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Maine History Online
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Living Off the Land & Sea

"And surely by reason of those sandy cliffes and cliffes of rocks, both which we saw so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people, besides the greatnesse of the Timber growing on them, the greatnesse of the fish and the moderate temper of the ayre…who can but approove this a most excellent place, both for health and fertility?" – Captain John Smith, 1616

Despite British historian Arnold Toynbee's provocative assessment of Maine's people as unsophisticated "children of a hard country" who reside well north of civilization's nurturing "optimum climatic area," Mainers have long known what to do with their bounty, extracting a living from the land and waters of Maine.

Maine's natural resources, geography, and location have allowed its inhabitants to turn the state itself into products for both local and distant use, converting its rocky coast into granite for building political, religious, and educational institutions across the country; harvesting lime for brick-making and fertilizer; river ice for refrigeration down the East Coast and in the West Indies; blueberries, potatoes, and fish for food; and timber for ships, housing, and myriad other uses.

Scaling the Forest

Different constituencies have regarded Maine's forests from different perspectives. A tourist walking through the Maine woods might be invigorated and delighted by an unfolding wilderness.

An early settler might see the woods as an impediment to homesteading and be compelled to chop, then burn swaths of it down. A forester might see board feet of lumber and calculate costs and profits accordingly. Each perspective – and others – has had an impact on the Maine woods.

Retreating glaciers some 12,000 years ago left Maine with navigable rivers, generous harbors, granite coasts, and the sandy soil preferred by white pine. All have played a role in Maine's future, fortunes, and history.

The rivers, harbors, and pine coalesced into premier logging and shipbuilding industries, affected the colonial fortunes of England and the national fortunes of the United States, and converted mass quantities of raw timber into private wealth and commercial transport.

Native Americans had made use of the forests for generations: they sweetened their food with maple sap, peeled bark for housing and canoes, made a variety of tools for daily use, cleared sections of forests for farming, and burned logs for warmth. Guiding the Native peoples in their use of the forest were the teachings of their hero-creator, Gluskabe.

The forests and all creatures that abounded on earth have spirits and, while humans can use the wood and bark of the trees, they use only what they need. Native Americans believe in a balance between humans and other living things, a view Europeans and their descendants did not always share.

The forests of Maine have been a resource since the area first was inhabited by humans – but the uses of the forest have changed and grown – from timber for masts and shipbuilding, to sawn lumber for myriad building projects, to raw material for papermaking, to a recreational resource that boosts the tourism economy.

Venturing from their own deforested realms, early Europeans often were staggered by the size, density, and sheer profusion of the North American forests. According to one member of a 1605 expedition to New England, Maine possessed "…goodly tall Firre, Spruce, Birch, Beech, Oke…good and great, fit timber for any use." Seemingly endless stands of birch, spruce, oak, and above all white pine drew first Europeans, later Americans, upriver and inland to measure and claim the wilderness. England's king and the masting trade got things started.

Seafaring and naval supremacy were so important to the island nation of Great Britain that its North American colonists were forbidden to cut down the largest trees, especially the white pine, perfect for masts, which were strictly reserved for the King's trade. Called the Broad Arrow policy for the particular mark blazed on reserved trees, the intent (one often thwarted by the colonists themselves, and frustratingly difficult to enforce) was to award England the lumber necessary for its naval and merchant fleets.

Commercializing the forest, therefore, awaited the arrival of Europeans, and even then required relevant market forces to emerge. Although significant in terms of what lumber provided in the 17th and 18th centuries –– housing, barrels, ships, pitch, fence posts, bark for tanning, fuel, and charcoal –– lumbering itself did not become a major Maine industry until after the American Revolution.

Logging mapped the same path as settlement at first, moving eastward along the southern coast and up the primary rivers, then far exceeded it, with the major river valleys –– the Saco, St. John, Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot --–– supplying most of the industry's timber as woodsmen ventured well inland.

Logging operations grew in proportion to the national demand for lumber products, which grew in proportion to the expansion of the nation itself over the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. The industry became extensive and complex entailing surveyors to identify likely stands of trees, lumbermen to cut timber, teamsters and their draft animals to haul logs, scalers to measure the timber's worth, and river drivers to float logs to the mills.

