‘Essence of community’ on display at Yarmouth Clam Festival

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YARMOUTH — Jeanne St. Cyr looked unfazed by the rain as she stepped off the free shuttle to Main Street on Sunday, the final day of the 51st annual Yarmouth Clam Festival.

A resident of Yarmouth for more than two decades, St. Cyr and a friend were making their annual trip to buy books at the craft show, and a little rain would not thwart their tradition.

The festival begins every third Friday of July and transforms the town’s quaint Main Street into a lively, three-day fairground brimming with fried seafood, arts and crafts, entertainment and carnival rides.

A Yarmouth native knows better than to make vacation plans that weekend, said former West Main Street resident and festival volunteer Catherine Shaps. Attending the festival is a tradition anticipated for weeks in advance, she said.

The anticipation becomes visual when people start staking out their places to watch the festival’s Friday night parade as early as late June. Empty beach chairs line the street for several weeks before the festival begins.

“No one moves them; it’s like a sacred thing,” St. Cyr said.

“The essence of the community shows up at the festival,” said Terri Arden, who worked this year at the information booth on behalf of the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the entire weekend.

Arden, a volunteer for 13 years, said the fair is like the town: family-oriented, service-oriented, and everyone says “good morning.”

To get a sense of Yarmouth, she said, “all you have to do is look inside one of the booths,” which members of the community organize and operate to raise funds for their respective civic groups, school sports teams, and nonprofit organizations.

Groups typically manage the same booth or service every year, a tradition that produces festival staples – would it be the Clam Festival without the Downeasters Men’s Chorus bursting into an impromptu song while selling lime rickeys? – as well as large revenues that sustain the organizations and nonprofits throughout the year.

The traditional volunteer roles also produce friendly competition.

“They don’t have a full lot,” said Anna Parker, a member of the Yarmouth High School junior class and the sailing team, who pointed to a half-vacant parking lot organized by the lacrosse team, where a student stood motionless, holding his sign. “We’re dancing, and we have a full lot.”

Parker said school sports teams typically sell parking spaces along Main Street that local businesses donate for the festival. The lacrosse team also forms a trash and clean-up squad, a job whose obvious downside is tempered by the fond nickname it earns them every year: “the trash dogs.”

The festival’s high level of student engagement also engenders the kind of memory and ritual that draws people back to Yarmouth who have since graduated or left. Arden, whose children’s involvement with sports teams initiated her annual volunteering, said local graduates make a point to come back home for the festival every July.

“You run into so many people,” Parker agreed – an opportunity not often provided during the rest of the year in a small town.

The sense of small-town community that characterizes the weekend contrasts with a major influx of tourism and out-of-town presence. Fifty-one years after its inception as a simple Fireman’s Muster, the Clam Festival now attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually, and its commercial opportunity draws artists and vendors from near and far.

Alan Claude, the graphic artist responsible for the recognizable posters of Maine lighthouses that adorn the walls of the Portland International Jetport, is a recent transplant to Maine from California. Upon arrival, he said, he instantly understood the iconic nature of Maine’s coastal culture and began painting lighthouses.

At his festival booth, Claude had a new poster on display: a clam digger digging for clams, what he calls “a classic Maine event.”

Perhaps the success of his art can help explain the enormous popularity of what is otherwise a small-town’s annual fair: that Maine’s heritage – with its iconic seafood industry at the heart of the Clam Festival – resonates beyond Maine itself.

Arden said that while the festival causes some inconvenience – it effectively shuts down Main Street for a weekend – its popularity doesn’t seem to bother locals too much. From her perspective, she said, not much has changed over the years, and not much needs to.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” she said. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”

And tourists seem to agree.

Arden recalled running into a visitor from Washington, D.C., a few years ago who told her, “You guys should go and run Washington. This is the greatest fair ever.”

Tara Hildreth and Emma Hildreth, 6, of Cumberland, jump across the finish line of the Kids’ Fun Run at the 51st annual Yarmouth Clam Festival on Saturday, July 16.Crowds have plenty to choose from at the food booths lining Memorial Green in Yarmouth at the 51st annual Clam Festival on Saturday, July 16.Contestants shuck clams in the Maine State Clam Shucking Contest at the 51st annual Yarmouth Clam Festival on Saturday, July 16.Mary Hanson of Monmouth shucks a clam in the professional heat of the Maine State Clam Shucking Contest at the 51st annual Yarmouth Clam Festival on Saturday, July 16.Jessica Hyde, a Yarmouth Fire-Rescue Department EMT and firefighter, competes in the FirefightersKristin Devoe and Logan Devoe, 4, of Freeport, barrel down Smokey’s Super Slide at the 51st annual Yarmouth Clam Festival on Saturday, July 16.Paula Carter draws a caricature of Edward Moura of Manchester, N.H., at the 51st annual Yarmouth Clam Festival on Saturday, July 16.