CENSUS DATA FOR SANFORD, YORK COUNTY, AND MAINE, 1870-1930
By Bill Collins (policy analyst and husband of Beth Taylor)
Compared with the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey during these decades, Maine was modestly affected by population growth, immigration, urban growth and industrialization. Maine was a state of small towns and villages, with Portland reaching a population of 50,000 by 1930. Agriculture, most of it family-owned farms, employed more people than manufacturing up until 1910. Most Mainers were Baptists or Congregationalists, drawn from British stock, and born in Maine. Only after World War II did tourists come in search of boiled lobsters and fried clams; in 1930, only 1% of Maine’s workers were fishermen, and only 2% worked in hotels and restaurants.
Because manufacturing created more wealth than agriculture, incomes in Maine were much lower than in the heavily industrialized states. In 1929, the earliest available year, Maine’s per capita income was the lowest in the Northeast, stretching to Washington, DC. Per capita income in Massachusetts was 52% higher than in Maine in that year, and even Vermont and New Hampshire were somewhat better off.
However, Sanford experienced many of the growth trends typical of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in large part because of the success of the Goodall Mill. In the 1930 Census report on manufacturing, data for 1929 for Sanford and York County were not disclosed because it would be too easy to identify the companies producing the data. The report said that an unnamed manufacturer, undoubtedly Goodall, accounted for more than half of the manufacturing jobs in the county. According to Wikipedia, when Goodall shut down in 1954, it had 3,600 workers and 2 million square feet of factory space — more than double the space that the machine-tool manufacturer Brown & Sharpe had in its Providence factory.
Wells was a tiny village in the 1870-1930 period. The town’s population actually declined by 26% in these years, and was barely 2,000 in 1930. Ogunquit was also unknown. It would take the coming of mass tourism to develop these villages.
Population data for the 60-year period is revealing. Between 1870 and 1930, the population of Massachusetts almost tripled. In contrast, Maine’s population increased by only 27% in total, and York County’s by 17%. In Sanford, after the Goodall mill opened in 1867, the population rose from 2,397 in 1870 to 13,392 in 1930 — increasing more than five-fold over the decades.
In 1930, 29% of Sanford’s population was foreign-born, about the same percentage as in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In Maine as a whole, only 13% of the population was foreign-born. Most of the foreign-born, in Sanford and in Maine, were from British or French Canada. If you combine the foreign-born, and the children of foreign-born, 27% of the population of York County was specifically French Canadian. Based on this data, it is likely that the corresponding French-Canadian percentage in factory-town Sanford approached 40%.
In Frances Davis Plaisted’s childhood years, from 1892 to 1910, and in her adult years on the farm and then in Sanford town, Sanford would have been a very fast-growing community, with ever-growing employment in an ever-larger downtown mill, with houses constantly under construction, with school enrollment growing very rapidly, and with a steady increase in the number of non-English, mostly Catholic foreign stock.
For Maine as a whole, the number of jobs in manufacturing had passed the number in agriculture by 1910. With 38% of state jobs in manufacturing in that year, Maine had less dependence on this sector than the highly industrialized states of Massachusetts (51%) or Rhode Island (56%), but more than the 28% for the U.S. as a whole. In Maine, the major manufactured products were lumber, cotton, wool, paper and shoes, while in Sanford, thanks to Goodall, it was primarily wool. In 1900, three decades after the Goodall Mill had opened, Sanford rated a special mention in the Census Bureau’s summary of manufacturing for the state. Sanford had become “an important branch” of the wool industry in Maine, the report said, noting that Sanford companies (that is, Goodall) produced “wool carriage robes, mohair plush and horse blankets.”
The Census reports do not give detailed information on factory wages in Sanford, let alone in the Goodall mill. The 1880 report does say that all industrial wages in all of Maine were 28% below the U.S. average, and 30% below the Massachusetts average. It is likely that Goodall came to Sanford in part to take advantage of lower prevailing wages in the state. Just as in the Southern states in the early 20th century, manufacturers in Maine could draw cheap, compliant labor from the declining agricultural sectors in Maine and Quebec. In addition, it appears there was less labor “agitation” and a greater aversion to manufacturing unions in Maine than in the more-industrial states, especially Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Certainly the hours of work were long in the mills by the standards of today. As of 1929, most factory workers in Maine as a whole worked 54-to-60-hour weeks. Of course, farm workers also put in typically long hours. The Depression of the 1930s hit the wool industry, in Sanford and elsewhere in Maine, particularly hard. A 1930 report showed that 20% of wool workers in the state were either unemployed or on layoff and not receiving pay. This was the highest percentage of any sector of the economy at that time. Almost certainly, unemployment in the wool industry worsened as the decade wore on, and probably only picked up for Goodall when the military ordered uniforms during World War II. It is notable that, in the turbulent textile strike of 1934, which halted work in many mills in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and even the Southern states, textile mills did not shut down in Biddeford, Augusta, Saco, Lewiston or, apparently, Sanford. It appears that the class warfare that swept southern New England in the harsh Depression years did not manifest itself to the same extent in Maine. Goodall may also not have been much of a union target because it made specialized wool products and probably had a more skilled, and longer-tenured work force than the typical mill.
Agriculture in Maine declined steadily throughout the 1870-1930 period. Maine suffered because of its short growing season, and its inability to compete with far more productive agricultural lands in the Midwest. Also, with refrigeration still primitive, farmers had to serve mostly local markets, and these markets were small in Maine, a state of small towns and villages. In Sanford, a local farm would have benefited from the rapidly growing population in the city, and would have provided milk, butter, eggs, chickens and other foods to the local market.
However, the amount of acreage in cultivation in Maine and York County steadily decreased, which is a clear indication that living conditions and wages were higher in the mills or other town jobs than on the farm. In Maine and in York County, the amount of land in cultivation declined after 1880. Increasingly, farmers allowed their land to return to woodlands or otherwise left it unproductive. Between 1880 and 1920, the amount of “improved” (productive) acreage in all of Maine declined by 1.5 million acres or 43%. In York County, the number of working farms decreased by 34% between 1900 and 1920. In 1920, the average farm covered 50 to 75 acres. Only 1% of farms were 250 acres or more in size.
In 1900, the average value of products produced by farms in Maine was $460 per year. This was 30% below the U.S. average, 37% below the Northeast average, and comparable to farm earnings in many low-income Southern states. By 1910, the average value of agricultural land in York County was only $10 to $25 per acre. By comparison, in counties near the city of Boston, the value of agricultural land was $50 to $75 per acre in Middlesex County, and $75 to $100 per acre in Norfolk County. This shows the value of proximity to very large, concentrated metropolitan areas, which did not exist in Maine at that time.
There seems little question that the mills would have offered a better living for the average Maine worker in the early 20th century. It is likely that when the Goodall mills replaced their wooden mills with brick, and electrified their factories in the first wave of electrification, beginning in 1898, that the Goodall plants were technologically advanced for their time. Farm life, with its ancient routines and dependence on animal power, would have seemed quaint, especially in booming Sanford. On the other hand, the Depression of the 1930s caused widespread hardship in the manufacturing sector for a decade, and forced many families to fall back on near-subsistence farming in order to survive. In highly urbanized eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, drifting back into the greatly diminished farm sector was not an option for most factory hands. It was still possible in Maine and the rest of northern New England.