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Excerpt from
Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present

Edited by Richard W. Judd, Edwin A. Churchill, Joel W. Eastman

Chapter 11: Maine Agriculture, 1783-1861

James B. Vickery, Richard W. Judd & Sheila McDonald

The years between the Revolution and the Civil War brought expanding opportunities in rural districts, as stronger regional markets developed for Maine's farm products. This chapter explores both the flavor of village life and the more general forces of agricultural development. In reconstructing rural Maine's past, the authors drew in part on Maine's vast collection of rural local histories, particularly those of Unity, Union, Buckfield, China, Brooksville and Waldoboro, which provide excellent case studies of farm life in central Maine. Northern Maine's St. John valley, a distinctive region culturally and historically, is treated in a separate section by material culture specialist Sheila McDonald.

The four themes developed in this chapter are applicable to much of Maine's nineteenth-century economy. First, the years between 1783 and 1861 brought initial disappointments, then rapid growth as Maine products entered regional markets in larger amounts. This two-stage trend came to characterize the entire Maine economy. Second, environmental conditions in Maine added special risks and uncertainties to this already hazardous occupation. Third, agriculture was shaped by a subtle tension between localism and external forces. As Joyce Butler pointed out in the previous chapter, Maine was both provincial and cosmopolitan. Farmers sustained close family and neighborhood bonds, but turned increasingly to external markets for sustenance. This halting shift from a local to a regional orientation applies to other aspects of Maine's nineteenth-century economy as well.

Finally, like Maine's original inhabitants, nineteenth-century farmers responded to a harsh environment by diversifying their sources of income and subsistence. They survived economically by combining a varied crop and livestock production with a number of nonfarm crafts, such as baskets, pewterware, and shingles. These varied occupations left a strong imprint on rural Maine.

The development of Maine agriculture between 1783 and 1861 proceeded in three overlapping stages. Before statehood, most Maine farmers were preoccupied with the task of carving homesteads out of the eastern forests. Restrained by the intractability of the wilderness on one hand and by debts, poor markets, and conflicts with absentee proprietors on the other, farmers typically produced only enough food for their own survival. Roughly between 1820 and 1860, this pioneering effort gave way to an era of relative prosperity and commercial development. During this second period, farmers produced crops for regional urban markets and shipped produce to ports as far away as the Caribbean. As the antebellum era drew to a close, Maine agriculture stood on the brink of another transformation, in which western competition, brought closer to home by a spreading railroad network, prompted experiments with new techniques and new products in Maine. This period of adjustment, which also saw discouraging levels of outmigration, is discussed in a subsequent chapter.

During most of the colonial period, the insecurities of intermittent Anglo-Indian warfare limited European settlement to the southern coast of Maine. By the 1740s, however, English, Scots-Irish, German, and French Huguenot families were cautiously resettling lands as far east as Georgetown. The years after 1763 brought a mass settlement northward and eastward, as the more densely populated portions of New England discharged waves of settlers into the "Eastern Parts" to take up lands left nearly vacant by decimation or subjugation of the Indians. During these decades Maine's frontier expanded rapidly in three directions: up the Kennebec River to present-day Waterville; inland from Falmouth (Portland) as far as Gorham; and eastward along the coast to the Narraguagus and Machias rivers. Peopling this vast "eastern frontier" would be the largest instance of west-to-east migration in United States history.

* * *

The Madawaska Communities in the St. John Valley
Sheila McDonald

Far to the north of the English settlements a second migration to the Maine frontier was taking place along the St. John River valley above Grand Falls, a section of the river known as the Madawaska territory. In 1785 a group of sixteen families, mostly Acadians, moved upriver from present-day southern New Brunswick, looking for a peace and stability that had eluded them during the battles between England and France over control of Acadia. The Acadians, in turn, were joined by larger numbers of French Canadians from the lower banks of the St. Lawrence River. Both were attracted by the valley's fertile intervale lands--the alluvial soils along the river--and by the opportunity, as one Acadian land petitioner described it, "to obtain such lands for their families ... and to have the assistance of a priest in the performance of the rites and ceremonies of their religion and the superintendence of their children's education."

