Maine was chained to an economic structure that saw its heyday in the 19th century.
Trends in farming helped shape the economic geography of the "Two Maines."
By the early 1980s Maine stood in the forefront of the nation's water pollution control effort, ready to pioneer other forms of environmental legislation.
In a 1945 address to the legislature, newly elected Governor Horace Hildreth vowed that postwar Maine would not return to a New-Deal "boondoggle." Nor would Maine seek "outside capital" as a means of resuming prewar production, since "the measuring stick ... for ... absentee ownership [is] ... not only how much money is put into Maine, but also ... how much money is taken out of Maine."
The typical Mainer, in his vision, would tend his own farm and work in a nearby mill, foundry, or factory. He would cultivate his independence, save his money, and perhaps start his own small business. This was the door to opportunity in Maine, and neither big government nor big corporations would be "allowed to close it."
Like many in this war-torn decade, Hildreth harked back to a simpler time when small-town, face-to-face relations insulated citizens from the nightmare of mass society and totalitarianism that darkened the previous years.
Insular in his thinking, Hildreth reflected a general nostalgia for things as they were, but for Maine, the past was more a burden than a sanctuary. America emerged from World War II with a booming economy, a new consumer-based society, and a future that promised unbounded prosperity.
Maine, on the other hand, was chained to an economic structure that saw its heyday in the 19th century. Its schools, hospitals, prisons, and insane asylums were antiquated; its tax system inequitable, and its roads out of repair. Forty years after the automobile revolution farmers still struggled through rivers of mud to reach their markets in springtime.
The years after Hildreth's speech brought mill closings, rising levels of water pollution, continued out-migration, and an "attitudinal slump" that reinforced the distressing cycles that made the transition to a modern economy all the more difficult. Nostalgia was no refuge for Maine; its future lay in closing the gap with the rest of the nation, hell-bent for the future.
Rural Maine at a Crossroads
Agricultural trends mirrored the gap between Maine and the nation. Wartime labor shortages and high commodity prices triggered a revolution in American agriculture, bringing new labor-saving machines; a new array of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides; and increased production through hybrid seeds, artificial insemination, hormone growth stimulants, and antibiotics.
Rural electrification modernized farm work and domestic life across the nation, while mechanization released farms from the constraints of labor supply and led to dramatic increases in size.
Farms in the more remote sections of Maine were too poor to make this transition. Burdened by poor roads, limited social services, and declining off-farm job prospects, families withdrew from the farm economy, often through a series of decisions: "I sold the cows when the barn floor collapsed, loaned out one horse when its mate died, sold the sheep when the fences got too weak, and now I rent the tillage land and have a town job."
For many, this train of events ended in out-migration, which compounded the poverty problem for those who stayed behind.
In Aroostook County and in the central river valleys, farmers joined the agricultural revolution but found the postwar world a far more competitive place. Earlier, the federal government had launched a series of massive irrigation projects on the Columbia, Snake, Sacramento, Rio Grande, and Colorado river systems, bringing millions of acres of formerly arid lands into farm production, and the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act produced a highway system that allowed these new western growers to compete in eastern markets with minimal extra transport costs.
Maine farms followed national trends, albeit more modestly, in mechanization, specialization, and farm consolidation. The number of farms in Maine had peaked in 1880 at 64,000. By 1940 Maine had only 39,000 farms, and the figure dropped to 6,800 in 1975, while average farm size increased from 105 acres to 221 acres. These larger farms specialized in potatoes, dairy products, broiler chickens, and eggs, which together accounted for over 70 percent of Maine's total farm output.
The Maine poultry industry exemplifies the uncertainties in these new trends. Since autos and trucks were replacing horses by the 1930s, Maine farmers no longer grew large amounts of hay, and they began using their barns to raise poultry.
During the war, chicken was one of the few meats not rationed, and in the postwar years demand for chicken continued upward. New York processors entered in the business, and by the 1950s these middlemen were supplying chicks, feed, litter, and medicine, and Maine farmers providing space and labor.
The number of facilities in Maine increased more than 1000 percent between 1945 and 1950, but in the early 1980s the broiler industry collapsed when producers south of New York entered the market with cheaper feed, energy, and transport costs and a vigorous advertising campaign. In Maine, revenue dropped from $93 million in 1979 to $53 million just two years later.
Dairy farmers expanded during the post-war era, investing in milking machines, antibiotics, artificial insemination, and scientifically designed feed rations as the average dairy operation increased from 20 to over 80 cows.
Those who invested in this new technology sometimes saw production outstrip demand when others did the same, reducing profits in the long run – a classic "technology treadmill." This cycle hurt small and middle-sized farms particularly, contributing to the decline in farms, farmers, and land under cultivation, even while capitalization and productivity per acre increased.
