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Maine History Online

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1820-1850 A New State & Prosperity

Maine's combination of natural resources and geography put it in position to make a large contribution to feeding and housing the nation and carrying its goods in the early 19th century.

In the long run, seasonal work in the woods and mills anchored people to lands that should not have been cultivated, perpetuating a cycle of low wages, indifferent farming, and rural poverty.


In the years after statehood Maine grew rapidly as markets opened for its farm, forest, and mineral products. At a time when industrial production depended on hand-labor, Maine enjoyed rapid population growth, and in an age of seaborne commerce, it boasted some of the best deep-water harbors in the world. In a material culture built of wood, Maine's 17 million acres of forest stood within a few days sail of any port in the East, and in a time when water turbines drove American industry, Maine had the most powerful rivers east of the Mississippi. The times could hardly have been more propitious for Maine's economic ascent.

Improving the Land

Like the rest of America, Maine was an agrarian society. After 1820 farming spread into the fertile central lowlands and northward into the lime-rich soils of the lower Aroostook Valley, while the St. John River region, settled by Acadian farm families in the 1780s, grew weather-hardened crops of buckwheat and potatoes.

Maine farms were typically small, family-run operations, averaging around 100 acres, and they faced formidable natural obstacles, including geographical isolation, thin soils, dense forests, and unpredictable weather. Except for Aroostook County's potatoes, farmers found no great staple crop for export, and accordingly they devoted a significant amount of time to subsistence production.

They grew a variety of grains along with potatoes, corn, fruits, and vegetables, and raised poultry, cattle, and sheep. After the fall harvest men produced hand-crafted items like clocks, buggy whips, furniture, horse collars, barrels, and shingles, and women made brooms, baskets, and palm-leaf hats and wove cloth or took in cut fabric or leather to sew into clothes or shoes.

"Mixed husbandry," as this approach to farming was called, was a response to Maine's small, easily saturated markets and to the great risk in raising crops in Maine; if one source of income failed, another took its place. Workers in other areas – fishing, lumbering, and more – use a similar tactic of taking on a variety of jobs to ensure economic viability.

With subsistence as a primary goal, the farm family focused on the long winter months when humans and livestock lived off the bounty of the previous season's work. Households were fortified with bushels of potatoes, oats, wheat, buckwheat, and corn; barrels of salt pork, corned beef, and sausage; bins of vegetable and root crops, crocks of butter, loafs of maple sugar, rounds of cheese, and jars of preserves.

Winter dominated the farmers' psychology, as Robert P. Tristram Coffin noted in his poem "This is my country":

These are my people, saving of emotion,
With their eyes dipped in the Winter ocean
The lonely, patient ones, whose speech comes slow,
Whose bodies always lean toward the blow,
The enduring and the clean, the tough and the clear,
Who live where Winter is the word for year.

Women's work was central to this subsistence-based system. Mothers and daughters ran the farm in winter when husbands and sons worked in the woods, and they exchanged various products and skills with neighbors to supplement the family's harvest. They extended the bounty of one season through the next by processing meat, grains, and produce, and they nurtured the farm's primary labor force, instilling the strong work habits so vital to the farm's success.

While husbands and sons worked in the fields, barns, and woodlots, wives and daughters made meals, milked cows, churned butter, fed livestock and poultry, carried wood, tended smaller children, mended grain sacks, washed and ironed clothes, cleaned milk pans, tilled the garden, gathered fruit, and, when time permitted, cleaned the house.

To augment their self-sufficiency and their limited market purchases, men and women bartered skills like blacksmithing, candlemaking, weaving, dressmaking, health care, and carpentry with neighbors; they shared machinery, exchanged use of pastures, borrowed tools, and stood by others in birth, sickness, or death.

These patterns of work and trade shaped a unique rural culture for Maine. Strong inter-generational bonds gave Maine farming a conservative cast, as sons and daughters followed the practices set down by fathers and mothers, and the intense interaction among neighbors and extended kin gave this rural culture a close-knit and somewhat tribal character. Suspicion of outside influences left farmers slow to innovate. Mixed husbandry also inspired a distinctive form of architecture in which farm buildings were connected, house and ell to shed and barn.