Although the St. John River was an important communication route between Quebec and the seaport of Saint John, the Madawaska communities were a distant 70 miles from Rivière du Loup on the St. Lawrence and an even longer 170 miles upriver from Saint John, New Brunswick--the nearest population centers. Already isolated by geography, the Madawaska settlements were distanced culturally by the residents' French language and Catholic religion. The Acadian and French-Canadian way of life remained distinct from the Anglo-American communities that began to develop after a small band of Kennebec loggers arrived in 1816-17. This cultural isolation prompted one traveler through the valley in 1837 to comment: "It is curious to observe how perfectly they have retained all their French peculiarities. The forms of their houses, the decorations of their apartments, dress, modes of cookery, etc. are exactly as they originally were in the land of their ancestors."

St. John families were unusually large and tended to settle near each other, forming extended kin networks. Virtually everyone farmed, yet because the valley was so remote from population centers, agricultural produce was marketed largely within local communities or kin networks. Production and population balanced each other, and although farms were not necessarily self-sufficient, the larger region, for all practical purposes, was.

The lack of diversification implicit in the St. John Valley subsistence economy dominates both written observations about the area and census records. In 1831, John G. Deane and Edward Kavanaugh visited the valley and reported: "There are few blacksmiths and carpenters in the colony--they get their tools from the English provinces ... . They manufacture agricultural implements which are crudely, badly made." The 1850 census does not indicate much change. Covering the entire valley population on the American side of the river, that documents lists 393 farmers or farm laborers and 17 other heads of households engaged in nonfarming occupations. This dearth of specialized artisans continued into the second half of the century, although upriver lumbering operations diversified the economy somewhat in the 1850s. Madawaska's economy would change, but only when the arrival of railroads from New Brunswick altered the agricultural potential of the entire region in the 1870s.

* * *

The Rise of Agriculture in Southern and Central Maine

As in Madawaska, Maine's southern settlement frontier remained primitive and isolated for most of the antebellum period. Maine's settlers were poor and many were illiterate. Nevertheless, these sturdy and resolute people recognized opportunities for their endeavors. Exaggerating somewhat, Henry Adams wrote about the frontier farmer: "Every stroke of the axe and hoe made him a capitalist and made a gentleman of his children." They sought out virgin land for the sake of commercial self-improvement, and, at least along the coast, maritime trade with the Massachusetts Bay towns, southern ports, and the West Indies offered commercial outlets for farmers. These outlets were not always sufficient to overcome the constraints of isolation, poor soil, dense forest cover, or unpredictable weather. Pursuits like fishing, lumbering, and home manufacturing--not farming--served as the primary export trade well into the nineteenth century.

* * *

The Pioneer Period, 1783-1820

Maine's frontier families often settled as groups of neighbors. Families from Massachusetts or New Hampshire negotiated with agents representing proprietors and then sent a delegation eastward to inspect the site, establish claims, and build cabins. After one season, this vanguard would return, gather up families, neighbors, and possessions, and begin anew in the wilderness.

Establishing a new farm was a laborious process for the entire family. In the late fall settlers felled trees, often using a method called "driving." After notching several trees on one side, they selected and cut a tall upslope tree called a "driver," which toppled into the others. The settlers limbed them, pitched the logs into a pile, and, after the wood had dried, burned them. They gathered the ashes and sold them for potash to make soap. During the next summer they used oxen to clear stumps.

The settlers' first cabins were small and primitive, perhaps sixteen feet by twenty and built entirely with hand tools. Squared logs were laid one above the other, chinked with blue clay, and matched at the corners. The low-posted, story-and-a-half affairs were shingled with split cedar. They consisted of a single room below, serving as kitchen, dining room, and sleeping room, and a loft, where children slept amid dried herbs and produce. The floors were split and hewn basswood. The building's few small, shuttered windows were covered with oiled paper. At one end, a huge fireplace was topped with a chimney made either of stone or "catsticks" placed "cob-house" fashion and plastered with clay on the inside. A young woman with a dowry or furniture inherited from her family might set up housekeeping with articles such as a four-poster bed, a chest or bureau, a gate-leg table, a spinning wheel and loom, an iron kettle and skillet, dutch-oven, pewter dishes, and earthenware or wooden bowls. Families might live in their original cabins as many as twenty years.

