Before Maine became a state two centuries ago, Yale University President Timothy Dwight toured the place for a book devoted to New England and New York.

He wasn’t exactly impressed.

Dwight noted that at the end of the Revolutionary War, people generally considered Maine “an immense waste, unfit for the habitation of man.”

A French duke, François Alexandre Frédéric, who twice stayed in Thomaston in the impressive home of Major General Henry Knox in the mid-1790s, said life in Maine is “exceedingly wretched,” languid and cheerless.

With origins like that, Maine can easily point to progress after 200 years of statehood. It has, though, been a bumpy ride.

Along the way, Mainers have led the nation both in consuming alcohol and in banning it, created a border war with Canada, transformed lobster into a beloved delicacy and convinced tens of millions who flock to it each summer that the Pine Tree State is “Vacationland.”


And those are just a few of the highlights.


Let’s admit that Maine must have been at least somewhat lacking in its early days.

After all, when George Washington came late in 1789, he didn’t even spend the night.

View from Kittery toward Portsmouth, across the Piscataqua River, engraved by Joseph F.W. Des Barrest in 1780 for The Atlantic Neptune magazine in London.

Visiting Portsmouth, the nation’s first president decided to view the harbor so he hopped in a little boat and set out.

In his diary, Washington noted that during the short sightseeing trip he “stopped at a place called Kittery in the Provence of Main, the River Piscataqua being the boundary between New Hampshire and it.”


According to a story in the family history of Tobias Lear, the president’s secretary, Washington landed on the old stone dock at Kittery Point and made a quick call on the Rev. Benjamin Stevens, pastor of the First Church in Kittery for almost four decades.

Then Washington headed off to fish for cod.

He never came back.

Timothy Dwight, Yale University president. Courtesy Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database

In his 1823 “Travels in New-England and New-York,” Yale’s Dwight cited many reasons why Maine had failed to prosper before statehood, especially its lack of farming and reliance on “lumbermen and fishermen.”

Both groups were poor, Dwight said, and typically worked during good weather “in severe toil,” while spending the long winter “in idleness and dissipation.”

Those involved with lumber, he claimed, followed a course of life that “seduces them to prodigality, thoughtlessness of future wants, profaness, irreligion, immoderate drinking and other ruinous habits.”


“The farmers of New England have never willingly resided among people of such character,” Dwight insisted.

But in the years shortly before and after Maine’s decision to become a state, its population began rising sharply as farmers and shopkeepers poured in anyway, perhaps glad to put Massachusetts in the rearview window.

Spurred in part by rampant speculation in lumber, Maine grew so much that in the 1830s, Bangor alone had more than 300 sawmills. Fortunes were made, and lost, buying and selling tracts of forest.


That yearning for lumber led to Maine’s singular intervention in international affairs: its near-war in 1838 and 1839 with Canada, then still a British colony.

What happened, in a nutshell, is that the border between Maine and New Brunswick had been left up in the air in the wake of the War of 1812. Diplomats had been working off and on for decades trying to resolve it when trouble arose on the ground.


An 1839 map by Wilbur Curtiss of the disputed territory in northern Maine created for a survey of public lands by the state of Maine, published by Moore’s Lithograph in Boston. Courtesy Boston Rare Maps

According to an account by the New England Historical Society, negotiators hired British surveyors to map the disputed area, but Mainers got them so drunk they surveyed the wrong river.

Tensions rose until the Dec. 29 Battle of Caribou, a ridiculous affair from the start.

Just before New Year’s Eve, some woodcutters spotted their Canadian counterparts cutting trees on American property.

They faced off, shouted at each other, then pulled out guns and got ready to blast one another.

Just then, incredibly, a black bear is said to have attacked three of the New Brunswickers, who shot and killed it.

The Americans thought they were the targets and fired at the Canadians scampering northward. Nobody got hit, fortunately, leaving the bear as the only casualty.


Upset by the episode, Maine sent a posse after the Canadian lumberjacks. The British arrested the Maine men and then tossed Maine’s land agent behind bars as well, prompting Maine officials to lock up New Brunswick’s agent in Bangor in retaliation.

Troops began to gather along the St. John River. Congress took up the challenge, too, authorizing 50,000 troops and $10 million for forts along the frontier.

One song of the time, written in Bangor, proclaimed:

“We’ll feed them well with ball and shot

We’ll cut these red-coats down

Before we yield to them an inch


Or title of our ground.”

Diplomacy, however, proved victorious and shots were never exchanged.

When it was all over, thanks in part to the efforts of famed orator Daniel Webster, Maine wound up with the “Aroostook River Valley, the heavily forested upper St. John, the right to navigate freely on the lower St. John and duty-free status for Aroostook timber in British and U.S. ports,” according to the historical society.