The enterprise culminated in mills and sawyers who converted logs into marketable products, and made Bangor the preeminent lumber town of the region from the 1830s through about 1880.

The woods teamed with lumber camps during the winter months. First using axes, later saws, lumbermen systematically harvested specific trees for specific uses –– pine and oak for shipbuilding, cedar for shingles, spruce and fir for pulp, and so on.

Loggers often worked independently before 1820 when logging cooperatives became common. Soon, boom corporations took charge of the logging and removal of timber to sawmills or ships.

Winter was the preferred logging season for cutting trees because of ease of movement over snow and over frozen lakes and rivers. Logs piled on riverbanks in the winter could be moving into swollen spring rivers for transport to sawmills downstream.

The penetration of logging into forests was apparent from the debris left behind or the absence of certain kinds of trees. Venturing three times into Maine's forests in the middle of the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote of seeing stumps "as high as one's head," evidence of cutting when the snows were deep, and of noticing indentations on certain rocks "made by the spikes on the lumberers' boots" as they struggled to portage their bateaux.

Coming across the occasional "defective" white pine rejected by the loggers as worthless, Thoreau lamented the impact logging had had on Maine's forests where a "war against the pines" had inexorably altered the landscape. It was, however, a landscape that had greatly benefited local, national, and imperial economies over the decades, and plumped the pockets of lumber barons, large landowners, and corporations alike.

Folklore romanticizes the figure of the lumberjack glossing over the hardships, dangers, and deprivations of logging operations, particularly the final river run to towns and mills. Indeed, ordinary woodsmen were far less likely to benefit much from either of the industry's major incarnations, whether long logs for sawmills, or short for paper mills.

Loggers lived in camps in the woods during the cutting season. George Kephart, a forester, described the 1920s era pulpwood camps in his book, Campfires Revisited. The bunks provided less than 20 square feet per man for sleeping.

He described the bunks as "double-deck muzzle-loader bunks with deacon seats." The bunks – upper and lower – "had no springs or mattresses, but they were provided with a liberal thickness of hay or straw, which each man could renew at his own pleasure." There were spreads and blankets but no sheets and, sometimes, pillows.

Kephart wrote, "The intention was to wash the spreads once a year by dunking them in hot, soapy water. Sometimes the annual wash was overlooked, regardless of how many men had used the spreads."

Life in the camps was far from luxurious. Many of the loggers came from Canada, working seasonally in the woods in Maine, then returning home in the summer. Others came from communities all over the northern part of the state.

Still, there was a certain romance to the lumbermen and log drivers, captured by several writers, including Fanny Hardy Eckstorm. In her 1904 book, The Penobscot Man, Eckstorm wrote about river drivers leaving to deal with a logjam:

These were the men, who armed heels smote fire from the rocks, whose peavies jangled a battle-note, whose short step lengthened to a stride as they saw the river sweeping past and their boats before them, saw the rapids race at the tail of Ambajemackomas and heard on the upstream draught of air the ominous war of a full flood growling on the Horse Race below … It is a pretty sight to see a phalanx of picked watermen rally, as if by bugle call, to face their ancient enemy, the River.

Banned in the 1970s because of the pollution they caused, the great log drives down the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers are long gone, but the detritus of those efforts encrusts the riverbanks and molders within the riverbeds today. Some tributaries still show remnants of abandoned sluices and dams, once vital elements of moving cut lumber to mills.

Like most industries, logging became progressively mechanized, particularly in the 20th century. Additionally specific species were over harvested, competition emerged from the northwest, Canada, and elsewhere, and the demand increasingly shifted away from cut lumber toward pulp for papermaking.

While lax in the early years, Maine's stewardship of its forests brought better management practices and a reduction in landownership by lumber and paper companies later. The industry has been in a long period of transition since the middle of the 20th century, and its future has yet to be determined as much of Maine's economy diversifies away from traditional natural resource industries.