Settlers in the first year cleared five or six acres and planted corn and some vegetables, subsisting on accumulated income, corn meal, and fish and game--moose, deer, bear, or wild fowl. Later they planted potatoes or other root vegetables, still supplementing this harvest by foraging. Frontier farming was backbreaking labor for both men and women. Men scraped together cash or credit to pay debts, taxes, and store bills by making shingles, staves, clapboards, or timber; by hunting and trapping; or by hiring out as farm workers. Women raised garden crops, processed the returns from the fall harvest, hunted the cows in the woods and milked them, and otherwise labored to feed their families. Many families grew flax and kept a flock of sheep; women combined the products into linsey-woolsey, a common form of frontier homemade cloth.

Timothy Dwight, who traveled throughout New England during 1806-7, noted that agriculture was improving in Maine in two respects. First, migrants from southern New England arrived in Maine in large groups, with the result that the farm economy increased significantly. Second, Dwight observed the New England farmers migrating to Maine were "much more skillful then their predecessors" so that agriculture grew intensively as well. Observers like Dwight agreed, however, that Maine farm families lived a grubbing existence. Raising livestock was precarious, and farm tools were primitive and cumbersome, made of heavy iron or hewn wood for heavy work. Settlers looked to the signs of the zodiac or the Maine Farmer's Almanac in planning activities such as planting, harvesting, and killing domestic animals, and superstitiously adhered to old proverbial advice. In this period farms yielded poorly; twenty cultivated acres might return only thirty or forty bushels of Indian corn or wheat. Farmers were ignorant of stock-breeding; they overcrowded their barns with livestock; and they often fed no grain during the winter.

Families that prospered eventually raised framed houses, which elevated their social standing and accommodated growing families. Most frame houses erected after 1815 were either two-story Federal-style homes or story-and-a-half capes. Either style had a central doorway with a fan-light, a staircase, and paneled and wainscoted rooms. Both upper and lower floors had fireplaces. At the front entry, the room to the right was a parlor, used only for funerals, weddings, or family reunions. On the left was a dining area and off this, a kitchen with a buttery and cupboards.

Among the many frustrations of this pioneer era were disputes with land proprietors. Massachusetts continued its colonial-era policy of granting huge tracts of Maine lands for speculative purposes after the Revolution. Between 1785 and 1793, for instance, General Henry Knox acquired the huge Muscongus, or Waldo Patent, and toward the end of the century two great proprietors--Knox, and William Bingham of Philadelphia--held around 3.5 million acres of Maine lands between them. Bingham's heirs lorded over a property nearly half as large as Massachusetts. Speculative ventures like these encouraged initial settlement, but the practice of holding the better lands for a rise in prices also limited further development and created smoldering resentments between settlers and proprietors.

Many of Maine's settlers, on the other hand, were squatters, who neglected to obtain title to their lands either because the land office was too remote from their clearings or because they were too burdened with debts and taxes to pay for land. Some, inspired by the republican ideology of the American Revolution, simply refused to recognize the rights of the nonresident land barons. Thousands of newcomers across the American frontier faced a similar predicament: having cleared and improved wilderness lands, they were subject to ejection by a land agent. Agents sometimes demanded foreclosure, not only on settlers' lands and improvements, but on their livestock as well. In Maine, as we have seen, this situation helped lay the basis for the movement to separate from Massachusetts. It also kept the frontier settlements in a state of civil unrest, as historian Alan Taylor has recently pointed out, through the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Tensions became so acute that in 1789 the General Court passed a law giving title to one hundred acres to families who had settled on public land prior to 1784, if they had cleared and "improved" sixteen acres and built a house. The law did not resolve the problem. Viewing the proprietors as oppressive, settlers repeatedly banded together, disguised themselves as Indians, and drove land surveyors or proprietors' agents from the area. "White Indians" burned houses or barns belonging to land agents or their sympathizers and threatened the offending officials physically. Riots occurred throughout Waldo and Kennebec counties.

A long-standing conflict between squatters and the Kennebec Proprietors came to a head in 1809 at Malta (now Windsor). In September, during an uproar brought on by several attempts to eject squatters, two local youths, Paul Chadwick and James Pratt, were hired to survey contested land. Having almost completed the task, they were confronted by several men disguised as Indians. When they resisted, three guns were discharged, one of which wounded Chadwick and caused his death two days later. With the perpetrators jailed in Augusta, considerable sympathy developed in Malta, and rumors circulated that they would be rescued and the jail, along with the houses of the proprietors or their agents, burned.

