Anyone who’s ever been to Cabbage Island for one of those world famous lobster bakes these past 30 years has met the Moore family, including matriarch Bennie Alice. This is a very special year for the Dallas-born Moore, for Oct. 2 is her 100th birthday.
Moore’s children – Wayne, Virginia (Ginny), Bob and Betty – all agree she is as popular with the return guests as the bake is.
“After our repeat customers get a table they immediately go up to the (gift) shop to see mom, or as we call her, the matriarch, said Ginny. “Mom loves meeting all of the people and catching up with the ones who return.”
Wayne bought the island in 1986 from Don and Ruth Leavitt, who bought it in 1947 and started the clambakes, serving them up twice a day for over 20 years.
Moore still remembers the day Wayne told her he was going to buy Cabbage Island. “I couldn’t believe it, but I’d never been to the island. Mrs. Leavitt did a wonderful job and she was so good to Wayne to give him the recipes and tell him how to do it. And he was smart enough to do it a woman’s way … that doesn’t happen often, but I guess he had a mother that he pretty much minded,” she said with a smile.
“I do enjoy the people the most. In fact when they come into the shop I don’t care if they buy anything or not. You know, some people don’t need anything. I’m not high pressure.”
But she is competitive. For as long as anyone can remember, she has always tried to outsell the bar, whether Betty or Betty’s son Glen is tending. Said Betty, who drives up from Wiscasset to bartend on the weekends, “I said Mom, you’re selling $30 sweatshirts and I’m selling $5 drinks! But she has beaten me.”
Moore still takes running the gift shop seriously, although she no longer stocks and prices all the items. From the get-go, she made it clear to her kids there would be no discounts. Everyone, including her, would pay retail – except her grandchildren and the children who work on the island every summer. They get the discount.
Moore joined the rest of the family in the lobster bake business after retiring from her job at Foxboro Company in Easton, Massachusetts where she lives the rest of the year. Bob thought she would be perfect for running the gift shop. And she was. But Moore didn’t confine herself to just the shop.
Wayne and Bob started the tradition of greeting every group of customers as they disembarked the Argo, and for many years now the Bennie Alice. If you ask her why the boat is named for her, she’ll tell you it’s because her sons couldn’t decide which wife to name it after. Many a customer has heard that one!
The other tradition was going from table to table, visiting with the guests and getting to know them. “One day we were talking with people who seemed to know an awful lot about us already,” said Bob. “We couldn’t figure out how. And then we saw her, way ahead of us. Mom had beaten us to it.”
Moore continued that tradition for her boys, even the last three to four years when she had to use a walker. Occasionally, the uneven ground would cause her to lose her balance and fall. The people at the table would help her up, with Moore asking them to promise not to tell her sons about it. They did tell Wayne and Bob, and she began greeting people from the porch outside the indoor dining room.
Her work for the island doesn’t stop at the end of the season: There are the tens of thousands of lobster bibs she folds, and the handwritten thank you notes to every customer who sends a card or letter telling the family how much they enjoyed the bake and the island. Moore is sending Christmas cards this year. It’s her project as soon as she gets back to Massachusetts after her birthday party. Bob’s wife Kathy bought her two boxes. She also asks people stopping by the shop for their mailing addresses to add to her list. Most times, the addresses are written on separate pieces of paper Moore puts in a pocket of the sweater she’s wearing or in the carry pouch on her walker. As she decides which place to put them, she hopes she doesn’t lose them in the washer, she said.
Moore said she’s had a good life and been very fortunate. She grew up during The Great Depression with her mother who had work as a bookkeeper while raising her and her sister, and with Moore’s aunt from whom she learned about the importance of helping others, like those who came to their back door for food. “My aunt would always give them (and people in need) soup or a sandwich and something to drink. My sister and I were just little girls and we asked our aunt why (she helped all the men in search of food). She told us that God comes in different forms and that’s what we were for. Later we’d think about how hard that must have been for them to do that.”
Ginny believes her mother’s strength comes from witnessing her aunt helping people. “She pays it forward. Mom is a very giving person. Growing up all my friends wanted her to be their mother. She’s a listener and she can also be brutally honest sometimes!”
Moore married an Air Force man, Doug Moore, after a three-month courtship in the late 1940s. They met at a USO dance in Dallas. “He had an ear for music and could play anything. That’s what attracted me to him.” She still lives in the house they bought 62 years ago. Wayne said summers on the island have been “the high point of her life.” She has her own cottage there and grandson Glen, a nurse, is there to help take care of her.
“It’s special to be with family all summer. I love the island. Maine is a lot like Texas when I was growing up, kind people who are good to you. So I really feel at home in Maine. It’s just never hot enough.”
The family – the grown children and their spouses, Wayne’s wife Joanne and Bob’s wife Kathy, who also work on the island, and the grandchildren and their children – will celebrate Moore’s birthday in the Harbor. All season long, everyone coming to the island have been wishing Moore a happy birthday and, come Oct. 2, her beloved family will be, too.