In 1820, about 300,000 colonists called Maine home. They lived and worked from the larger port cities such as Portland to the smaller farm settlements of the St. John River Valley. These were people who had to make a living the best they could from the land, from the sea or from trading goods.
Back then, as they are now, Mainers were tough, self-reliant, independent and, despite sometimes grumbling about their neighbors, always ready to lend a hand when needed.
They were also sick and tired of being under the rule of a government far to their south. For 35 years — since the end of the Revolutionary War — Mainers had been petitioning for statehood. People who lived and worked in what was then a 30,000-square-mile district governed by Massachusetts wanted to break away as their own, separate entity. In the years leading up to 1820, residents of what would become Maine had amassed a lot of grievances against the politicians down in Boston. They were tired of laws that devalued the Maine district’s timber, tired of paying taxes on land or livestock based on values assessed in by politicians who lived hundreds of miles to the south and had never set foot on the land in the Maine district. Things really came to a head during the War of 1812 when the state did little to help or protect the people in the district of Maine against the invading British Army and Navy.
In 1819, voters in the district of Maine approved a referendum for statehood in such overwhelming numbers that the state of Massachusetts could no longer ignore their demands for independence. Soon after that referendum, residents of the Maine district met in Portland in October to craft a state constitution. At the same time, the Massachusetts Legislature reluctantly passed a statehood bill and sent it on to the United States Congress, with the caveat that if Congress and the president did not approve the bill by March 4, 1820, the territory that was Maine would remain part of Massachusetts. Things came down to the wire, but Congress passed the bill in early March 1820. On March 3, it was signed into law by President James Monroe.
Politics, issues of statehood, taxation and legal status aside, the people who lived in the Maine district had lives to lead and food to put on tables. Sometimes these lives were exciting and adventurous. But more often than not, they were the mundane, sometimes colorful lives of people doing the best they could to make a living on land they loved.
Life at home
The typical home for most people in Maine in 1820 was just large enough to accommodate the family. Spare rooms, parlors and separate bedrooms were for wealthy ship captains or lumber barons. It was not uncommon for the less affluent to all sleep in the same room.
But regardless of status, every home had certain things in common and met certain needs. Shack or mansion, hut or farmhouse, everyone needed light at the end of the day. For the very wealthy, gas-powered lamps were a novelty in 1820, and provided steady and reliable light. More often though homes were lit by whale oil lamps or simple candles.
Since Maine had virtually no coal reserves and transporting it into the region was very costly, heat was provided by burning wood. And in 1820, Maine had plenty of wood to burn.
That was a good thing since the average sized home required at least 20 cords of firewood every winter to stay warm.
Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.
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