To intimidate the insurrectionaries, members of the militia fired cannons, rang steeple bells, and surrounded the jail. The so-called liberators dispersed, bringing a quick end to the "Malta War." Yet despite a long harangue by one of the judges encouraging a guilty verdict, the jury declared the Malta men innocent. The widespread sympathy for squatters' rights at Malta and elsewhere prompted the Massachusetts General Court to intervene and enabled the Malta settlers to obtain title to their farms at reduced fees. This cycle--smoldering resentment, a sharp clash with proprietors or their agents, and belated recognition by the General Court--occurred elsewhere on the eastern frontier. Arbitration and a growing conviction that resistance was in vain eventually settled most of the claims. The 1808 Betterment Act, which recognized settlers' claims to their improvements without admitting their claims to the land itself, encouraged negotiations, albeit heavily biased in favor of the proprietors.

Such incidents were part of a broader tension between frontier communities and more prosperous commercial towns throughout the young republic. The issues in this class and regional conflict ranged from taxes, debts, and paper money to land speculation, and they split the nation into two groups: propertied merchants, money-lenders, and land speculators on one hand, and indebted or cash-poor frontier farmers on the other. In Massachusetts these bitter frontier resentments fueled Shays's Rebellion in 1786; in Maine they formed the basis of the "squatters' wars" and shaped the movement toward statehood.

Debts and conflicts were only part of the problem. Maine farms were often remote from good markets, and, aside from the sea lanes, transportation was abysmal. In addition, soils were not as productive as they were in the states further south. Wheat, a primary export crop in colonial Maine, grew thick and yielded heavily on newly cleared lands, but after a few years yields declined. By 1800, troubles with a blight almost drove wheat from cultivation. Wheat growing rebounded briefly in the Penobscot Valley between 1807 and 1814, when Maine farmers circumvented federal trade embargoes against France and Great Britain by smuggling farm crops to the Canadian provinces. But these advantages disappeared after the War of 1812. Wheat from New York and Pennsylvania, grown under more propitious conditions, replaced native flour even in Maine's own farmhouses.

In addition to poor markets and sparse soils, Maine's climate was fickle. In 1816, the year known as "Eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death," there was a frost each of the twelve months. Crops were not harvested until October, and settlers were forced to rely on fish and game for survival. These hardships discouraged thousands and prompted a mass migration to the Ohio Valley, the beginnings of a long New England exodus that reached epidemic proportions after mid-century.

Primitive medical conditions added to the uncertainties of frontier life. Couples married young and had large families--ten or twelve children were not uncommon, and some families were as large as twenty. However, infant mortality was high and average life expectancy only twenty-five years. Consumption and epidemic diseases like measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, smallpox, and diphtheria frequently swept through rural Maine. As in the colonial period, when tragedy struck a surviving spouse needed to remarry quickly because of the rigid division of tasks between husband and wife on the farm. Rural Maine's earliest doctors and midwives learned the medical arts as apprentices studying with older practitioners for a year or two. In 1820, the Maine Medical School in Brunswick began training doctors, and by mid-century formal medical practice had gone far to replace folk healing arts. By this time, even small towns had one or two doctors who would make house calls at any hour of the day or night, sometimes performing operations at patients' homes.

* * *

Expansion and Diversified Farming, 1820-61

In 1820, 55,031 farmers tilled some 78,964 acres of land. A "thrifty" farm of the time typically consisted of one or more barns, twenty to fifty acres of crops, more land devoted to pasturage, and a large woodlot. Livestock amounted to at least one yoke of oxen, a dozen cows, and a band of sheep. The old English Devon cattle had been replaced by purebred stock, an improvement that began in the 1790s, when the Vaughans of Hallowell imported from England the well-known Bakewell breed. In Hancock County, David Sears, owner of the "Great Farm" in Jackson, Maine, introduced from Massachusetts high-grade cattle and merino sheep, noted for their fine fleece. Oxen remained the principal draft animal for several more decades. Not only were these ponderous beasts able to pull heavier loads than horses, but they also supplied beef and leather. During the 1840s, horses became more prevalent for farm work, since they could also be ridden or used to pull a carriage, sleigh, or pung.