Cultivating the Land

While colorful, logging has not been the only significant form of land use in Maine history. Maine is not noted for its fertile farmland, but farming and gardening have been enduring elements of the Maine survival strategy.

Lura Beam's charming story of her childhood in Down East Maine at the turn of the 20th century depicts her grandparents' "market gardening" as "an artistic and scientific occupation," an enterprise that offered social and aesthetic value for the consumers, as well as satisfaction for the producers.

Midwife Martha Ballard, who lived in the Hallowell area at the end of the 18th century, regularly recorded details about her vegetable gardens, fields, and medicinal herbs in her journals. Entries such as "Planted squash, Cucumbers, musk and water melons East side house" punctuated her diary and her life along with those of a larger scale, such as "Son Jonathan ploughing our field."

The Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Alfred, and Gorham, like those everywhere, kept detailed records of crops, herbs, fruits and vegetables planted, harvested, and preserved. Although these accounts entailed widely different scales and purposes, all recognized gardening as necessary, significant, and even gratifying work.

Food, whether found, hunted, husbanded, or cultivated, is both primal and profoundly social. It is imbedded in communal celebrations and public rituals. It represents some of the earliest political and economic activities of humankind. Its management and storage provided the context within which large-scale social stratification could occur, and what is known popularly as civilization could emerge.

Traveling seasonally like much of the people of the eastern forests, Wabanaki peoples had taken advantage of the area's bounty summering near rivers and coasts for their fish and shellfish, and moving inland where they could hunt for the winter for countless generations.

They also enjoyed a range of roots, nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, and animals at various times of the year, organized hunts, cultivated maize, as well as varieties of squash and other vegetables, and preserved food for anticipated lean times.

European colonists, who usually brought their own species of animal and vegetable varieties, preferred situating themselves in small riverine or coastal settlements and cultivated land for personal rather than communal use.

Competing concepts regarding land ownership and use often led to bitter conflicts between natives and newcomers, and colonial agrarian settlements, while generally self-sufficient, expanded fitfully.

Maine's relatively remote location, uneven soils, and short growing season, make commercial agriculture a challenge. Even so, Maine settlers were shipping marsh hay to the Boston area in the 18th century, and colonial neighbors regularly traded or sold surplus produce in localized markets, and raised crops to feed themselves, their neighbors and their livestock.

Maine's long practice of diversified subsistence agriculture gradually shifted in the 19th century as it consolidated, specialized and modernized in response to regional and national markets.

Sometime in the mid 19th century wild blueberries were converted to marketable commercial crops, being shipped to Boston and beyond. Soon, canneries sprang up, increasing the market for the crop.

Likewise, once canning became practical at the end of the 19th century, Mainers took to it with gusto as a means of marketing their vegetable crops. More than 100 canneries operated in the state, many specializing in corn. But entrepreneurial farmers and canning factories canned other vegetables farmers grew in large quantity.

As railroads penetrated further north late in the century, Aroostook County's loamy soil proved suitable for commercial potato farming. Maine potatoes have been widely marketed, used for starch, and sold for processing into French fries. While the potato has declined in production and economic importance in the last few decades, it remains a staple of Maine agriculture.

Relatively small dairy farms have been found in all parts of the state since early settlement. The Maine Agricultural Society, organized in the first decades of the 19th century, and its successors sponsored agricultural shows so farmers could learn about different breeds of dairy cows and new farming techniques.

Family dairy farms in Maine, as in much of the country, are increasingly threatened by economic circumstances and regulatory realities.

The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s brought a new kind of settler to Maine and spurred some existing agricultural operations to diversify. Having created a bona fide industry, Maine's organic and small-scale farmers repudiate the mechanized commodity agriculture that has played havoc with so many small and family farms elsewhere, and embrace the emerging ethic of "local agriculture."

From farmers' markets to a notable presence in supermarket produce aisles, these farmers are having some success. While they alone might be insufficient to buoy a flagging agricultural economy, they are proving economic and ecological sustainability can be compatible practices, and demonstrating again the adaptability of Maine's people.

