HOME: The Story of Maine

"A Love for the Land"



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For generations, Mainers have tilled the rocky soil until it bloomed, survived changes in technology, adapted to the weather, and etched the State's unique identity into the landscape. The story of Maine's love for the land next, on "HOME: The Story of Maine."

Billie Gammon, Norlands Living History Center:

Can you imagine acres and acres of hay being cut with a man swinging a scythe? Farming in Maine has changed so much. Oxen were really what a farmer needed and that's what people used from the time of settlement here when they first arrived here. And ox power was in for many, many years clear, clear up through the 1860's it was mainly ox power. And then horses began to come in because they were much faster than oxen as, as cars are faster than horses. Horses were providing the power everything was horse-drawn equipment, you know your, your plow, your harrow, everything.


Ah, my Dad was a dairy farmer. When my Father first was delivering milk in Augusta he had a horse-drawn vehicle. After it was retired and he got a car, a Ford car. And he used that to deliver milk. Now there wasn't as much room in that Ford as there was in that wagon so you had to pack the milk very carefully some cases went on the floor, some went on the back seat. You packed it very, very carefully. It really made my Father's work so much easier, so much faster. Think how much quicker you could get to those 4 miles to the city in a car than you could driving a horse. And each change from oxen to horse from horses to mechanization made everything faster. You could take care of more acreage as time went on and do more.


The legacy of Maine's farmers is the open farmland they shaped from the wooded, rocky terrain. Their story is an inspiring tale of hardship, innovation, and remarkable endurance. European settlers began coming to the region almost four centuries ago. From the beginning, they were farmers, and, well into the 1800s, these new settlers feared each season would be their last.

Richard Judd, Associate Professor, University of Maine:

This is a time we have somewhat romanticized as the, the setting of a lantern-lit table, uh, with big pine floors, um, as something very romantic. But, by in large, it was a difficult life. It was a very isolated life. Farmers and farmer's wives were continually fighting gravity, you might say, all day long, and it showed on their, on their faces on their bodies.

There never was such a thing as a day off can you imagine it? You're just totally, totally tied to that farm and there was so much to do gardens to plant, crops, the oats to plant and take care of and then you always had to know that winter was coming and you had to have wood enough to keep your house warm. It was just a constant struggle, up very, very early in the morning and work until you dropped at night.

The hard work was paying off. By 1820, the number of farmers in Maine rose above 55,000, and markets for their wheat, corn, and potatoes were growing in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

But getting products to market was a constant challenge. Roads were non-existent or impassible a good part of the year.


Transportation was extremely difficult and very seasonal. Um, during mud season people did not travel much. During the winter, produce could be carried uh, over the snow on sleighs, but in spring and fall uh, pretty much people are stuck pretty much on the farm itself.


Remote and isolated, farmers tended to be uninformed of advances in farm practices and techniques. Their children's education equally suffered because of the lack of good transportation. To attend high school required tremendous sacrifice.


It wasn't possible to go to high school unless I could find a place to live 4 miles in to the city of Augusta. There were no school buses, no provision made for getting students in to school. So I had to find a place to live in the city of Augusta. You became a mother's helper and moved in with a family who had children and needed an extra pair of hands. They called it working your board.


Those "working their board" could not work the farm, a fact that forced most children to end their education after just a few years of grammar school.


As the 1800s progressed, incentive for change came only with economic crisis. Demand diminished for Maine's produce, meat, and dairy products as new rail lines connected much of the east coast with the fertile farmlands of the midwest.

Frank Popper, Professor of Urban Planning, Rutgers:

A central Maine farm say all of a sudden had to worry about competition from Illinois or Ohio or Indiana in a way it didn't really have to fifty or a hundred years earlier.

David Smith, Professor Emeritus, U. Maine:

The railroad had connected virtually every part of the United States. That meant that other places with a more favorable climate, more favorable soils, uh, could grow crops that could be grown in Maine and they could do it for less money.


Farmers wanted to be better informed and banded together like never before. Agricultural societies took hold and, to help stimulate interest in improved farming practices, they organized what would become a statewide institution, agricultural fairs.


Well, fairs grew up in New England in the 1820s. Uh, they're a logical outcome of when your harvest is over you want to show your prize things to your neighbor and he wants to show his to you and pretty soon you're going to meet some weekend at a, at a town nearby, larger town and you're going to exhibit what you show and then share, share your ideas.


And you can go see the animals. And can you watch the horse pulling and the oxen pulling and all the things, the exhibits and the things that have been put out.


Fairs were just the beginning. To bring information regularly to farmers, the agricultural newspaper, The Maine Farmer was launched in 1833.