Confronted with poor markets, poor transportation, and a growing season filled with uncertainty, Maine farmers adopted a typically New England strategy of growing a broad range of subsistence crops to hedge against market or crop failure. Small farmers especially found it more prudent to mix market crops with a generous blend of subsistence items. "Mixed husbandry," a system whereby farmers raised the greatest possible variety of products for home use and export, persisted as a strategy through most of the nineteenth century. Hay and pasturage required the greatest amount of land, but farms also yielded pork, poultry, wheat, corn, barley, oats, apples, pears, plums, and vegetables. Under almost any circumstances, at least part of this harvest could be salvaged, and some of it bartered or sold. According to the state's Board of Agriculture, mixed cropping was "less subject to ups and downs by reason of fluctuating markets, as often occurs when the sale of one product has to be depended upon as a source of income."

In addition to raising diversified crops, farmers increased their incomes by processing hides into leather, shaving shingles, harvesting ice, or producing small hand-crafted items like boots, barrels, or ax handles, to be sold to a local merchant, who would in turn ship these products to city wholesale houses. Many of these products were made in small sheds or shops attached to farm outbuildings. Farm women made brooms or straw hats, sold eggs, caned chairs, wove cloth, or took in cut fabric or shoe parts to sew on consignment. Farms in this sense were "miniature factories," producing some form of saleable item almost every month of the year. Like mixed husbandry, this strategy assured the family a diversified source of income and fostered a sense of independence, ingenuity, and self-reliance that became proverbial when applied to the northern New England farmer.

These diversified activities gave a cluttered appearance to the Maine farm; barnyards and dooryards were strewn with various implements, tools, and materials. The State Board of Agriculture complained in 1883 of farm landscapes marred by unsightly objects: boards, fence posts, rails, wagon and cart parts, broken wheels, dilapidated hay racks, tinware, leather scraps, stovepipes, and limbs from orchards, all hidden among the thistles and burdock, which, the Board editorialized, "under the circumstances, become ornamental."

Yet these farms were not "self-sufficient" in a strict sense. They were involved in a very complex economy that included neighborhood trade and barter, several "market trips" yearly to neighboring communities, and exchanges with a local merchant or itinerant peddler. The nature of neighborhood exchanges varied widely. For each cash-based transaction, for example, two more might involve less formal exchanges, perhaps an item traded for the use of a neighbor's field or a promise to help bring in a harvest. These exchanges were part of a web of neighborhood cooperation, involving sharing, bartering, or borrowing, along with exchanges of labor, animals, tools, machinery, health care, or artisan skills. They blended almost imperceptibly with other forms of neighborhood cooperation--road work, schools, celebrations, barn-raisings, quilting bees, and the like--into a close-knit sense of mutual responsibility. Individual farms were far less "self-sufficient" than were these cooperating farm neighborhoods. As in Maine culture, the farm economy enforced a sense of localism that became characteristic of northern New England farm communities.

But even farms neighborhoods were not completely isolated from the broader commercial economy. A good part of farm income in the early 1800s came from transactions made on occasional trips to neighboring towns, where home-industry products, furs, hides, venison, pickled fish, maple sugar, dried apples, pork, wool, and an enormous range of other country products were traded or bartered. An important element in this broader exchange system was the village merchant, who took "country pay"--products from the woods or fields--for credit that often extended over the course of years. Merchants were the intermediaries between the metropolitan market and the barter economy of the village and farm. They stored country products like grains, beans, or shingles in bins or sheds and during the winter hauled them to the nearest port. These products were then shipped "along the shore" to other New England towns, southern ports, or to the Caribbean.

This complicated farm economy, a mix of local and regional markets, fostered a unique blend of values, the nucleus of which was the family. Family concerns overrode values such as individual self-interest and unbridled profit making. True, farmers were engaged in a full-blown commercial-marketing economy, but they marketed only "surplus" crops--commodities left over after family and neighborhood needs had been met. Dedicated first to family security, most Maine farmers were really only casually dependent on external market forces. This balance of capitalistic, cooperative, and family concerns--sometimes called a "security-first" farming system--gave rise to a characteristic mix of New England values: Yankee shrewdness and a spirit of free enterprise balanced by enduring traditions of cooperation and individual self-sacrifice.

