The summer home of Frances Perkins — the female labor reformer behind the New Deal programs that helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression — has been saved by a group that plans to preserve it.
The Frances Perkins Homestead in Newcastle, which has been owned and occupied by the Perkins family for more than 260 years, has been deteriorating and her grandson was looking to sell it.
Maine Preservation placed the homestead on its 2018 Most Endangered Historic Places list to bring attention to a fundraising effort that would attract a buyer and turn it into a museum and education center focused on Perkins’ accomplishments.
The Frances Perkins Center, a nonprofit with an exhibit gallery in downtown Damariscotta, bought the homestead in January. The 57-acre homestead is on a saltwater farm that includes a brick house, barn and other buildings surrounded by fields, wooded groves and stone walls. The homestead was named a National Historic Landmark in 2014.
Although Perkins was born in Boston and lived most of her life in New York and Washington, D.C., she spent summers on the Newcastle farm, which she considered home. She is buried in Glidden Cemetery in Newcastle.
“Throughout her life she both lived and found respite at this family farm,” said Greg Paxton, executive director of Maine Preservation. “She is generally viewed as the architect of the New Deal and was a close confidante of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And like Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie and other distinguished Mainers, Frances Perkins is a nationally prominent figure.”
Perkins, who became secretary of labor in 1933, was the first woman to serve in a president’s Cabinet. Roosevelt sent her to Europe to learn about social welfare safety nets there for people who could no longer work. When she returned, she was instrumental in implementing aspects of the New Deal, including establishing the minimum wage, standardizing the 40-hour work week, banning child labor, creating Social Security and creating workers compensation and unemployment insurance.
“She operated in the political world, but her motivation was social justice and economic security,” said Michael Chaney, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center.
Perkins advocated successfully for workers rights at a time when women tended to sit quietly in the background and let men make decisions, according to Perkins biographer Kristen Downey. She was the lone woman in the room during her first Cabinet meeting in March 1933.
She dressed plainly, didn’t wear makeup and favored three-cornered hats and black and navy suits, the biographer told NPR. Downey said Perkins took notes about her male colleagues that she saved in a large red envelope labeled, “Notes on the Male Mind.”
According to the biographer, Perkins later revealed her thoughts about that first Cabinet meeting.
“I tried to have as much of a mask as possible. I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn’t buzz-buzz all the time,” Perkins said. “I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men’s conversation is very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club perhaps. You didn’t butt in with bright ideas.”
Downey said the brick house on the Newcastle property wasn’t only a refuge, but played a key role in shaping Perkins’ policies.
“Her undying belief in America’s greatness and goodness were rooted in her concept of what makes America unique — and these views were formed at and by that home in Maine,” Downey wrote.
Two big events shaped Perkins’ views about labor and the disadvantaged. While at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, she visited mills on the Connecticut River where child labor was the cheapest way to make cloth, said Chaney of the Frances Perkins Center.
She also witnessed the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village, New York, Chaney said. The fire was the deadliest industrial disaster in the city’s history, killing 146 garment workers. Most of them were recent Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls who couldn’t escape the burning building because the exit doors were locked.
Perkins, who died in 1965 at age 85, made headlines in Maine more recently. She is depicted in an 11-panel mural depicting Maine’s labor history that former Gov. Paul LePage ordered removed from the Maine Department of Labor’s lobby in 2011. It now hangs in the lobby of the Maine State Museum in Augusta.
Chaney said the homestead’s agricultural history also is important. Plans call for a new community meeting, exhibit and educational space to be built on the homestead.
“It’s a place where people can gather to discuss contemporary issues related to the economy,” he said. The renovation’s initial phase should be completed by the end of 2021. The homestead will be open during renovations, he said. Construction of the educational center is slated for completion in 2022.