In Washington, government leaders hastily ensured that in the future, all border disputes and international controversies would be handled on the national level forever more. Maine was the last state to have its own foreign policy.


In its early years, before widespread appreciation of Maine’s beauty and lobster, the state became best known for vehement opposition to alcohol, spurred in part by its staggering consumption  by Mainers.


Illustration from Charles Morris’ 1888 book “Broken Fetters: The Light of Ages on Intoxication. A Historical View of the Drinking Habits of Mankind, from the Earliest Times to the Present. Especially Devoted to the Various Temperance Reform Movements in the United States.”

Solid statistics are hard to come by, but the Rev. Dr. Joseph McLeod of Fredericton, New Brunswick, testified before a royal commission that “no people in the civilized world consumed so much liquor as the Maine people. Rum was everywhere through the state” — before lawmakers clamped down on alcohol.

Drunkard’s Progress, a Currier & Ives print. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Nelson Dingley, a Maine governor who once edited the Lewiston Evening Journal, estimated that Mainers drank at least two-and-a-half gallons of rum per capita in 1830 along with plenty of hard cider and other alcohol. He guessed that in the mid-1850s, at least 10,000 Mainers were accustomed to getting “beastly drunk” on a regular basis.

Trying to clamp down on the drinking, Maine passed the first law in the country outlawing the sale of alcohol — except for “industrial and medicinal purposes” — in 1846, then passed what became known as the “Maine Law” five years later that prohibited the manufacture and sale of any alcohol.

Maine’ Lillian Stevens, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

The terms of Maine’s liquor crackdown changed every now and then, but the state had a worldwide reputation for its tough line on alcohol, perhaps one reason that the leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who took prohibition to Washington in a big way was a Mainer, Lillian Stevens of Dover, its president from 1898 until her death in 1914.

Not every Mainer, of course, was thrilled with the temperance statutes.

There’s an account in the history books of a case in Hallowell where authorities targeted a fellow named Gilman, a prominent rum seller with a violent streak, who promised to “hew down with an axe the first man who enters his store” trying to enforce the new law.


When authorities raided the store, they found 14 barrels and Gilman pacing like “an enraged tiger,” as well as a growing crowd of angry patrons who backed a wagon up to the door to prevent officials from removing the rum.

In the end, though, the “guzzlers” and “loafers” drifted away, the barrels were seized and temperance supporters showed up to cheer on the move.

Those trying to dry up the supply of alcohol sometimes took their cause to excess.

Take, for example, a lawmaker named Cadman in Augusta who in 1837 proposed that “if any person sold any spirituous liquors or if any person drank any after Sept. 1 next, they should each be punished with imprisonment for life.”

Taking note of Cadman’s proposal almost a century later, the Lewiston Evening Journal wondered if, had the proposition passed, whether there would have been enough people left outside the prison to raise enough potatoes to keep all those prisoners fed.

At least they would be getting potatoes and not something truly unpleasant, like, say, lobster.



John Rowan, in an 1876 volume on the Maritime provinces, captured the era’s attitude toward lobsters. They were used, he said, to fertilize potato fields or sometimes boiled for the pigs to eat.

“Lobster shells about a house,” Rowan said, “are looked upon as signs of poverty and degradation.”

Through the 19th century, lobstermen delivered their catch to canneries along the coast that turned lobster into a canned meat that probably went mostly to feeding cats. Baked beans cost five times as much.

A 1901 advertisement in the Lewiston Evening Journal for Lobster cigars.

As the story goes — and its truth is tough to verify — lobster didn’t really take off as something Americans wanted to eat until it was not listed among the foods rationed during World War II, opening the door for a lot more people to try it as an alternative to limited quantities of other meat.

Whatever the reality, by the 1950s, lobster had moved from the bottom of the food hierarchy to somewhere near the top, taking Maine and its bountiful catches along with it. Lobster wasn’t cat food anymore. It was money.


Lobsters weren’t the only way to make money from the waterfront that Maine has in abundance.

By the late 1800s, perhaps stirred by artists who fell in love with the rugged beauty of Mount Desert Island, wealthy families began building summer homes along the coast, including the Rockefellers, Fords, Astors and, a bit later, Bushes. Others followed.

The Lewiston Evening Journal noted in 1885 that it was increasingly “evident that the next generation will not have so much ease in finding a good cottage lot on the Maine coast as people have now. Capitalists from other states are rapidly seizing upon the eligible sites.”

“The way cottages are going up indicates that Maine’s growth as a summer abiding place for city folks has just begun,” it said.

Visitors now total in the tens of millions.



In the long but rarely sordid history of Maine’s politics, one episode stands out as an especially weird moment.

It happened in January of 1880, when three contenders for governor almost went to war, for real.