Harvesting the Sea

Nowhere is Maine's northwest Atlantic location more significant than in its fishing industries. Food from the sea drew the Wabanaki to the coast in summer, and Europeans toward the shore decades before settling inland.

Localized trading aside, fishing represented the first truly commercial pursuit in the region, and, along with furs and lumber, ranked among the earliest and most profitable European economic activities in Maine.

Jamestown's erstwhile leader and habitual adventurer, John Smith, remarked in his 1614 Generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles that it would be a poor man who could not feed himself on the coasts of Maine, and a poor nation that would be unwilling to avail itself of such profusion, where "the Salvages compare their store in the sea to the haires of their heads; and surely there are an incredible abundance upon this Coast."

Following the cod, European fleets had been competing for the coastal winter fisheries for decades by the time Smith made his observation, and native peoples had preceded them by millennia.

Adept at salt-water fishing, Maine's indigenous peoples also were consummate fishers of the inland waterways. The presence of massive shell middens along the coast testifies to their prodigious seasonal clamming practices. While fish of all kinds –– fresh, dried, or shell –– sustained Maine's native peoples, they did not expand beyond small-scale fishing and trading activities. Europeans behaved otherwise.

Fishery stations replaced annual voyages for the Europeans, and coastal trade supported fledgling settlements as stations grew into villages, and fishing became a sustainable economic activity along the coast of Maine by the 18th century. Cod, herring, and mackerel soon were joined by salmon and alewives from tidal rivers, and eventually by lobster, clams, periwinkles, sea urchins, and scallops as well. In the process of these expanding fisheries, Maine produced an archetype to rival that of the lumberman –– the New England lobsterman.

Lobsters once were seen as food for the poor, but changing tastes and marketing changed that. Urban seaboard restaurants and Maine resorts generated sufficient demand over the closing decades of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th to make commercial lobstering worth the physical and economic risks.

The lobster smack, a boat with sails especially suited to hauling and placing traps, made shipping live lobsters to regional markets possible, while canneries in Lubec and elsewhere facilitated nationwide shipping. Lobstermen from Eastport, to Vinalhaven and down the coast profited from the expanding enterprise.

Lobstering features a delicate balance of independence and cooperation, with lobstermen working ocean patches individually while coordinating larger activities in harbor-based groups. Skill, loyalty, and tradition are common values, but tensions, even hostilities, flare between individuals or "gangs" from competing harbors, or from resentment of tourists usurping precious coastal spaces.

Although popular in its more humble presentation –– the lobster boil or bake –– the lobster now ranks as haute cuisine around the world, and is among the pricier entrees on most menus.

Unlike most seafood that can be fresh frozen at capture, whole lobsters must be shipped live. That, in combination with volatile markets and competing international regulations regarding seasonal haul and lobster size, has made lobstering a risky venture.

Lobstermen have sought to mitigate the uncertainties of their industry through professionalization and self-regulation with some success. While the weather remains stubbornly unpredictable, and the Gulf of Maine ecosystem vulnerable to pollution, climate change, and over fishing, both lobster and ground fisheries remain important, and traditional, parts of Maine's economy.

Selling the Landscape

Logging the highlands, farming the rocky stretches, and fishing the waterways are customary and familiar means of making a living off the land. Selling the idea of Maine as a special and restorative place, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon, one with enormous significance for the state's reputation and financial wellbeing.

Beginning the first of his three trips to Maine in 1846, Henry David Thoreau took time to admire the landscape with its forest groves and "glorious river and lake scenery," but even so predicted, "It will be a long time before the tide of fashionable travel sets in."

Thoreau got it wrong. Maine's transformation as a tourist destination began in earnest after the Civil War and expanded rapidly into the 20th century with the professionalization of what had been known as the "summer trade," and the robust promotional efforts of the railroads as many attempted to capitalize on the growing demand for outdoor experiences by eastern urbanites.

Existing luxury accommodations were either expanded or new ones built in resort spots such as Poland, the southern coast, western mountains, and Cushing, Mount Desert and other islands.