Nature's State

While most Mainers were engaged in agriculture, several industries grabbed the attention of the state and nation after 1820. In fact, America's public buildings were made of Maine granite and its houses of Penobscot pine and Brewer brick, cemented over and plastered with lime from Rockland and Rockport and roofed with slate from Monson and Brownville or cedar shingles from the wetlands north of Bangor.

Maine's combination of natural resources and geography put it in position to make a large contribution to feeding and housing the nation and carrying its goods in the early 19th century.

Maine used its abundant natural resources in a number of ways. Tanneries, which utilized the state's abundant hemlock stands for bark extract, dotted the central part of the state, and mixed forests of oak, pine, spruce, and tamarack made Maine the nation's premier ship builder. Ice production, which peaked in the second half of the century, illustrates the windfall nature of these staples industries, wherein a relatively small investment brought vast rewards from seemingly inexhaustible resources.

Granite was another semiprocessed raw material exported in great quantities from Maine. Quarries, particularly those on the islands and the peninsulas of Penobscot Bay, were well positioned for cheap shipment by sea, and good-quality stone lay near the surface, thanks to glacial scouring.

Once the base of a gigantic mountain range, Maine granite was so superior in durability, polish, and color that it was marketed as far west as Denver and San Francisco.

Maine became the nation's leading lumber producer based on an abundance of white pine and a complex of environmental conditions that offered cheap transportation to mills and markets. Rivers flowing out of Maine's relatively flat western tablelands presented few obstacles to impede log drives, and Maine's granite bedrock channeled rainwater and snow-melt directly into these streams, providing a forceful spring "freshet" to push the logs through to the mills.

Nature provided cheap transportation for the loggers, but it also introduced an element of risk known to few other industries. Snowfall provided a friction-free hauling surface to move logs to the rivers, but some seasons brought too little snow and some too much, causing horses to founder on the roads.

Snowfall provided water to drive logs to the mills, but if the snow lingered in the spring, the drive was delayed, and if it melted too fast, logs were stranded in the upper branches. Absent perfect weather, log jams were inevitable, sometimes bringing financial disaster and considerable threat to life.

Strong markets in the expanding seaboard cities pushed the frontier of lumbering activity from the Piscataqua to the Kennebec Valley by 1800, and north to the Penobscot headwaters in the 1840s. This moving frontier left behind scores of inland towns founded on the promise of lumbering profits; sawmills provided off-season jobs for farmers, and woods operations consumed the farmers' hay, oats, beans, and potatoes.

Lumber shipments provided capital for these isolated communities, allowing mill owners to diversify into grain-processing, wool-carding, tanning, and metal-forging, and edging these communities into the industrial age.

But, as the industry moved north of the Penobscot waters, tensions arose between Maine and New Brunswick over the contested boundary between the two. The dispute erupted into the "Aroostook War" and was finally settled in 1842 with negotiation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. With the border established, the lumber industry moved further north and into the western highlands.

Where early operations involved hundreds of smaller companies, in the 1830s a few lumber barons like Abner Coburn, Samuel Veazie, Ira Wadleigh, and Rufus Dwinel bought up whole townships, constructed sawmills, and vied for control of the resource.

Companies often competed over construction of canals and dams, sometimes attempting to redirect water to serve their needs. Lumbering created booms towns, also, such as Bangor, for a time the world's greatest lumber shipping port.

In these flush decades, lumber production shaped Maine's politics in ways that sometimes hindered further economic growth. Low timberland taxes frustrated attempts to use state resources to encourage other industries. Jealous of their prerogatives, Bangor's merchants and lumbermen allied with rural Jacksonians to block state aid for railroad, canal, road, and waterpower projects aimed at benefitting inland farms and industry.

This conservative axis gave way only gradually in the second half of the century, and its continuing influence was responsible for Maine's contradictory and divided approach toward outside capital and industrial development.

While Portland financed new harbor facilities, the Cumberland and Oxford Canal, and the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, Bangor invested narrowly in sawmills, timberland, and ships to carry their lumber. In 1856 the Board of Agriculture polled the state's farmers and found that four-fifths considered lumbering an impediment to agricultural modernization.

Timberland owners controlled land, shut out settlers, and discouraged market roads, fearing higher taxes. Their sawmills provided employment, but the work was seasonal and the companies' expectation that farm families would provide their own food depressed wages.