Village Life

Small, insular villages formed the heart of this rural society. Because overland travel was so difficult, villages were widely distributed throughout Maine; each cluster of stores, shops, mills, and public buildings served the daily needs of a neighborhood unable to travel great distances on a regular basis. For the same reason, towns themselves were divided into small, evenly distributed neighborhood school districts, and small stores and shops sprang up along the back roads wherever a merchant or dealer found suitable clientele to create a demand for these services.

The country store occupied a pivotal place in village life. It sold almost everything from molasses, sugar, salt, and pork to thread and cloth, and it had a distinctive aura of its own: a heady smell of kerosene, leather, spices, and coffee. It appeared crowded and cluttered, with glass cases displaying candy, tobacco, and sundries, and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with dry goods--pants, "thick" boots, shoes, overshoes, farm frocks, harnesses, hardware of all sorts, patent medicines, tools, and crockery. By the counter stood a keg of molasses, a coffee grinder, and an open firkin of cheese inviting customers to help themselves. Stores were also social gathering places, frequented more often by men than women. Within, villagers gravitated to a pot-bellied stove or hovered over a checkers match to discuss politics, farm conditions, or town problems.

Rum was a central item of exchange in these early country stores. A product of the West Indies, rum and its raw materials--sugar and molasses--were crucial as a return cargo for the loads of lumber and produce Maine shipped to the Caribbean. Maine historian William D. Williamson described the important place this truly ardent spirit occupied in Maine frontier society: "In its primitive state, [sugar or molasses] was an article of great use; and when distilled, it was supposed to be a needful drink for those engaged in the fisheries, in the lumbering business, in the military service, and in navigation--as better enabling them to endure hardships."

Another important ingredient of village life was the annual town meeting, the most democratic of any electoral system. These affairs often disintegrated into heated arguments over road-building or maintenance, schools, support for the town poor, unrestrained domestic animals, or use of the town's commons. Town government typically consisted of three selectmen or assessors, a town clerk, treasurer, and several constables, tax collectors, justices of the peace, and overseers of the poor. Minor officials might include fence-viewers (who arbitrated boundary disputes between adjacent landowners), surveyors of highways, surveyors of wood and bark, sealers of leather, sealers of weights and measures, and tithing-men. Since early cedar-rail fences were inadequate to restrain stray animals, each town chose a hog reeve, who assumed custody of livestock that strayed into cultivated fields. The animals would be confined to a pound, where their owners could retrieve them after paying a small fine. The office of hog reeve usually went to young, newly married males, because it was an irksome chore.

Early in the century, these little communities manifested the social leveling characteristic of frontier America. Distinctions of wealth existed, but they were not translated into political power, simply because government was too limited and informal and thinking too ardently republican in post-Revolution Maine. Generally, a small group of men dominated town affairs, rotating town offices among them, but the offices were largely functionary and the most elemental decisions were made at the annual town meeting. Abuse of economic power by local merchants or landowners was likewise mitigated by the largely personal nature of exchanges, frequently involving neighbors or extended family members. Also, the close interface of religious, moral, family, and business values constrained mercenary impulses to some degree.

This "log-cabin" democracy, insular and innocent of high culture, contrasted sharply with the more stratified and cultured coastal society, where the new merchant aristocracy fed upon trade coming out of the developing interior. Gradually, however, even in the upland regions, some families gave up pewter and homespun for china and Boston fashion; the village "squires," with their more refined manners and paternalist instincts, assumed a dominating role in town politics. Moreover, as towns extended back from the rivers or main roads into the thin, rocky soils of the "backlots," neighborhoods or clans of poorer farmers coalesced. Men in these families worked mainly as wage laborers in the local grist or saw mills, in the fields of the more prosperous farmers, or on the decks of the coasting vessels plying the trade between Maine and the Bay towns.

These farm villages were changing economically as well as socially, with the appearance of larger saw or grist mills, foundries, tanneries, and leatherworking or woodworking shops. The first mills were primitive affairs, with slow, ponderous mechanisms; largely, they served the local farmers. In the 1840s these streamside mills were gradually replaced by complexes of steam-powered shingle, saw, fulling, or grist mills, tanneries, and woolen mills. The flowering of rural manufacturing was amazing: Maine's upland villages turned out chairs, cabinets, barrels, wagons, carriages, foundry products, shoes, saddles and harnesses, caskets, bricks, hats, and--a Maine invention--toothpicks. Despite increasing involvement with outside markets for these products, village manufacturing was still invariably integrated into local agriculture. Like farm work, rural manufacturing was seasonal, slacking off when summer brought low water across the water wheels and alternative jobs in farming. Village trades experienced frequent interruptions for haying, planting, harvesting, or hunting. Labor routines remained flexible and casual to accommodate the seasonality and diversity of work in upland Maine towns.

In addition, many of these shops and mills supplied the surrounding farms. Most important was the blacksmith, who shod the oxen and horses, made iron plow points and axe heads, and repaired machines. In 1856, there were 974 blacksmith shops in Maine--about two for every town and village. Other complements to the farm economy were coopers, tanners, curriers, and millers. Shoemakers frequently traveled from farm to farm, staying with a household until they had made shoes for everyone in the family. Farm women took wool cloth to the local fulling mill, where it was colored and "pressed" and the better cloth sheared to give it a finished appearance.

Challenges at Midcentury

Humorist Seba Smith, who created the fictional Maine rustic Major Jack Downing, helped to stereotype the Maine farmer and fix a regional character for northern New England. Downing, as Smith's representative downeast Yankee, combined sharp wit and droll observation with a naïve provincialism and a distinctive native dialect. Smith's work indeed reflected much of the real Maine character: provincial but shrewd, humble yet honorable. A more somber chronicler from eastern Maine alluded to the sometimes drab and severe aspect of the northern New England farm: Maine rural folk "worked, and that wasn't all; they calculated ... they didn't go into luxuries, and were frugal and saving. Their dress and living was plain." In 1868, Samuel Wasson complained to the State Board of Agriculture about rural Maine's proverbial conservatism. "Example begets example in full fruition," he wrote. "The practice of the father is the ideal of the son. He plows around the same rock heap, and up to the same headland; one furrow beyond would be sacrilege." Too often, Wasson complained, farming involved "muscle without mind."

This technological and financial conservatism was rooted in intergenerational farming. On New England farms, the elder sons usually received land as they reached maturity, and the youngest supported the parents and received the remaining estate. Along with the farm, the children inherited an obligation to care for their parents in their old age and to provide them, as one title transfer read, "with suitable meat, drink, lodging, and a horse and a carriage to ride when they think proper ... and ... medicine ... and ... a decent burial." Fathers and mothers passed down to the younger generation not only the farm itself, but also the techniques, habits, and philosophies of the older generation. Farms remained family institutions through as many as four or five generations, and the overlap of fathers and sons and mothers and daughters working together daily through most of their lives established patterns of thinking that were difficult to dispel.

Pressures eroding this rural conservatism, however, were at work. Commercial development itself brought more modern thinking. The years between 1820 and 1860 marked an era of increasing prosperity, accentuated by innovations that made home life more pleasant. Domestic improvement alleviated some of the drudgery of women's work. Kitchens were modernized with water pumps and butter churns made with revolving paddles instead of the awkward up-and-down plunger. Whale oil and then kerosene lamps replaced candles, and iron stoves, invented in the 1820s, saved wood and proved warmer and more efficient for cooking than fireplaces. Farm women used tinware instead of heavy cast-iron pots and kettles. Pottery ware--jugs, crocks, and later glass mason jars--made canning and preserving easier.

This outpouring of factory-made commodities lured farmers further into the market economy. Mixed-crop farms, Samuel L. Boardman noted as late as 1870, still formed "no inconsiderable portion of the agricultural community," but farming in general tilted toward specialized commercial production between 1820 and 1860. There were several reasons for this, in addition to the desire for "store-bought" goods.

