Here in New England
SLIDE SHOW: The Last Sardine Cannery
Even the seagulls know that life in Prospect Harbor has changed. For years, when the herring arrived at the sardine cannery, the gulls would cry and hover, thick as clouds, and you’d look up and barely see the sky. Now, a few still circle when the lobster boats head out and return, but an unwelcome quiet has come to this little village just north of the Schoodic Peninsula.
The reporters and television crews, they’re gone, too. Newspapers far and near, and, of course, the blogosphere, all picked up the story: how in Maine, where sardine factories once thrived, only one remained, Stinson Seafood, in Prospect Harbor. And how on Thursday, April 15, the last oval can would come off the belt, and then an industry that had once sustained the Down East coastline would end. So many reporters requested interviews that Bumble Bee Foods, the plant’s owner since 2004, sent people in from California to handle the public-relations fallout, which is what happens when 128 people lose their jobs in a community without other jobs to go to.
Peter Colson, Stinson’s plant manager, said that all the attention beat anything he’d ever known. Bumble Bee had told him early in February, and he’d lived with the secret for days before calling his workers together, many of whom had worked for him for years. “It was killing me,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep, worrying about them.”
And so the world came to know Lela Anderson, 78, who became the symbol of the end of an era. She’d packed sardines since she was 17; had been at Stinson 54 years. “Men couldn’t do this work long,” Colson says. “It takes a woman with a strong back to pack fish.” He’s proud of Lela, who reaches five feet if she stands on tiptoe, and weighs 101 pounds. He calls her “the strongest lady you’ll ever meet.”
Her face revealed every day she’d packed fish: determined, stoic. It was as if the work ethic of sardine workers from Rockland and Belfast, Jonesport and Lubec, had come to rest right here in Lela Anderson. So day after day, she’d step back from her lunch break for a few moments and talk into cameras with an accent so soaked in coastal Maine it made its own poetry. And then there was no longer a need for Lela to talk about her life, because once the doors finally shut that Thursday, for the world beyond the peninsula the story was over …
“On Friday morning I kept looking at the clock,” Lela says. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get up. I’ve got to get ready for work.’ And then I remembered: ‘You fool, you ain’t got to get to work. You’re done work now.’ I bet I wasn’t the only one.”
We sit in her neat-as-a-pin two-bedroom house, set on a tidy lawn in Corea, three miles east of Stinson. She bought the house with her husband, Herman, a lobsterman, in 1963, and raised a daughter and a son, also a lobsterman. A weekend has come and gone. The afternoon light filters in through the window, at about the time she’d usually be coming through the door and getting supper ready.
“I’ve seen it all,” Lela says. “I remember my first day packing at Snow’s in Gouldsboro. That day I lost my first pair of scissors, and the first week I got paid I lost my check. Oh, I learned a great deal from that.”