Maine farmers gained much from this agricultural revolution, in living standards and release from the drudgery of farm and domestic work. But they also created a rural landscape far different from the familiar town-and-country setting they knew before the war.
In the first half of the century, farms had been to a greater extent self-contained, providing their own seed, fertilizer, horsepower, and wood for construction, tools, and heating. They sold their product to local co-ops or merchants and took their timber, hides, corn, grains, and dairy products to local processors. The rural community in turn provided schools, churches, fairs, grange halls, professional offices, stores, shops, banks, building-supply outlets, and coal depots.
In the decades after 1945 farmers met their needs through metropolitan banks, national commodity dealers, giant farm equipment and supply corporations, and vertically integrated food conglomerates, and small towns lost much of their social and economic salience.
Some survived as regional trade centers, but others were swallowed up by suburban expansion or lapsed into economic and social decay. Trends in farming helped shape the economic geography of the "Two Maines."
Maine's "Little Great Depression"
Maine's industrial landscape was likewise a mix of growth and stagnation. Job losses in older industries producing lumber, fish, quarry products, textiles, and leather encouraged out-migration, and this in turn skewed the state's demographic structure toward those too young or too old to contribute to the workforce.
This demographic profile reduced Maine's tax base and strained its social services, further slowing the transition to a new, more competitive economy. These demographic and economic feedback loops contributed to what some called Maine's "Little Great Depression."
The paper industry, controlling about 80 percent of Maine's commercial forest and a quarter of its manufacturing workforce, and the defense industry, predicated on shipbuilding at Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and military bases at Limestone, Brunswick, Bangor, and Presque Isle, were important exceptions to the general malaise, providing high-paying jobs and steady growth. After World War II shoe production shifted into "stylish up-to-the-minute shoes" and remained steady despite low wages.
Cotton textile mills were the most important ingredient in Maine's industrial depression. The First Boston Corporation acquired five mills from New England Public Service Co. in 1945 and modernized the equipment. Between l945 and l95l Bates Manufacturing in Lewiston spent another $11 million on improvements and expansion, becoming the largest employer in the state.
Still, mills in the American South and postwar Japan had enormous advantage in newer technology, larger physical plants, and cheaper labor, and by 1953 Maine's mills were losing orders and changing owners with disconcerting frequency. In 1954 alone Maine lost 2,000 textile jobs, and New England, 25,000.
Bates Manufacturing responded by shifting to high-quality bedspreads, and the Androscoggin Division, with l,850 looms, moved into synthetic fabrics. When several other New England mills were shuttered, those in Maine picked up their contracts, but stability merely drew in outside financiers interested in short-term profits.
Goodall-Sanford Industries passed into the hands of the Burlington Mills Company from South Carolina, which promptly closed several mills and narrowed the product line. In l955 New York financier Lester Martin moved to acquire several other Maine mills, and in response, Bates officials and others lobbied to amend the company charter to prevent the takeover. When the bill failed passage, Martin gained control, closed several mills, and laid off nearly l,000 workers.
In 1955 the U.S. Department of Labor named Sanford and Biddeford top priority distress areas and offered a preference in bidding on government contracts.
Mill-town officials acquired vacant buildings, leased space to new businesses, and set aside industrial parks. Lewiston created an Industrial Development Department to advertise the state's "Industrial Heartland."
Over the next two decades the city attracted several businesses producing light, high-value electronic goods like instrument components, semiconductor transistors, and telephones. In some cases these industries proved ephemeral, but they set Maine on a path toward diversified light manufacturing.
By this time, however, the shoe industry was falling on hard times. Maine's emergence from depression conditions was still years away.
Edmund Muskie and Maine's Political Renaissance
Political scientist Duane Lockard noted in 1959 that "in few American states are the reins of government more openly or completely in the hands of ... economic interest groups than in Maine," a situation he attributed to lack of competition in the political arena.
The Republican lock on Maine politics once again put the state outside the national pattern, but by the early 1950s the party was beginning to lose its grip on politics. Economic stagnation led many voters to question the party's collusion with paper, textile, and utilities interests, and this critical tone widened a split between old-guard and liberal Republicans.
In 1954 Democratic party chairman Frank M. Coffin and Waterville lawyer Edmund S. Muskie launched a low-budget, statewide grass roots campaign that ended in one of the great political upsets in Maine history.
Republican Governor Burton Cross, somewhat blunt in his political pronouncements, proved unpopular after failing to take an interest in rural poverty, and with the economy soft and Maine labor on the move, Muskie and Coffin personified the youth and energy voters were looking for.