Agricultural societies were soon joined by the Maine Board of Agriculture in 1857, which went on to become the Maine Department of Agriculture in 1901. 1868 brought the creation of the Maine State College of Agriculture and the Mechanical Arts, later known as the University of Maine, in Orono. With its focus on agricultural education, it signaled the beginning of a more scientific approach to farming by the up-and-coming generation. One of the college's most ardent supporters was the Maine State Grange, which took root in 1873 with the organization of the Eastern Star Grange in Hampden. Six months later, the Maine State Grange formed in Lewiston. Local chapters developed rapidly and the Grange hall became the central gathering place. Farmers benefited from the affordable insurance companies, cooperative stores, educational opportunities, and lobbying efforts of the Grange and membership soared.

Clyde Berry, National Grange Lecturer:

They were what we called an activist group at that point. We hear about activist groups today that are real radical. And the Grange was the radical, activist group of uh, the late 1800s.

Philip Herbert, Maine State Grange Master:

Rural electricity, we didn't have it. Mail, we didn't have it. We figured that the people in the rural communities should have the opportunity to, to have these different things. The Grange fought for those.


The Grange acted almost as a union for farmers. It gave them a voice. And when you put a lot of people's voices together things begin to happen.

The Grange helped farmers integrate a century of invention. The railroad reached into every corner of Maine. Graded roads and automobiles were ending isolation. And marvels such as electricity made sure farm life would never be the same again.


Think what it meant, it meant that my Mother no longer had to carry water or we had to carry it for her. You could have a pump driven by electricity so you could bring the water right into the house and you could heat it under some circumstances. Move the hay, so many things that, that electricity could do and did do. It just changed life forever.


Labor saving devices allowed farmers something they had not had much of before - leisure time. However, life was still not easy on the farm. Better education and improvements in transportation had an unexpected effect on the younger generation. They were leaving…in droves. They were looking for the promise of better wages and new opportunities. Some went west, and others were lured to the newly industrialized cities. They were leaving on the very trains that brought such stiff competition from the mid-west.


We as individuals and even the people in the National said, "Hey, this is it. They're going to move off. They want the money, but they're going to move back." But it didn't happen. It didn't happen. Not like they figured it would.


"…Everyone's leaving the farm and the farms so laboriously cleared by our ancestors are growing up to woods and bushes again. The houses and the barns are closed and tumbling into nothingness."-Governor Israel Washburn Jr. - 1870.


Between 1870 and 1880 over half of Maine's towns lost population, and, by 1900, Maine had 5000 fewer farms than it did in 1880. The towns hardest hit saw dozens of farms abandoned. Temple, 62; Hope, 45; Rumford, 42.

We've to some extent forgotten what happened. But it was very noticeable. It must have been enormously painful. It was thought of as yes, this was opportunity. These were some of the likely settlers who would open up the mid-west open up the west and so on. But it was sad what had to happen to northern New England in the process.


In Maine the farms are small compared to those farms of the middle west. And the soil in most places is rocky. In the Middle West the soil is so much deeper, there aren't any rocks. And the acres stretch unlimited.


Farm women and girls who couldn't simply set off to seek their fortunes out west began working in factories throughout southern New England as well as growing in-state industrial centers like Lewiston, Portland, Saco, and Biddeford. By the late 1920s, a quarter of Maine's native sons and daughters lived in other states. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the remaining farm families needed each other more than ever to get by.


I remember during the depression time, when people couldn't afford to pay for their milk and my father would keep leaving it just the same, you know. And I can hear him just like it was yesterday saying to my mother "I just can't stop leaving the milk even if they can't pay. They've got little children." And the strange thing was, ten years later I became a teacher and I had some of those children who must have been the babies that he left the milk for.


No one knew that these students would grow up to see yet a new age for the farms of Maine. The farmers who stayed behind used their ingenuity to survive and developed niche crops. They were paving the way for the next century of agriculture in Maine.


Maine farmers are a tenacious lot. They continue to work and work their lives away while they strive to bring good crops from the hard, rocky soil of Maine.


The people who stayed did fairly well. Their families tended to consolidate the abandoned lands into larger farms. They learned to use the farms more effectively as they found market niches, places where large-scale western agriculture didn't really fit the bill. This would be in areas such as production of hay which is a very low price bulky crop, um and couldn't be effectively shipped, from, say the Ohio Valley.

It also found a market niche in uh, blueberries for instance, in Macintosh apples, types of apples that um, take a nice cold snap, uh to make them ripe. Um, it did well in seed potatoes which also take a particular climate that uh, Maine does well. Farmers also shifted from Indian corn to sweet corn in the 1870s when you began to see canning companies uh, go into virtually every upland town in Maine. Small canning shops as they were called, corn factories, uh, which would put up corn grown by local farmers. These would be shipped all over the country. Maine sweet corn actually had a nationwide reputation, so if anyone wanted to sell corn in a can and they put Maine sweet corn on that can, it would sell better than any other label.

