John Olson

John Olson has been lobstering for a long time. When the 91-year-old Cushing man was just a boy, his father took him clamming on the mudflats around the family’s property on Hathorn Point.

“I just fell for the ocean,” he explained with a broad smile.

John grew up as part of the large Olson clan, made famous in dozens of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. He was named for his grandfather, a Swedish sailor who was trapped on shore one long winter and went on to marry Katie Hathorn, whose family owned the point.

John knew at a young age exactly what he wanted to do. “Boats were my life,” he said. His mother forced him to go through high school, despite John’s desire to be on the water. “I was awful balky,” he admits. “She wanted me to work in an office but that wasn’t for me.”

Like most lobstermen in the decades before World War II, John made his own traps, tramping through the family’s woods to find the spruce to bend for bows and picking up flat rocks along the shore for ballast. “My uncle Alvaro taught me how to knit so I could knit heads,” he said. When John first started fishing, he rowed to his traps and hauled by hand. Later he purchased a power dory, “a one-lunger,” he said, with a Palmer single cylinder. Then he moved to a cloverleaf-stern boat, with a Roberts engine that had a Model T conversion.

In 1941 John saw a chance to buy a 26-foot boat just under construction by a local builder. “It was $400 for the hull and an extra $50 for a small doghouse,” he recalled. “I cut wood and dug clams all winter to get the money together.” He was able to purchase the boat in May of 1942. In August, he went into the Navy. “I hauled her on the bank and there she was for four years. That spoiled her,” he said regretfully.

John spent two years on a Navy destroyer, crossing the Atlantic Ocean 18 times. He traveled to Casablanca, Dakar, Gibraltar, Algiers and took part in the invasion of Sicily. After his destroyer was hit by German torpedoes, he was sent to England, then Ireland. He spent 30 days home in Maine before shipping out again, this time to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, where he served another two years. “I ended up at the peace signing with Japan,” John said quietly—Japan formerly surrendered to the United States aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

Home from the Navy, John worked with his father who cut wood and ran a sawmill on the point. “I didn’t take to it. I wanted to get back to the water,” he said.

John married and started a family. In 1953, he purchased land on the tip of the point and built a house. He fished for lobsters, dragged for shrimp in the winter and even put his hand in seining for herring off Dix Island in the Mussel Ridge Islands.

“Jack Dodge, who ran the airfield up in Owls Head, he asked me to help him out. They said they hadn’t caught anything before I came on. We took in 10,000 bushel in two weeks. I tell you, I just walked right away from it!” he said with a shake of his head.

Money was not plentiful then. John recalled one February, after a severe storm—his wooden traps had taken a beating. “I went out and hauled seven lobsters that day. Then I went out the next day and caught the same number. I remember thinking ‘what am I going to do?’ I had this family at home,” he explained. “These fellows today don’t know about that stuff.”

Where he once set 125 traps, he now sets 500. “In those days, if you had 200 traps, people would say you’re being greedy,” he said. “Plus you would have to re-head them at least once, which took time. The crabs would just eat right through [the mesh].”

The world of lobstering is different for newcomers to the industry. He said, “The old fellows I knew would go out in the early morning, come back in and take a nap in the afternoon. There’s nothing like that now,” he said.

Originally authored by: Melissa Waterman

First published in Landings, the newspaper of Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Reprinted with permission.