The leading female presidential candidate is pitching herself on the campaign trail as a modern-day version of one of Maine’s icons, Frances Perkins.

Woodworkers in Brooklyn, New York, created a podium made from wood salvaged from Frances Perkins’ Maine home. It was used by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren for a major campaign speech last week in New York City. Peg Woodworking photo

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who hopes to secure the Democratic nomination for president next year, is regularly citing Perkins as “one very persistent woman” who never gave up in her quest to help workers.

Warren even delivered one of the major speeches last week while standing behind a lectern in New York City’s Washington Square Park built for the occasion from wood scraps from Perkins’ longtime home in Maine.

Perkins capped her career as a labor activist by championing Social Security as Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary during the Great Depression, the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet.

Though she lived mostly in New York, she always thought of Maine as home. The Frances Perkins Center in Damariscotta and her family’s summertime dwelling still stands on a riverside lot in nearby Newcastle.

She died in 1965.

The strands all came together in the hands of Kate Casey, the owner of the all-women Peg Woodworking in Brooklyn.

On a Sunday in September, Casey said, she got an email inquiring whether she could build a podium for Warren’s use that would rely in part on wood from Perkins’ old home.

“Initially, I thought it was a scam,” she said Monday.

She soon found out, though, that Warren’s staff had tracked her down among the senator’s grass-roots supporters as someone with the skills to pull off the assignment quickly. She’d donated $25 back in May.

Wood from Frances Perkins’ Maine home. Peg Woodworking photo

The next day, Hope Hall, the videographer for President Barack Obama from 2011 until he left office, showed up at her shop with a pile of “very, very weathered” wood that had apparently been stacked in a barn on the Perkins homestead, Casey said.

They had obviously been outside for a long, long time, she said, and were generally rotten and “kind of crumbly.”

Hall said Monday that when Warren’s team decided to hold the speech in New York, they reached out to Perkins’ grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, “who generously provided some old barn board reclaimed” from the homestead where he still lives.

Casey said she and her co-workers went through the scraps, most of them nearly an inch thick, and found some pine they milled down to ¼-inch to find “some really, really beautiful grain underneath.”

They used the reclaimed wood to construct a lectern resembling the soapboxes of the suffrage era — the sort of podium Perkins would have known during her days as a fighter for labor rights.

Casey said they clad both the top and the base of the lectern with the Perkins wood so Warren, standing behind it, would be touching the old Maine pine.

Kate Casey, owner of Peg Woodworking, mills the barn wood from Maine to build a lectern for Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Peg Woodworking photo. Peg Woodworking photo

The woodworkers used red oak in between the two sections of Perkins’ pine, Casey said.

But they put more than just wood into the work.

At first, Casey said, she and others from her company wrote little messages wishing Warren well in glue seams and other spots where nobody would ever see them.

Then they reached out to friends and wound up transcribing more that were sealed into the base of the pedestal, Casey said.

“Every ounce of our energy was put into this piece,” she said, with “no corners cut.”

Catherine Woodard, left, sales and marketing manager for Peg Woodworking in Brooklyn, New York, and Sally Suzuki, studio manager, work on the podium built for Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Peg Woodworking photo

Her hope, she said, is that the positive words will help carry Warren forward to the White House to serve as the country’s first woman president, a fitting legacy for a successor to Perkins.

At the last minute, at the request of the campaign, Casey revised the project a bit so it could be taken apart and shipped in two containers for Warren to use it in other locations.

Casey, who polished her skills at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, said the final product is “a calming, presidential-looking podium” that carries within it the hope and dreams of women past and present.

For Casey, it is “the biggest honor I’ve received in my professional life.”

She said she met Warren, one of her party’s top contenders for the White House, beside the lectern set up in the New York City park Sept. 16 and heard her gratitude for the work. She also met Coggeshall, Perkins’ grandson, who could not be reached Monday.

Casey said that listening to Warren speak that night behind her carefully constructed podium, talking about Perkins’ role in the labor movement, felt like “a really beautiful, full circle kind of symbolism.”

Some of the writing hidden within the podium created for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. Peg Woodworking photo

Rebecca Brenner Graham, a doctoral student in history at American University in the nation’s capital, wrote in The Washington Post’s Made by History section that Warren “isn’t the first politician to use public memory of a historic figure to convey her message, but Perkins, who rarely receives national attention today, is a unique choice.”

“Although Warren’s speech marks a key point in remembering Perkins, it also offers insight into the candidate’s hopes for a potential presidency,” Graham noted Monday. “She depicted Perkins as a trailblazing female politician who fused progressive idealism and pragmatic policy change, exactly what she hopes to be.”

Sarah Peskin, chairwoman of the Perkins Center board, said she’s glad Perkins is getting attention.

Though the center is nonpartisan, she said, it is sure that Americans should know more about Perkins, “a model for civic responsibility and leadership.”

She said that walking the property where Perkins once lived — the National Historic Landmark homestead the center hopes to purchase soon — offers the chance to learn her story and contemplate “how somebody’s character is formed.”

Warren has long had a fascination with Perkins. Years ago, the senator called Perkins “a tough woman with a vision!”

Fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Manhattan, New York,  March 25, 1911. FDR Library photo

In Warren’s speech in New York, she talked about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people — mostly immigrant women — working in poor conditions in the garment  trade.

“A woman named Frances Perkins ran into the street, watching the fire,” Warren said. “That day changed her,” as it did many others.

While some agitated in the streets for reform, Warren said, Perkins “went to Albany ready to fight. She worked to create a commission investigating factory conditions, and then she served as its lead investigator.”

“They got fire safety measures passed, but they didn’t stop there: they rewrote New York’s labor laws from top to bottom to protect workers,” Warren told the crowd.

Frances Perkins around the time she led the investigation into the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Frances Perkins Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

“Frances went on to become the first woman in American history to serve in the Cabinet,” the candidate said. “And what did she push for when she got there? Big, structural change.”

“She worked the political system relentlessly from the inside” while others applied pressure from the outside, Warren said.

“So what did one woman, one very persistent woman, backed up by millions of people across the country get done?” Warren asked.

“Social Security. Unemployment insurance. Abolition of child labor. Minimum wage. The right to join a union. Even the very existence of the weekend. Big structural change. One woman, and millions of people to back her up,” Warren said.

Her point, as she stood behind that handcrafted podium, was obvious to her fans in Washington Square Park.

“What happened in the aftermath of the fire,” Warren said, is “a story of our power. We win when we get out there and fight.”

Casey’s specially crafted podium for that speech stood 46 inches high “for the woman who will be the 46th president of the United States,” said Hall, who is now Warren’s videographer.

Posing with the wood from Frances Perkins’ home in Maine are, from left, Sally Suzuki, studio manager at Peg Woodworking in Brooklyn, New York; Kate Casey, studio owner; Catherine Woodard, sales and marketing manager; and Hope Hall, videographer for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. Peg Woodworking photo


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