An Island in Time

Cabbage Island Clambakes continues a Maine summer tradition on Linekin Bay

One bright summer day in 1986, Wayne Moore was out in his boat on Linekin Bay, a large inlet just east of Boothbay Harbor that the longtime summer resident knew well. He had motored by Cabbage Island before, knowing it was deserted and that people sometimes picnicked there. “I never wanted to trespass, but on that particular day I decided I would,” says Wayne, who tied his boat to the old float and walked up the ramp to find a collection of tumbledown buildings, overgrown grass, and a sense that he had stumbled upon something magical. “I just fell in love with it, and on the following Monday I called the town office to see who owned it.”

Wayne Moore ended up buying the five-acre island from Ruth Leavitt, who had run Cabbage Island Clambakes there from 1956 to 1979. He wasn’t planning to relaunch the business; instead, he envisioned a family compound where he, his brother Bob, and their families could gather in the summer. But word got around about the island’s new owners, and people started asking about the clambakes. Wayne called Bob, who ran a floral business with his wife in Ohio. “I said, ‘Bob, have I got a deal for you,’” says Wayne, who subsequently flew to Florida to learn a few secrets from Ruth Leavitt. She shared her recipes for fish chowder and blueberry cake; the brothers bought a boat, the Argo, to ferry guests to the island and enlisted a friend, Dennis Rice, to get them started in the summer of 1989. “We had never done a clambake in our lives,” Wayne says with a chuckle. “We thought Dennis was going to help us for a week, and at the end of the first day he said, ‘You guys are good.’”

Offering a combination lobster feast and sightseeing excursion, Cabbage Island Clambakes is now one of the most popular summer activities in the midcoast region. Every day, and twice a day on weekends, guests board the Bennie Alice—named for Wayne and Bob’s 99-year-old mother—in Boothbay Harbor for a narrated short cruise out to the island. There’s time before food is served to explore the idyllic spot and lay claim to one of the picnic tables, which are tucked under pine trees and scattered about the rolling lawn. More tables fill the main lodge, which has a covered deck, restrooms, a bar, and a gift shop, where you might find Bennie Alice herself. Her namesake boat replaced the Argo about ten years ago. “She happened to be in Ohio with Bob, and I sent the new brochure out there; that’s how she found out we were naming it after her,” says Wayne. “I can’t tell you how many people get off the boat and ask about our mother. They take selfies with her and buy hats so she can autograph them.

Bennie Alice, 99, is a fixture at the clambakes

Heard from everywhere on the island, the first clang of the dinner bell indicates that fish chowder is being served; New England–style and piping hot, it has generous chunks of fish and potato, and pleasantly chewy bits of salt pork. The second bell calls guests to the bake, which is on the rocks at the shoreline and assembled in the traditional way: steel trays layered with saltwater, seaweed, and the bake ingredients, then covered with a canvas tarp and steamed over a wood fire. An assembly line of friendly staffers, their faces flushed from the steam, doles out corn on the cob, foil-wrapped baked potatoes, clams, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and two crimson lobsters onto each guest’s red tray. There are always a least a few lobster neophytes looking bewildered after they tie the plastic bibs around their necks, but help is close at hand. Soon they are dunking the sweet claw and tail meat in melted butter and handing the bodies over to more experienced pickers to pry out the tender morsels. For dessert, there are thick slabs of blueberry cake topped with powdered sugar and served with coffee.

Cabbage Island Clambakes start with a narrated short cruise on the Bennie Alice, which brings guests from Boothbay Harbor to the island.

During dinner, Moore family members wander among the tables, chatting with every guest and answering the invariable question about the hard-boiled eggs, a traditional indicator that the bake is done. “Everyone wants to know what’s up with the egg,” says Ryan Moore, Bob’s son and the general manager of Cabbage Island Clambakes since 2017. Like his many cousins, Ryan grew up living and working on the island, which is open from Father’s Day weekend to the Sunday after Labor Day. “I was what we call a JOAT, a jack of all trades, which is how all the young kids start,” says Ryan. “They pull seaweed, haul lobsters, and handle all the lugging.” His cousin, Greg Miller, has been the bake master for 22 years. Working together has made the family especially close. “My brother lives in Ohio, and I’ve worked with him every summer for 30 years,” says Wayne. “If it weren’t for Cabbage Island Clambakes, I’d see him once a year, maybe.” Wayne and Bob’s sister, Betty Oyster, helps out on weekends, usually behind the bar.

Being a family member offers another perk—exclusive use of the island for weddings. “I wouldn’t let anyone get married out here until my daughter Jennifer did,” says Wayne, adding that since then he was himself married on the island, which also hosted the weddings of several cousins, including Ryan, who married his husband, Anthony, in the summer of 2019. Their reception was not a lobster bake, so all of the company’s staff could enjoy the party. “We don’t do weddings for the public because it’s too difficult, logistically,” says Wayne. “But we are quite popular for rehearsal dinners on Friday nights.”

Beyond special occasions, multigenerational family groups start making reservations in the late winter for their annual summer trips out to Cabbage Island. Seventy-five percent of guests are from Maine, says Wayne, adding that the brothers have always been determined to keep the experience affordable. For 2020 the boat ride and clambake is $69.25 per person, and kids under eleven can have a hot dog meal for $33.25. The Bennie Alice is the only way for guests to access the island, except during Boothbay Harbor’s annual Windjammer Days, when the visiting windjammer fleet drops anchor in the bay and the captains and crew come ashore—joined by local guests who arrive by private boat—for a celebratory bake.

General manager Ryan Moore is the second generation of his family to run Cabbage Island Clambakes.

While the Moore family’s history running Cabbage Island Clambakes bests Leavitt’s by seven years, Wayne still gives her credit for establishing the business. “People who are my parents’ age come out to the island and tell us they came here as teenagers with their grandparents,” says Ryan. “And now they are grandparents and bringing their own grandchildren.” A generational shift is also happening within the Moore family. Having worked his way up to serving tables and bartending, Ryan left the business for several years after he graduated from college. “I’d pitch in on the weekends, but mostly I came out just to drive the boats and drink the beer for free,” he says. “My dad approached me two or three years ago and said that he and Wayne wanted to start thinking about a transition. He asked if I was interested, and I was.” The plan is for Wayne’s daughter, Jennifer, Ryan, and Ryan’s sister, Lindsay Moore, to eventually assume the brothers’ roles, although, Wayne admits, “I think that we would probably always want to be involved.” Like Maine islands often do, Cabbage Island still has the same magical pull it had more than 30 years ago, when Wayne saw it for the first time and imagined generations of his family spending summers there. By hosting clambakes, they’ve not only done that, but they’ve also shared a classic Maine summer tradition with generations of other families, who make their own memories and magic in this timeless spot.

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