bothers them?’” recounting a conversation with her sister, Jackie Empey, who was nearby labeling her family’s plot with masking tape and a Sharpie. “If they did this in Xenia, there’d be no chairs left,” Dean said.
Camilla Shannon, who was walking the parade route with her 2-year-old son, Henry, said that when she moved to Maine a few years ago, she didn’t understand the rush for reserved seats.
But after enjoying the family-friendly atmosphere as a Portland resident, and then moving later to Yarmouth, she understands the obsession.
“It’s so woven into the community at this point,” Shannon said. “It would be like missing the Fourth of July.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: