Meet The Lobster Lady: Elizabeth “Ginny” Oliver
For longevity, “just keep going”
By Sheila D. Grant
Elizabeth “Ginny” Oliver, known locally as The Lobster Lady, is thought to be Maine’s (and possibly the world’s) most senior licensed lobsterman. She turned 100 on June 6. She still drives a big white GMC pickup truck, maintains her own home, does all the cooking for herself and son, Max Oliver, who lives just down the street but spends nights at her house—and she goes out lobstering three days a week. Ginny was featured on Bill Green’s Maine in 2017, and this year, she is the subject of a 30-minute documentary. The secret to a long life, Ginny said, is to “just keep going!”
“I was born in the next house up from where I live now,” Ginny said. Summers, though, were spent on The Neck of Andrews Island, where her father owned a store and two fish weirs. “When I was probably 7 or 8, I used to take the boat over [to other nearby islands] to haul the guys over to work at my father’s fish weirs. I’ve dug clams—I used to get $5 a gallon, all shucked out! It was a lot of work, but I did it.”
Ginny, the youngest, had a sister, Elizabeth Rackliff, five years older. Her brother, John Rackliff, was 10 years older. “I used to go out hauling [lobster traps] with my brother when I was probably 7 or so.” She also pumped gas and weighed lobsters for customers. “I guess I’ve kind of lived a different life than most women,” she said.
At 17, Ginny married a man whose name she got wrong for the whole first week she knew him. “They always called him Bill, so I thought his name was William,” she recalled, laughing. Anyone who speaks with Ginny soon discovers she is a woman full of laughter.
Ginny and Maxwell “Bill” Oliver, Sr., had a daughter, Margaret, and three sons, William, Maxwell, and Charles. The “children,” now in their late 70s and early 80s, all live nearby. All three sons are lobstermen who often visit their mother for Saturday-night suppers.
Ginny worked as a homemaker until her youngest was 9, and then she went to work at Bonnar-Vawter, a printing and business form plant in Rockland, for 18 years. Bill worked at Fuller Cadillac. When WWII came around, Bill, a married man with young children, did not get called up in the draft. Instead, he went to work at Bath Iron Works. But after he’d been there three-and-a-half years, Ginny came home one day to discover that Bill had quit his job.
“So, I quit, too, and went lobstering with him,” she recalled, laughing. “We lobstered up until he was 90. I could run the boat, and he always told everybody I was the boss! I think he’s right!”
Bill passed away just shy of his 91st birthday. For the past 13 years, Ginny has gone out lobstering aboard the Virginia with their son Max. “I’m still the boss,” she said, chuckling.
Ginny pilots the boat, cleans and fills bait bags, and measures and bands the lobsters—a bit tricky since she broke her right wrist last year and now has to use her left hand. She has 200 lobster traps, and Max has another 200-plus. The pair doesn’t go lobstering during the winter, but the rest of the year, they are up by 2:45 a.m. three days a week so they can get to the boat, get their bait and gas, and be underway by daybreak. Max, 77, uses a hydraulic winch to haul the traps these days—something his parents had to do by hand in the early days of their business. Lobstering days can be long. Ginny and Max often don’t get back to sell their catch at the Spruce Head Fisherman’s Co-op until after 2 p.m.
Even on days off, Ginny is an early riser, up by 4:40 a.m. “I’ve always had to get up early so that’s just my way of doing,” she said. “Somebody asked me when I was going to retire, and I said, ‘When I die!’ I might just as well do lobstering as to do nothing. I’d rather go and do that, so that’s what I do! I’m old enough to do what I want,” she said, laughing again.
On her days off, Ginny enjoys baking and then calling “the kids” to come and get the goodies. “I used to knit mittens when the kids were small, but I gave that up,” she said.
This winter, her doctor commented to her that he didn’t know any men her age. “And I said, ‘Well, you forget it. I don’t want one!’”
As with most of us, the pandemic has put a crimp in Ginny’s life, but not as much as one might imagine. “I still go to the store about every day,” she said. “I maybe only buy one thing, but I go, because I like to get out, and I still drive. I don’t want to think of when I can’t [drive]. Probably the time will come. But I like to be busy.”
Ginny does wear a mask and try to keep her distance while she’s out. “Nobody wants to get it,” she said. “I hate wearing it, but what are you going to do? I have to watch, when I take it off, that I don’t take the hearing aid with it. I usually put the mask on before I go into the store and take it off when I get in my truck so that if my hearing aid comes off, it’s in the truck. One day it did come out but fell right in my lap. I wouldn’t want to lose that. It would be awful!”
Ginny was slated to be the Grand Marshall at this year’s Maine Lobster Festival parade, which is now canceled. “Well, everything is canceled,” she said. “There’s nothing going on. I’ve been so bored! It gets wearing on you, really, but you have to put up with it. I think this [pandemic] is going to be going on for a long, long time. It takes a while [to develop a vaccine], that’s the thing of it. They can’t do it overnight.”
The social-distancing movement caused another effect. Instead of a big birthday party, Ginny got a giant birthday card and an impromptu parade. “I didn’t know about it,” she said. “I was in the kitchen. I looked out the window and there was this big sign out in front of my house that said ‘Happy 100th Birthday.’ So, I figured I’d better go outdoors to see what’s going on. They had a fire truck and blew the sirens, and the cars kept coming around! There were probably 100 cars. And a lot of them stopped and signed the big sign or got out and hollered ‘Happy Birthday’ to me.”
The party, Max said, was arranged in large part by Nellie Waterman, a distant relative and former Rockland police officer now living in Tennessee. There were birthday gifts, too. Ginny was presented with flowers and received several gifts of jewelry. “A woman that lives in Princeton sent me a silver necklace with a compass on it,” she said. “And I got some nice earrings. They all know I like earrings!” Indeed, she even wears them while out lobstering—but not her dangly ones.
“Of course, we didn’t go out to eat this year, so we had a cookout at home, about 14 of us,” Ginny said. “And we had an ice cream cake from Dairy Queen. For my birthday every year, we always have that.”
Coronavirus also interfered with another big birthday event. The documentary, “Conversations with The Lobster Lady,” was to preview at a community birthday party at the Rockland Historical Society. Filmmakers Dale Schierhold and Wayne Gray, with the help of location guide Dick Carver, followed Max and Ginny out to sea, as well as conducting sit-down interviews. Instead, the film was aired on a local access channel that evening. DVD sales will benefit the Rockland Historical Society. An eight-minute trailer of the film can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/schierholt/review/382630264/6a2e7e9364.
Ginny’s mother died young, at 51. Her father and her siblings are gone now, as well. “I don’t know how I’ve lived so long,” she said. “But you’ve got to keep going!”