In the long run, seasonal work in the woods and mills anchored people to lands that should not have been cultivated, perpetuating a cycle of low wages, indifferent farming, and rural poverty. For many, the only alternative was out-migration.

Ice, granite, lime, slate, fish industries created huge fortunes for those who mastered the art of turning Maine's natural resources into liquid assets. But in the long run these assets became too liquid, passing easily out of the state when opportunities arose elsewhere.

Maine Goes Global

In the middle of the 1800s, Maine stood at the juncture of two great streams of commerce: the transatlantic trade with Europe, and the long-shore links between northern and southern states and the West Indies. Maine built the ships that carried this trade and provided the crews that made America the world's premier trading nation. At its peak, Maine shipyards produced more than one-third of the nation's shipping, including some of the finest square-rigged vessels ever built.

Maine's shipyards were well positioned to benefit from America's burgeoning seaborne trade. Numerous sheltered harbors offered sloping beaches suited to sliding finished ships off the ways, rivers carried ocean-going vessels deep into the interior, and forests supplied a diverse array of timber to meet all ship-building needs. No less important, Maine's maritime skills were honed by a seafaring tradition going back to colonial times. These advantages gave Maine's seacoast towns a cosmopolitan air; villagers made friends around the world and knew intimately the goings-on in exotic places like Singapore and Sao Paulo.

Responding to the rise of cotton textile mills in England and New England, Maine shipyards produced deep-hulled square-rigged ships to transport cotton from the South. Expansion of the China trade in the 1840s created a market for clipper ships, capable of quick passage over vast expanses of open ocean.

Sacrificing cargo space and seaworthiness, these sharp-bowed, narrow-beam vessels emphasized speed to carry low-bulk, high-value items and outrun pirates in the South Pacific. They traded opium for Chinese jade, silks, porcelain, brocades, and tea and brought coffee, spices, and other exotics from the South Pacific.

During the gold rush, clippers transported prospectors and equipment to San Francisco and carried mail and passengers in the transatlantic packet service. These maritime activities shaped the culture of the coast. Sea shanties enlivened Maine lore with stories of lost vessels and rapid crossings, and seaborne superstitions made their way landward.

Small-boat building flourished along the coast, each locale producing its own distinctive design. With men away on voyages, women sustained these coastal communities, building networks of support to compensate for the difficulties families faced in this dangerous occupation. Marriage links forged shipbuilding and sailing dynasties that pooled capital and shared risks; sons-in-law became mates and masters in family ships, and daughters inherited vessel shares and combined them with those of their husbands.

In Searsport, a major seafaring center, about half the wives went to sea with their captain-husbands, sometimes bearing, raising, and educating their children at sea. Maria Whall Waterhouse took command of the S.F. Hersey in Melbourne when her husband died, and according to legend faced down a mutiny with the aid of her late husband's two pistols and the ship's cook.

Maine's long, indented coast also gave rise to a vigorous fishing industry. The Gulf of Maine was among the world's most productive fisheries, benefitting from a rich mix of nutrients from the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream and from extensive breeding grounds in the bays and estuaries along the coast.

Baiting and hauling lines and cleaning and curing the catch was a round-the-clock business, but by law, crews were awarded equal shares in the profits, because the U.S. Treasury provided subsidies in order to foster seafaring skills for the Navy. Because crews were often members of an extended family, fishing was more democratic than seafaring industries like shipping and whaling.

Maine, close to the great cod fisheries on the Grand and Georges banks focused on cod exports. Salted cod was marketed among urban immigrants and slaves on sugar, rice, and cotton plantations. At its peak, Maine provided one-fifth of the fish product produced in America, a vital source of protein for the nation.

When competition from larger ports made cod fishing less profitable, Maine fishermen turned to mackerel and menhaden, which arrived in huge schools each spring and were rendered as oil or fertilizer in small factories along the coast. Those markets declined in the 1880s, replaced largely by herring, which was caught in brush weirs along the coast.

Herring were smoked, pickled, used as bait, and, in the 1870s, canned in large processing factories as sardines. Capital investments were low, requiring only a few dories to dip herring out of the weirs and a small schooner to carry them to the canneries.

An Industrial Alternative

Maine's cultural identity was shaped by rural pursuits like lumbering, quarrying, and fishing, but in the first half of the century another landscape was shaping up in cities like Saco, Portland, and Lewiston. Maine experienced the Industrial Revolution in a variety of ways, from home and backyard shops producing tinware, cloth, candlesticks, spoons, chairs, and other items to some of the largest textile factories in New England.