The son of an immigrant Polish Catholic tailor, Muskie grew up in Rumford, attended Bates College and Cornell Law School, and practiced law in Waterville. His mill-town origins insured solid backing from the paper and textile workers' unions and their immigrant Catholic rank and file, but Muskie also received support from farmers, small shop and factory owners, and professionals, all frustrated by the state's poor economic performance.
His victory reflected a nationwide anti-monopoly mood evidenced in a series of populist Democratic victories across the northern tier of states.
Still, the small-business element in Muskie's constituency dictated moderation, and the new governor faced an overwhelmingly Republican legislature with powerful corporate allies. Thus like Hildreth before him, Muskie turned first to encouraging local industries. He launched an ambitious 37-point program to shore up the economy with improvements in schools, roads, and research capability.
To boost consumer spending, he advocated increases in the minimum wage, stronger labor legislation, and broader sales tax exemptions. Muskie was reelected easily in 1956, and with a friendlier legislature he created a new Department of Industry and Commerce and issued bonds for highways, hospitals, and the state's university and teachers' colleges.
Reminiscent of the New Deal Maine had rejected so decisively only two decades earlier, Muskie's administration focused on an "aggressive program of industrial development," beginning with a statewide survey of economic assets – labor force, housing and building stock, raw materials, transportation systems, and potential industrial sites.
Muskie faced a difficult challenge. The state's large land area, scattered small towns, and sparse population complicated the problem of providing health, educational, and welfare services, as did its heavy dependence on property taxes, its aging population, and its stagnant economy, all of which kept tax revenues low.
Traditionally Maine spent disproportionately more for highways than for education and welfare, and in 1955 the state bore only 18 percent of the cost of education, meaning great disparities in access to schooling.
Rural poverty, characterized by overcrowded multi-generational housing, outdoor plumbing, lack of electricity, and limited access to doctors and schools, was almost impossible to root out, given the state's inability to fund adequate education and welfare programs.
In 1957 Muskie and Senator Roy Sinclair, chairman of the joint Legislative Education Committee, drafted an act to increase aid for towns that joined together as School Administrative Districts.
In addition, the state offered "foundational" aid to ensure each district a minimum level of funding. As a result of the Sinclair Act, students in rural Maine, often for the first time, gained access to science labs, school libraries, and specialized curricula.
In 1961, despite surprising resistance, the legislature authorized the state to accept federal funds for education, opening the door for millions of dollars in school-aid programs, and in 1965 it endorsed a "uniform effort principle" that required each town to levy a proportion of its property tax base for schools. If the amount was insufficient to meet minimum per-student funding criteria, the state made up the difference.
Another mid-1950s initiative was transportation. Maine had completed a four-lane, user-fee highway from Kittery to Portland between 1941 and 1947, and in 1949-1955 the Maine Turnpike Authority extended this route through Lewiston to Augusta.
The new "mile-a-minute" highway, the largest road construction project in Maine history, included 91 bridges and set national standards for safety planning. Federally funded Interstate 95 extended this system to Bangor in 1960 and to Houlton in 1967.
Muskie's administration was not so successful that Maine recovered from the textile depression, but it was successful enough that he defeated Republican incumbent Frederick G. Payne in a Senate race in 1958, becoming Maine's first popularly elected Democratic U.S. senator (those prior to 1913 having been elected by the state legislature).
With Democrats back on track, Maine fell in line with the rest of the nation politically. Subsequent administrations shifted between parties, Muskie being followed by Democrat Clinton Clauson, who was succeeded by Republican John Reed, Democrat Kenneth Curtis, and Independent James Longley.
In the U.S. Senate, Muskie joined Republican Margaret Chase Smith, a popular senator who established a national reputation with her "Declaration of Conscience" speech in the Senate on June 1, 1950, condemning the tactics used by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in his anticommunist crusade. Like Muskie, the Skowhegan native came from a working-class background.
Maine and the Environment
In addition to tackling Maine's difficult economic problems, Governor Muskie addressed a longstanding need to improve the quality of Maine's river and coastal waters.
Before the war Maine hosted some 37 pulp and paper mills, 80 textile mills, and 11 large tanneries, each dumping tons of waste into the state's rivers daily.
This, along with raw sewage from riverside municipalities, raised serious health and nuisance problems. During the Depression, industrial output was relatively low, but as Maine and the nation mobilized for war, the pollution problem quickly became intolerable.
Because of slime, algae and foam on the rivers and the odor arising from many rivers, people began to protest and demand action. The complaints were mainly economic, but activists also raised quality-of-life considerations that would grow in importance as the economy improved.
As a result of these protests, the state created the Androscoggin River Authority in 1941. Engineers at Bates College required mill owners to build holding lagoons, and the authority set levels for discharge from the lagoons.
