Q: Why is there a statue of a lobsterman in downtown Portland? Who is he?

A: The iconic statue of “The Maine Lobsterman” in Portland’s Old Port  is undoubtedly one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

The statue was modeled after H. Elroy Johnson, a lifelong fisherman from Bailey Island who frequently visited the State House to advocate for Maine’s working fishermen and lobstermen.

Johnson, who died Sept. 11, 1973, at age 79, fished for 65 years. He was described as a typical lobsterman in appearance and practice. He also was an eloquent and colorful speaker, who had a thick Maine accent and dry sense of humor and wit.

In a 1965 Press Herald news story, Johnson recalled his first experience as a lobster fisherman on his own.

“He put out 15 traps one summer without any help from his father,” the story said. “That fall, when he counted the savings he kept in a cigar box, he had $45. He asked his parents for permission to buy his winter clothes. Not bad for a 10-year-old.”

Johnson had a long career that included lobstering, swordfishing, sardining, and fishing from large vessels and small boats. He built his own wooden lobster traps. At 71 years of age, Johnson was fishing 400 traps.

“I never did figure what the labor was worth,” Johnson said in a news story about hand-building his own traps. “I imagine if I did stop to figure it out, even at the minimum of $1 per hour, I’d begin to wonder if it was all worthwhile.”

Johnson was instrumental in starting the Bailey Island Tuna Club in the late 1930s. He was a pioneer in the commercial harvesting of sea moss. For many years, he was district manager for Marine Growths Inc., a sea moss plant at Small Point.

Detail of the lobsterman statue in the plaza near the Nickelodeon in Portland that was modeled after H. Elroy Johnson, a lifelong fisherman from Bailey Island. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He was widely respected by state officials and was known as unofficial spokesman for working lobstermen and fishermen. According to his obituary, Johnson worked at times as assistant to the Maine commissioner of Sea and Shore Fisheries and for the Maine Development Commission.

Johnson posed for the statue created by Victor Kahill, a well-known Portland sculptor. The statue shows Johnson kneeling on his right knee leaning over a lobster. He is wearing a shirt with rolled-up sleeves and knee-length boots. He is in the process of pegging the lobster’s claw, which is how lobstermen kept the critters’ claws shut before the widespread use of rubber bands.

Longtime Portland lobsterman Willis Spear, 69, of Yarmouth said Johnson was a highly respected lobsterman in Casco Bay. He said the statue depicts the labor involved in the lobster business.

“He’s kneeling, plugging a lobster,” Spear said. “That (position) wasn’t all that common, but it did happen. As far as I can see, it well represents the work that’s involved. It well represents the industry.”

Gov. Sumner Sewall, right, consults with Harpswell lobsterman Elroy Johnson as family members and others wait for news of the doomed boat, The Don on the Bailey Island dock. Elroy Johnson was the model for the statue of a lobsterman in Lobsterman Park at the corner of Temple and Middle streets in Portland. Portland Press Herald photo courtesy Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives

Kahill was commissioned by the state to create the statue as the centerpiece of the Maine exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The original cost was $10,000 for a large bronze statue, but only $1,500 was raised, so Kahill’s plaster model was painted bronze and displayed at the World’s Fair. The fair drew 44 million visitors over the course of two seasons.

The statue returned to Portland and was exhibited at the old Columbia Hotel at 645 Congress St. and in the rotunda at Portland City Hall. It was heavily damaged by vandals in 1943 and several more times after that. Kahill’s brother, Joseph, repaired the statue each time. It was moved to Boothbay Harbor and came under the care of the Sea and Shore Fisheries, now the Department of Marine Resources, and sat in an empty warehouse.

Detail of the lobsterman statue, which was modeled after H. Elroy Johnson, who frequently visited the State House to advocate for Maine’s working fishermen and lobstermen. The original was commissioned to be in the Maine exhibit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In recent years, Kahill’s original statue was on display in the lobby of the Maine State Museum in Augusta. It is currently in storage at the museum.

Shortly after Johnson’s death in 1973, the Maine Legislature appropriated the funds to cast three bronze versions of “The Maine Lobsterman.” Sculptor Norman Therrien cast the sculptures from the original plaster cast in 1975 at the Boothbay Foundry. One of those three statues is the one mounted near Middle and Exchange streets in downtown Portland. The other two are on display in Johnson’s birthplace at the end of Bailey Island and on Maine Avenue in Washington, D.C., overlooking the Potomac River.

“In essence, one lobsterman became four lobsterman and now represents all lobstermen, which I think he would like,” said Herb Adams, a historian and professor of history and government at Southern Maine Community College.

1939: Elroy Johnson, of Bailey Island visits his statue. Johnson, who was nicknamed “Snoody,” was the inspiration for a statue of a lobsterman that was created and displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The state did not pay to have the statue cast, so Johnson is looking at the plaster original that sculptor Victor Kahill painted a bronze color. After Johnson died in 1973, the Maine Legislature paid for three bronze copies of the plaster original. The statues can still be viewed in downtown Portland, on Bailey’s Island in Harpswell and on Maine Avenue in Washington, D.C. Press Herald photo courtesy Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives

The statue in Portland was erected in 1977 in the center of a plaza in front of the Nickelodeon Cinemas.

“It was public space that was created by the rebuilding and slight straightening of Middle Street during Urban Renewal days. That piece of town was a major gathering spot,” Adams said.

The statue continues to serve as an important piece of Maine’s history and heritage.

Maine’s two U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, recently celebrated passage of their bipartisan resolution that designates Sept. 25, 2021, as “National Lobster Day.”

“Lobster is an iconic emblem for our state, and Maine’s lobster fishery is a cornerstone of our state’s economy, supporting thousands of jobs and playing a central role in our coastal communities,” said Collins and King in a joint statement.

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