As in other industrializing parts of the Northeast, when textile mills began turning out spun thread, women wove it into cloth in their homes, and when the mills began producing finished cloth, homebound women sewed it into ready-made clothing. From these amazingly productive homes, sheds, and dooryards came barrel and box staves, wheels and wagons, shoes, straw hats, boots, and myriad other "industrial" products.

Maine's advantage was its huge waterpower potential and its nearby port facilities. Boston supplied the capital and Maine the industrial energy. In 1826, two years after it built the large textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts, the Boston Manufacturing Company completed a mill twice the size of Lowell at Saco Falls.

The Saco Manufacturing Company, by far the largest single cotton mill in country, burned in 1830 and was rebuilt on a much smaller scale, but from these beginnings the industry spread into central Maine. The power of the Saco River was matched by that of the Androscoggin.

Situated at the Falls of the Androscoggin, Lewiston was destined to become Maine's largest textile center. In 1845 several local investors incorporated the Lewiston Falls Cotton Mill Company, dammed the river, dug canals, and two years later sold their investment to Benjamin E. Bates, a member of the Boston Associates.

Bates opened a new mill in 1850 and added another in 1854. During the Civil War he expanded again, sending agents out into the countryside to recruit women. The company's boarding houses along Canal Street were pleasant, inexpensive, and strictly monitored, and, as in Lowell and other textile centers, Yankee women lived and labored until Irish immigrants replaced them.

Families from Ireland had been settling in Maine since colonial times, but the potato famine of 1845-1851 triggered a dramatic increase in migration. Impoverished and debilitated, immigrants arrived in the state's expanding industrial cities from the Maritimes and Quebec. French-Canadians faced a similar, although less drastic agricultural crisis after mid-century, and began moving to Maine in large numbers in the 1870s, eager to trade the uncertainties of marginal farming for the security of a weekly paycheck.

In both cases entire families worked – the men as day laborers digging canals and foundations and railroad grades, and the women and children in the mills. Both groups lived in segregated neighborhoods, often on cheap land near the factories or warehouses, where crowding and sanitation problems brought outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. And, both groups were subject to nativist hostility.

In addition to these new textile cities, Portland expanded its industrial output in the first half of the century, based on its rapid population growth and profits from the West India trade. Ships carrying fish, produce, livestock, and box shooks to the Caribbean returned with sugar and molasses. Portland capitalized on this trade by building sugar refineries and rum distilleries.

The city's infrastructure was geared to the West India trade, but in the 1840s Portland lawyer John A. Poor helped the city diversify by promoting a rail link to Montreal, which became landlocked when the St. Lawrence froze over each winter.

Because Portland was 100 miles closer to Liverpool than was Boston, Portland enjoyed advantages in the transatlantic trade in Canadian timber, agricultural, and mining products. The Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railway was completed in 1854. The rising tide of Canadian staples stimulated development of wharves, piers, stockyards, grain elevators, coal facilities, warehouses, and shipyards, transforming Portland into a major western Atlantic shipping point.

Beginning with these profitable enterprises, business leaders diversified into other forms of manufacturing, including, at one point, railroad locomotives. While no single enterprise was as spectacular as Lewiston's huge textile mills, Portland's smaller and more diversified industries made it the largest manufacturing center in the state.

John A. Poor's audacious railroad schemes – the Atlantic and St. Lawrence and later the European & North American Railway from Bangor to St. John – convinced many that Maine's development hinged on a mix of local resources, outside capital, and good transportation. At mid-century Maine's rail system was consolidated as the Maine Central Railroad, and in the 1890s the Bangor and Aroostook stretched this system into the productive potato and lumber region of eastern Aroostook County and the St. John Valley.

Transportation, capital, waterpower, and natural resources held great promise for Maine's Industrial Revolution, but there were also constraints: a labor force scattered through the upland farm towns and coastal villages or looking for new opportunities beyond the state's borders, and an economic and political system locked in the embrace of the old staple industries.

Still, Maine's prestige as the nation's supplier of fish, textiles, and construction materials gave its political representatives prominent standing in Washington as America approached a critical test of nationhood in 1861.