Meanwhile, a statewide Sanitary Water Board began classifying all Maine rivers at existing pollution levels; once completed, the classification would halt further deterioration of Maine's upper waters.
Still, the response was wholly inadequate; with no enforcement authority and an annual budget of only $400, the board moved at a glacial pace, and not a single action was taken against a polluter between 1942 and 1953.
The mid-1950s brought rising popular concern and creation of Maine's first modern environmental organization: the Citizens for Conservation and Pollution Control, formed in 1953 in Auburn.
Muskie's equivocal response reflected the realities of the era, in Maine as well as elsewhere. State agencies with an obvious interest in clean water – the Board of Health, the Fish and Game Commission, and the Development Commission – stood mute, and previous governors had all but ignored the crisis.
The "action clubs" in Lewiston and Auburn were in the hands of business leaders who, despite their frustrations, were ideologically unprepared to support strong regulatory measures, and Maine's citizenry, steeped in a tradition of citizen-lawmaking, feared giving a small body like the Water Improvement Commission veto-power over key segments of Maine's economy.
Industry lobbyists – the "Third House" in the state legislature – exercised enormous political influence, and legislators typically deferred to their mill-town colleagues when bills affecting paper production were proposed. The most formidable barrier, however, was Maine's economic climate. With the textile mills mired in depression, legislators were unlikely to endorse regulations that would further jeopardize Maine's competitive position.
Progress on pollution was accordingly slow, but it was steady. And, by the 1960s, Senator Muskie was well positioned to aid Maine's antipollution campaign at the federal level. Under Muskie's leadership the federal government provided matching funds to encourage towns and cities to build waste treatment plants.
Although most pollution came from industrial sources, the new municipal treatment plants changed the politics of pollution. Cities began pressuring the legislature to force industry to do its share, and the Maine Municipal Association, once a formidable ally of the paper and textile industries, fell in line behind its constituents.
The federal Water Quality Act of 1965 required states to issue water quality standards, and these new regulations helped level the playing field as Maine tightened down its own regulations.
The environment was becoming a prominent political issue. In 1966 Bowdoin College photographer John McKee published As Maine Goes, a series of graphic black-and-white images depicting Maine landscapes degraded by pollution and sprawl, and in 1968 environmentalists Peter Cox and John Cole launched the weekly Maine Times, which set new standards for hard-hitting investigative reporting on environmental issues.
Jean Pollard's Polluted Paradise: The Story of the Maine Rape and William Osborn's Paper Plantation: The Nader Report on the Pulp and Paper Industry in Maine, both published in 1973, challenged industry's monopoly over Maine's rivers and forests, and both received widespread media attention throughout the state.
As the textile crisis abated, Maine people, like those all across the nation, became more interested in quality of life issues. Business leaders were increasingly aware of the rising costs of pollution and the benefits of water as a means of attracting new people and new industries.
No less important, Maine's second largest industry, tourism, reached a critical juncture when the new interstate highway network extended the range of auto touring. Maine would either benefit or suffer from increased automobility – depending on whether it maintained its image as a refuge from the ills of modern urban-industrial society.
The most important impulse behind the clean water legislation, however, was a broadening range of grass-roots organizations pushing for pollution control. Advocates included the League of Women Voters, the Maine Federation of Women's Clubs, and the local Parent-Teacher Associations, all concerned about health threats to children.
The State Grange worried about contaminated water, pastures, and fields, and the many rod and gun clubs across the state were interested in improving river sport-fisheries. Clam diggers along the coast protested the lost of tidal flats, and resort, hotel, and camp owners rallied their local chambers of commerce.
In the mid-1960s, the Water Improvement Commission completed classifications for the state's major industrial rivers, and popular pressure was sufficient to ensure high ratings. Industrial rivers generally received "C" ratings, meaning only that they would be "free from scums, slicks, odors, objectionable floating solids, chemicals, and other conditions inimical to fish life."
While the gain seems modest, it signaled that the administrative apparatus was in place for gradual improvement, and over the next decade Maine tightened the restrictions in each category.
By the early 1980s Maine stood in the forefront of the nation's water pollution control effort, ready to pioneer other forms of environmental legislation like wildland zoning, bottle and can redemption, community growth planning, forest management, coastline and wetlands conservation, billboard control, and Atlantic salmon restoration.
In the years between 1945 and 1975 Maine moved into the American mainstream, rejoining the two-party system, reclaiming its rivers and coastal waters, and shifting its industry and its better-educated workforce into the modern economy.
While these three decades imposed severe hardships on Maine's most isolated and underemployed citizens, the state emerged from the "Little Great Depression" with strong political leadership and a commitment to the future. In the decades after 1975 the state would continue to strengthen its social services and its educational system and to build a new economy based on diversified light industry and services.