The fishermen’s memorial at Land’s End, Bailey Island, fall 2022. (Joann Gardner photo)

Almost everyone familiar with Bailey Island has, at one time or another, made their way to Land’s End and seen the statue of a lobsterman looking out over Jaquish Island and the waters of Casco Bay. Some remember that the model for the statue was Elroy Johnson, a native islander whom people knew, worked with, and came to admire and love. Others see only a bronze statue honoring “all Maine fishermen who have devoted their lives to the sea.” Now that 50 years have passed since Elroy’s death and the subsequent establishment of this memorial, it seems fitting for us to consider his contribution, not only to Maine’s fishing industry, but to Harpswell’s culture and values.

Harvey Elroy Johnson was born March 16, 1894, to George Bernard Johnson and Laura Etta (Sinnett) Johnson. He was the third child in a family of seven children that traced their presence on Bailey Island back to the 1740s and their employment as fishermen just as far. An independent and resourceful spirit, Elroy, or “Snoody,” as he came to be called, got an early start in his career. In the summer of 1904, he put out 15 traps without his father’s help. By that fall, he had saved $45. He was only 10 years old at the time.

Elroy left school after completing the eighth grade and went on to earn his living from the sea: lobstering, swordfishing, shrimping, sardining, from both small and large boats. Starting when fishermen still pursued their catch by wind, sail and oar, he fished well into the 1960s, when diesel engines and electronic devices made the job easier and safer.

According to his grandnephew, Stephen C. Johnson, “shore fishermen” used to row their dories out as much as 4-5 miles to catch fish. The process required a great deal of strength and know-how. Elroy had both, along with an inborn sense of direction. On at least one occasion, when the fog was so thick you couldn’t see much beyond the tip of your nose, he managed to row himself and his brother Jesse safely back to shore through wind, wave and darkness. Jesse, who was an accomplished fisherman himself, was grateful.

When I met him, shortly before his death, Elroy attested to the vast changes that had occurred in the fishing industry during his lifetime. He remembered the early days. He could recite the number of hooks, lines and tubs involved in dory trawling. And when I asked him about the dangers of fog in fishing far from shore, instead of relating some wild story about being lost at sea, he responded thoughtfully, “Fog’s not bad.” Then he added, “Snow’s bad. With fog, you can sit and wait for it to clear. With snow, you could freeze to death while waiting.”

Snoody’s rise to fame had much to do with his dry wit and fishing expertise — not to mention his looks. He was tallish, muscular, and of slender but rugged build, and his face was weathered from long hours on the ocean. Some thought he resembled Will Rogers. Like Will, he spoke with a thick regional accent. Elroy was from coastal Maine, of course, rather than Oklahoma, but he delivered stories with the same deadpan earnestness. A shy and modest man, he took quiet pleasure in entertaining his listeners.

One frequent subject of conversation was his dog Bruin, who accompanied him on all but five lobstering trips during his lifetime, and whom he dubbed “the smartest dog in the world.” According to Elroy, Bruin was not only excellent company, but a skilled assistant, “unerring in distinguishing ‘shorts’ from ‘counters'” — that is, lobsters below and above the legal size limit. The Maine commissioner of sea and shore fisheries seemed to agree, and in 1939 awarded Bruin a bona fide lobster license. It was, perhaps, a feature of Snoody’s self-effacing nature that he would blame his successes on his dog.

In addition to taking care of himself and his family, Elroy was concerned about the welfare of his fellow fishermen. He was always thinking up ways to improve their lot, and in many instances, those ideas worked. He and brother Jesse, along with John Gould and James Herrick, founded the Bailey Island Tuna Tournament in 1938, bringing a much-needed source of revenue and entertainment to Harpswell during the Great Depression. Today, the tournament holds the record for being the longest-running one of its kind on the Atlantic coast.

Elroy Johnson (Photo courtesy Stephen C. Johnson)

Elroy was also among the first to engage in sea moss harvesting, and became district manager for Marine Growths Inc. in Small Point, bringing with him a host of others who scraped the rocks at low tide for the bright green algae that is used as a food thickener. He served as a traveling representative for a fishing association in 1940 and an unofficial adviser to the Maine commissioner of sea and shore fisheries. At age 71, he was still fishing 400 traps.

But it was Johnson’s contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair that sealed his public reputation, and the events that followed elevated his local appeal. When plans began to develop for the fair, to be held in Flushing Meadows, New York, Maine’s organizing committee wanted to make the lobster industry a central part of its exhibit. They decided to create a statue called “The Maine Lobsterman” and they chose Victor Kahill, of Portland, to sculpt it. Elroy was brought in to be his model. Elroy was not a fan of modeling, but he remained cooperative throughout, showing up on time for sittings and bringing Kahill a lobster shell, so he could get the lobster right.

At the unveiling, not everyone was pleased. Some thought Elroy should have been depicted in a sou’wester. Others thought Bruin should have been included in the design. Almost everyone who knew anything about lobstering complained that the figure was kneeling to peg his catch, rather than standing, the way lobstermen and women typically do, but Kahill was more of an artist than a stickler for accuracy, so the statue stayed as it was.

A lack of funding meant that casting was out of the question, so the plaster original was painted bronze and sent off to its place in the Hall of States. After the fair, it came home to Portland, where it stood (or kneeled) in the lobby of the Columbia Hotel. It was later moved to the rotunda at Portland City Hall. Finally, it was shipped to Boothbay, where it was repaired and put on display at the Museum of Sea and Shore Fisheries. It ended up in storage in Boothbay, languishing for many years.

After Elroy died in September 1973, there was a new surge of enthusiasm for “The Maine Lobsterman.” The state finally came up with funds to have it cast in bronze, and the city of Portland raised public contributions to have a copy made for itself. A year later, Harpswell followed suit. Corinne Rich, of Bailey Island, raised funds for its casting through public donations, and Edgar and Ruby Hutchins, owners of the Land’s End Gift Shop, donated the land.

Each of these representations found new homes too, but only to situate them more advantageously in relation to the changing landscape. The Bailey Island casting, for example, was moved back from the shoreline after a 1978 storm wiped out the Land’s End Gift Shop and threatened to wash the statue out to sea.

In May of 1979, U.S. Sens. Edmund Muskie and William Cohen, of Maine, entered a resolution into the Congressional Record to have a copy of “The Maine Lobsterman” erected on Maine Avenue, overlooking the Potomac River. The resolution was in response to a $30,000 gift from the Cundy’s Harbor Campfire Girls. It included background on the statue’s history, as well as biographical sketches of the sculptor and his model. Thus, Elroy assumed his place in the nation’s history. In 2019, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins reinforced that recognition when the statue was rededicated. Collins called it “a physical manifestation of the important work done by Maine lobstermen.”

Contrary to what the Congressional Record claims, Elroy did not have a son. He did have a wife, Sadie, who stood by him through his many adventures, and a daughter, Virginia, who married and gave him three fine grandchildren. He also had four surviving siblings and a bunch of nieces and nephews to mourn him, as well as the love and respect of his fellow islanders. Modest and hardworking, he served as an excellent model of the Maine fisherman and an enduring example of what it takes to be a true man of the people.

Sources for this article include the Congressional Record, Down East, Stephen C. Johnson, the Portland Press Herald, the Portland Public Art Committee, and the author’s firsthand interactions with the subject.

A former English professor at Florida State University and a Maine native, Joann Gardner now works as a freelance poet, essayist and book reviewer. She divides her time between Tallahassee, Florida, and Bailey Island.