Democratic Gov. Alonzo Garcelon of Lewiston, Republican Daniel Davis and the Greenback Party’s Joseph Smith had split the 1879 election so closely that none was the clear winner, throwing the contest to a closely divided Legislature that the GOP controlled, barely and perhaps unfairly.

Organizing the Legislature in January 1880 proved rather more difficult than normal as contested election results created chaos. Engraving from the Jan. 24, 1880, edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News

Predictably, lawmakers chose Davis as the next governor. Garcelon, who came in last, refused to accept its decision and appeared to some to be preparing to turn the State House into a fortress.

So U.S. Sen. James Blaine, a GOP stalwart, began to gather a private army that soon consisted of about 2,000 armed men camped at his home beside the State House. Garcelon hired troops to defend the building.

It wasn’t Maine’s finest hour.


Fortunately, both Garcelon and Blaine called on the same man to come to Augusta and resolve the crisis: Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, a former governor who by then presided over Bowdoin College.

Crowds surrounded the State House in January 1880 to see how Maine’s leaders would resolve a standoff that threatened bloodshed over the question of who should be governor. Engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, Jan. 24, 1880

They expected that Chamberlain, the head of the state militia, would show up with troops at this side. Instead, he ventured to Augusta alone.

“I am determined that Maine should not become a South American state!” Chamberlain wrote during those tumultuous 12 days.

Neutrality didn’t win Chamberlain any friends. Republicans called him “The Serpent of Brunswick” while the Democrats denounced him as “The Tool of Blaine.”

As he stood vigil at the State House, with Augusta police lending a hand, “there were threats all the morning of overpowering the police & throwing me out of the window, & the ugly looking crowd seemed like men who could be brought to do it (or to try it),” Chamberlain wrote to his wife.

“Excited men were calling on me — some threatening fire & blood & some begging me to call out the militia at once. But I stood it firmly through, feeling sure of my arrangements & of my command of the situation,” he said.


When an angry crowd appeared outside, calling for his head, Chamberlain went out and stood before the mob.

Joshua Chamberlain Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection

“Men, you wish to kill me, I hear. Killing is no new thing to me. I have offered myself to be killed many times, when I no more deserved it than I do now. Some of you, I think, have been with me in those days. You understand what you want, do you?

“I am here to preserve the peace and honor of this state, until the rightful government is seated — whichever it may be, it is not for me to say. But it is for me to see that the laws of this state are put into effect, without fraud, without force, but with calm thought and purpose.

“I am here for that, and I shall do it. If anyone wants to kill me for it, here I am. Let him kill!”

Then he threw open his coat and dared someone to slay him.

In the silence that followed, one man called out, “By God, general, the first man that dares to lay a hand on you, I’ll kill him on the spot!”


The stunned crowd drifted away. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court resolved the crisis, with Davis and the Republicans left in charge. A machine gun crew from Lewiston was among those sent home.

The Lewiston Evening Journal credited the “cool head and great skill” of Chamberlain for resolving a crisis it blamed on a “wicked conspiracy to reverse a fair election.”

For all the troubles in Augusta, Maine was a political powerhouse in those days.

A former congressman from Virginia, John S. Wise, summed it all during a meeting with U.S. House Speaker Thomas Reed around the turn of the century.

U.S. House Speaker Thomas Reed. Courtesy of the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives

According to a 1931 account in the The Boston Daily Globe, Wise rushed into Reed’s office to ask, “Who’s running this government anyway?”

“I came up here on business with the secretary of state, Mr. Blaine from Maine. I call to pay my respects to the Acting Vice President, Mr. Frye from Maine. I wish to consult the leader of the United States Senate, Mr. Hale from Maine.


“I would talk over a tariff matter with the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Dingley from Maine. There is a naval bill in the House in which I am greatly interested, Chairman Boutelle from Maine. I wish an addition to the public building at Richmond, Chairman Milliken from Maine.

“And here I am in the august presence of the speaker, Mr. Reed from Maine.”

Reed supposedly responded, “Yes, John, the great and the good and the wise are running the government. The country is safe.”

Then the two went out to lunch with the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Melville Fuller of Maine.

While Maine’s present-day presence in the nation’s capital is significant, it clearly is not the clout the Pine Tree State once wielded.


Despite Maine’s political giants and its emergence as a winner in the Aroostook War, there’s still one more spot along the border that remains a possible source of future trouble.

Ten miles off the coast of Washington County lies Machias Seal Island, claimed by both Canada and the United States, which holds that it’s part of Maine.

For now, everyone is content to leave it as a gray zone — or, if you’re Canadian, a grey zone — and hope for the best. At least there aren’t bears there to create potentially hazardous misunderstandings.

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