Les Boothby, Century Elm Farms, Livermore:

Well, we used to raise forty acres of sweet corn when we had the factories here in Maine. And, then eventually - that was all picked by hand. Then eventually we got so the factory owned a pick-up. Then the family you just drove the truck up. Boy that was wonderful. Hard work. We'd pick it and the truck wasn't even a dump truck, the first ones we had. You used to walk up a plank and dump your basket of corn and go get another one. And, I remember volunteering to go help unload it, and I never was so sick in my life before we got that truck unloaded, where it didn't dump. Then we got the dump trucks and they were wonderful.

Norma Boothby, Century Elm Farms, Livermore:

You learn to appreciate every new device that comes along after you have done these things.


My grandfather bought lots of farms - seven little farms. They were just little, bitty farms. They always had a flock of hens, you know everybody had their own hens. We'd sell hatching eggs for a buck and a quarter a dozen. That was a lot of money for eggs in those days. Made good money. Actually pulled the farm out of debt.


There's always that time that you fear that everything's going to go bad, but you always pray for that time when everything goes swimmingly and you make a profit.


At the turn of the century, an unexpected opportunity arose for agriculture and Maine farming underwent another lasting change. The sons and daughters who had left Maine were returning with a new appreciation for their heritage.

Deb Popper, Political Sci. Professor, CUNY:

The region that had sent all these people out, many of them came back, you know, to see their families. Many of them, ah looked at this area with new eyes, with their urban eyes and came up with lots of plans for it. Was the leftover farmstead that wasn't functioning anymore a pretty sight or not? Could it be painted and made into a pretty sight and turned into something for, an inn for tourists to come for a week? Uh, so how did you change that depopulated landscape to make it a more romantic site. Could it be painted and made into a pretty sight and turned into something for, an inn for tourists to come for a week? Uh, so how did you change that depopulated landscape to make it a more romantic site.


Visitors welcomed the sight of old mills, overgrown orchards, and other signs of rustic neglect. By 1909, they were putting twenty million dollars into the state per year, giving the economy a major boost. Some tourists rented rooms from farmers; others bought abandoned farms as summer homes. The farm had come to occupy center stage in the new popular image of Maine.


The way people have used the landscape has really defined Maine to the rest of the nation. It's, it's been a crucial part of our own self-identity as Mainers, and it's been a very crucial part of the way people outside the state view Maine today. You have um, a pastoral landscape, a landscape of mixed farms and forests, fields, and country towns. And this was really a product of Maine agriculture.

Bob Spear, Commissioner of Agriculture:

Tourism and farming, in my opinion, uh, have a very strong relationship, because what brings people here to Maine, farming has a lot to do with that. People come here. They come from the cities. They come to Maine to look at the open land that we have the fields, the cropland, the orchards, the cattle in the fields. So, farming contributes a lot to the three-billion-dollar tourism industry we have. Did you realize that farming and agriculture here in Maine employ more people than Bath Iron Works, except we're spread around the whole state? But, we play a great part in the economy here in Maine.

N. Boothby:

The people who come for the summer, the summer people, um, they love farm stands and business does change. Part of that is tourists and part of it is the fresh produce that's coming in too. Our own local people just are, are waiting for that. And corn, it's practically a celebration.


Maine farming survived its difficult transformation with no models to follow for solutions. Farmers had to rely on their own ingenuity and perseverance. Today, the Great Plains that once lured away the youth of Maine, now are struggling to hold onto their own.


The Great Plains is probably now where New England was in terms of the switchover say in about 1880 or 1890 or so. And they're facing standard problems of a declining agricultural economy. Population is falling off. Economic return is falling off. Young people leaving. The place is becoming very aged.


Just like Maine, the Great Plains are finding solutions in adaptation and diversification.


I think the primary lesson from the history of agriculture in Maine is that Maine farming was always adaptive. It's a history of continual adaptation to new market forces, uh, to new transportation developments. And Maine farmers from the 1820s on have learned very effectively to adapt to these new developments. And we will, I think, continue into the twenty-first century to do the same.


As Maine heads into the 21st century, agriculture faces a whole new challenge. Open farmland is at risk like never before from urbanization and sprawl.


We've got to really appreciate what good farmland is and hang on to it because the good farmland in Maine didn't come easily. It was cleared at great price and it doesn't take it long to grow up.


We're losing land to blacktop, we're losing farmland as the developments move further and further away from the city and into the country.

Spear: A lot of these towns only have one or two farms left in their towns. It's nice to have new houses, but I think we've got to be careful where we put them. Because once we lose prime farmland, you won't get that back.

Narrator: What is Maine's contribution to the world's food basket today? Visit our website for more information.

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