WAYNE E. REILLY

Maine peonage law jailed logging camp deserters a century ago

Posted Jan. 01, 2017, at 9:44 a.m.

Logging contractors and the employment agents who supplied them with thousands of workers protested a century ago when Maine Commissioner of Labor and Industry Roscoe Eddy urged the Legislature to repeal the state’s so-called peonage law.

The law enabled bosses to go to court and have woods workers thrown in jail for up to 30 days for leaving their jobs before they’d paid their “debts” to the company. Hundreds of penniless men, often deceived by employment agents as to the rigors of the work and the remote location of the job sites, had been put in jail because they were alleged to be in debt to the company for transportation to the camps and other expenditures so they could work, said Eddy in his annual report to Maine’s Legislature and governor.

A story on Dec. 29, 1916, in the Bangor Daily News soon followed.

Bangor had a major economic stake in this debate. The Queen City of the East was the clearinghouse for thousands of woods workers headed for logging camps, log drives, lumber and paper mills and construction sites usually deep in the woods in Maine and other states.

Bangor employment agents said that from 25,000 to 30,000 men were shipped each year from the city after spending a few days contributing to the local economy by staying in the cheap boarding houses, some as high as six stories, on French, Oak, Washington, Exchange and Broad streets, socializing in the dozens of illegal saloons and shopping in local stores, according to a story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 30, 1916. Thousands more passed through the city to work sites, having found jobs on their own.

Many Bangor residents took a great deal of pride in all this economic bustle. They looked back reverentially to the days before the pulp mills and the railroads when Bangor had been “the lumber capital of the world.” So-called lumber barons built mansions overlooking the harbor, which boasted a “forest of masts” to carry all the lumber downriver. Dozens of sawmills lined the banks of the river from Hampden to Milford.

Most of the early workers were native born Mainers who knew just what they were getting into when they signed up for a stint in the woods. But times were changing. The lumbermen increasingly had to rely on immigrant workers from Europe and Canada. Some could barely speak English and were physically unfit for the rigorous labor.

Some employment agents misled recruits about the difficulty and danger of the jobs. The peonage law, adopted in Maine to protect lumber capitalists and help tame this new mass of humanity, was giving the state a bad reputation.

Angry operators called Eddy’s charges “a false alarm” in a Bangor Daily News story the next day. There had been only a half dozen such cases in the region around Bangor since the law was passed in 1907, they claimed.

The contractors were under pressure to produce logs on deadline at a certain cost. Commenting anonymously, they “complained bitterly” of “crews constantly shifting” making it impossible to predict if they would be in the woods working from one week to another.

“Many men were taken into the woods at much expense and after working two of three weeks have left. If some of the men get 10 or 15 dollars together they appear to be satisfied … and hike back to civilization,” the story said.

“Today the crews are composed of foreigners and the scum of Boston, most of them are not fit to carry on hard work,” the bosses complained. It apparently was common knowledge that “[m]any of the men to be sure are deceived in hiring for the woods, things being represented to them in too rosy a light at times.”

Only one Bangor employment agent actually stepped forward to defend himself by name in a brief letter to the editor. T. E. Connor of the Connor Labor Agency challenged anyone to prove he had not carried on his business in a legal manner.

By the early 20th Century, during the Progressive Era, reformers were trying to aid the poor including workers who were being mistreated by unbridled capitalism. The Salvation Army had already built a “workingman’s hotel” on French Street intended to help impoverished men look for work and stay out of the city’s dives. Labor interests, meanwhile, had targeted the state’s peonage act.

“The Maine law has proven to be very obnoxious,” said Eddy. “[H]undreds of men have been convicted and forced to serve a sentence in jail for no offence other than being in debt. … Many of the men have no conception of the work they are expected to do and employment agencies (mostly in Bangor, Boston and Lewiston) do not often hesitate to misrepresent conditions. After the man is engaged to do work, which in many instances he is entirely unfit to do, if he is without funds of his own, which is commonly the case, he is furnished with transportation into the woods.

“If upon his arrival there he finds that the work is not what he was engaged to do, or that it is physically impossible for him to do such work, or he quits for any cause, he is immediately arrested and taken for trial before a justice who is anxious to make the sentence satisfactory to the influential lumbermen operating in the vicinity,” said Eddy

Historian Charles A. Scontras in his book “Organized Labor in Maine: Twentieth Century Origins” traces the law’s history. The Maine peonage law was named after similar legislation in Alabama that was declared unconstitutional in 1910 by the U.S. Supreme Court. (A peon is an unskilled laborer or farm worker bound in servitude to a landlord creditor according to one dictionary definition.) Yet the law survived in Maine for several more years despite efforts to repeal it.

It received national criticism. In 1911, the United States Immigration Commission described the Maine law as “the most complete system of peonage in the entire country … The employment agents misrepresent conditions in the woods. … Arriving at the outskirts of civilization, the laborers are driven in wagons a short distance into the forest and then they walk, sometimes 60 or 70 miles, into the interior, the roads being impassable for vehicles. The men will then be kept in the heart of the forests for months throughout the winter.”

Some men were told at employment agencies it would not be necessary for them to swing an ax in the forest. Some others thought they would be riding in “electric cars” from the railroad terminal to the camp when in fact it was a 30 mile walk through the snow, according to Scontras’ research. Others ran up credit at the company store for necessities such as boots and clothing.

The act was finally removed from the books in 1917, a year after Eddy’s report appeared in the newspapers. According to Scontras, 342 men had been jailed since its passage. Perhaps some of them were actually guilty of something. But the negative publicity Maine was receiving plus the opposition of labor activists and their allies in the Legislature finally won.

The various romantic myths surrounding the logger’s life in the Maine woods that can be found in many a publication today seldom hint at such a dark side to the story of the state’s economic rise.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

 

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