National trends contributed to tourism's vitality in Maine. Summer fevers had driven wealthier Americans into the countryside from their town and city homes since late colonial times, but it was a different kind of health consciousness, one sustained by a growing middle class with time and funds for leisure pursuits and anxiety about urban, sedentary living that fueled tourism in Maine.

Neurasthenia and other nervous disorders, seen as byproducts of frenetic modern life by the 1880s, required a retreat into meaningful, "natural" experiences.

Men would be manlier, and better husbands and fathers, if they could hunt and fish like Indians and the pre industrial men of legends. Women would be calmer, and better wives and mothers, if they could imbibe nature's restorative power.

Summer rentals and resorts were just the first stage of a deeper transformation of Maine's economic reliance on the aesthetics of its natural bounty. The first national park east of the Mississippi River, Acadia National Park began with the name "Lafayette National Park." It brought tourists to Maine to experience the tallest mountain on the coast, Green Mountain, later known as Cadillac Mountain, as well as ocean, lake, and mountain activities and views.

While the area surrounding Mount Katahdin did not become a state park until 1931, people were drawn to the mountain and surrounding peaks and rivers for many years before that. Thoreau climbed Katahdin in 1846 and wrote about it. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a Maine native, women's rights advocate, and author probably was the first woman to climb the mountain, ascending it in 1849.

Oakes Smith began an account of her adventure:

Mount Katahdin, the highest summit of Maine had been from childhood associated with all my dreams of wild and magnificent scenery. Throned in the north amid frost and snows, amid old primeval forests, the haunt only of huge animals, who spurned the luxury of the level country and bid themselves amid its savage recesses, I had often brooded over the intense solitude and wished that some grand old legend of love or strife were mingled with its name; now I rejoice that Katahdin stand unassociated with the puny pulsations of human hearts, a solitary Wendigo, or Stone Giant, heavy with age and seamed with the scars of ages.

Hers and other accounts of adventures in the Maine woods, mountains, and seascapes helped draw more and more tourists to the wilderness Maine represented.

The Appalachian Trail, begun in 1921 and completed in 1937, stretches from Mount Katahdin to Georgia. It, too, draws on and perpetuates Maine as a wilderness.

Another promoter of the Maine outdoors experience was Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby of Phillips (1854-1946), who was a fly fisher, hunter, and outdoor enthusiast and who worked for the Maine Central Railroad as parts of its publicity efforts to attract ridership and tourism to Maine. She was proof that women as well as men were interested in outdoor adventures.

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway earned that designation in 1966, when the Maine Legislature took steps to preserve the 92-mile trail of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. It already had been a destination for adventure-minded canoeists for many years.

Henry Withee of Rockport and Horace Bailey, a Maine native who lived in Massachusetts, undertook the trip in July 1911.

Withee wrote in his account of the journey, "… almost everybody, except for a few abnormal unfortunates, has a natural love of living in the open, of the woods, and for the wild things that inhabit them."

At the end of his account, he wrote, "We had been in close touch with moose, over a hundred deer, thousands of smaller animals and game-birds, myriads of songbirds, and had the finest fishing one can find in this country. We had sound, hard bodies, clear, alert eyes and minds and thoroughly alert appetites."

Maine tourism, by the early 20th century, had become a full-blown industry, and the state absorbed flocks of vacationing Americans conditioned to see the outdoors as hospitable and healthy and themselves as needing the same.

Temporarily contracting during the Depression years, tourism expanded following the World War II with advances in automobiles, highway systems, campgrounds, and "motor hotels" catering to rising numbers of American families on vacation.

Not everyone in Maine appreciates the tourist economy. Wryly referred to as the "summer plague," tourist season can mean added traffic, crowds, stress, and annoyance for year-round residents.

Despite various complaints and issues associated with tourism, it provides a healthy boost to the Maine economy. In 2006, tourism accounted for 15 percent of the gross state produce and one in six Maine jobs.

What connects lumbering, farming, fishing, and vacationing is Maine's particular situation. Cursed by some, blessed by many, Maine's unique combination of forest, soil, water, and climate has contributed to its economic viability and the vitality of its people who have drawn from their location creatively and resourcefully for centuries.