First, as farm technology improved, farmers purchased more expensive equipment. Transition from the hand-held scythe, flail, and windlass to the horse-powered reapers, mowing machines, threshing machines, and hay rakes required capital or credit and drew farmers into the commercial system. Second, expanding manufacturing cities like Lowell, Lynn, Waltham, and Boston, and Maine's own Saco, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, and Gardiner provided attractive markets for farm produce, as did the state's vigorous maritime and lumbering activities. As industrialization proceeded on New England's lower river valleys, towns drew upon Maine farmers for sustenance. Third, Maine's railroad networks were edging into the upland farming districts by the early 1850s. Although the first lines were less than successful, they steadily gained more solid footing. Rail links to growing cities like Boston, Portland, and Lewiston provided better urban markets. Fourth, farmers recognized the advantages that regional specialization and factory production offered over home manufacturing and subsistence crops. They quickly gave up wheat growing when "Genesee flour" arrived via the Erie Canal in the 1820s, for example, and women were equally quick to abandon the laborious task of growing flax and preparing linen when other factory-made fabrics were available. Finally, commercial development was encouraged by a growing spirit of agricultural reform at midcentury. Farm reformers worked at dispelling prejudices of all sorts, and over the course of a decade or so, doubtful experiments in "scientific farming" became the new accepted wisdom. Reformer Samuel Boardman admonished Maine's prudent husbandmen to scrutinize their farms' potential more systematically for commercial potential, to specialize in clover, timothy, or other grasses, in apples, grains, beef, milk, or hoed crops, and to experiment with various implements for better production under given conditions.

Several important agricultural institutions helped pry farmers out of their old habits. Beginning in 1820 with the Kennebec Agricultural Society, farmers in local communities organized their own fairs for the exhibition of agricultural products. Farmers and their wives displayed poultry, pigs, cows, sheep, horses, and household products and received premiums for exemplary displays. Partly to stimulate interest in better farming methods, Ezekiel Holmes founded the Maine Farmer in 1833. Published in Winthrop with Holmes as editor, the Maine Farmer was New England's second-oldest agricultural paper and the seventh in the United States. Holmes, Maine's premier agricultural publisher and reformer, fathered the commercial development of Maine farming; his paper reported on new breeds, seed, and stock, new markets, and new devices for threshing, mowing, raking, planting--even sewing machines. Holmes promoted state and local agricultural societies, served as the first secretary of the State Board of Agriculture, and helped organize cooperative seed stores and farmers' warehouses. He remained editor of the Maine Farmer for thirty-three years until 1865, when Nathan True became senior editor.

The Maine Board of Agriculture, founded in 1857 and active to the end of the century, also encouraged farmers to modernize, upgrade breeds of livestock, and improve depleted soil. The Board published annual reports providing valuable information about new developments and promoted rural uplift by organizing farmers' clubs in nearly every town in the state. County fairs sponsored by the clubs helped to demonstrate and reward scientific advances. Partly for the same reasons--to promote commercial agriculture and a rural way of life--the Maine State College was founded in 1868 and the Grange (Patrons of Husbandry) appeared in Maine in 1874.

Under the auspices of the Maine Farmer, the Board of Agriculture, and farmers' clubs across the state, methods of farming changed gradually. Farmers began to experiment with "artificial fertilizers" such as guano shipped from the Peruvian islands, phosphate of lime, bone meal, or gypsum. They adopted plans for better barns and cellars appearing in farm publications, improved breeds of swine and cattle, and searched for the crops best adapted to a given location or market.

This reform spirit would continue into the second half of the century but increasingly agricultural development was overshadowed by new concerns: rural outmigration, competition from western farming districts, and in some areas soil depletion, loss of forest cover, and erosion. Rural commentary in the second half of the century swung between the poles of dogged optimism and discouragement. But between 1783 and 1861, farm men and women accomplished an epic transformation in the landscape that was mirrored in their unalterable faith in a more prosperous future. The optimism and sense of opportunity that pushed back the barriers of environment and geography were evident in Maine's other resource-based industries as well.


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THE FIRST FARMERS | AGRICULTURE ORGANIZES | AGRICULTURE TODAY | FEATURED INTERVIEWS | TRANSCRIPT

HISTORY TIMELINE | ARTS & CULTURE TIMELINE | NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE | CLASSROOM | HISTORY LINKS | SITE INDEX

HOME: The Story of Maine on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network was made in partnership with the Maine State Museum. Major funding was provided by the  Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency committed to fostering innovation, leadership and a lifetime of learning. Additional funding provided by Elsie Viles.
Major funding for previous seasons of  HOME: The Story of Maine was made possible by a grant from Rural Development, a part of the USDA. Special support is provided by The Maine State Museum and Northeast Historic Films.