Of all the industries in Maine that have come and gone — from much of the state’s textile manufacturing to the disastrous attempt to cultivate sugar beets in Aroostook County — perhaps none seem more strange to 21st-century sensibilities than the brief, explosively lucrative reign of fox farming in rural Maine.
Foxes, with their fluffy tails, cute faces and mischievous personalities, remain a charismatic — and sometimes dangerous — part of Maine’s wild landscape, making the idea of hundreds of foxes kept in cages, only to be killed for their pelts, pretty upsetting for many.
Foxes became a lucrative part of the fur trade in the late 19th and early 20th century, after Canadian farmers first successfully bred silver foxes in captivity in the 1890s. With the relative affluence in much of the country in those years, people had a big appetite for luxury goods. A fox fur coat, with its thick, silken texture and extreme warmth, was a top item for those who could afford it — especially in the silver variety, a lustrous black-and-gray two-tone color.
By 1920, Mainers had embraced the farming of foxes enthusiastically, with one family in Lincoln, the Gordons, dominating much of the trade. Frank Gordon, a dentist in Bangor, and his brother Fred, an optometrist in Lincoln, went all in on a fox farming venture, developing 15 fox farms — or ranches, as they were typically called — in and around Lincoln between 1919 and 1936.
According to an oral history collected by the Maine Historical Society, each ranch housed about 200 foxes, including black and red foxes, with the most popular, the “silver” variety, fetching thousands of dollars per pelt. Wealthy shoppers would come all the way to Lincoln from Boston and New York to purchase the highly fashionable, black and pale gray pelts, netting the brothers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in sales and making them millionaires within a few years.
With the dawn of the Great Depression in 1929, however, the bottom fell out for most luxury goods, and the brothers began to struggle financially. By the end of the 1930s, the brothers had gone bankrupt, with their last farm closing in 1940. In 1952, fox farming was outlawed in Maine, putting an end to the industry in the state altogether. Today, just 10 states allow foxes to be farmed for their fur.
There were other fox farmers in Maine, including, most notably, Robert Moore, who operated a fox ranch near the Piscataquis County village of Onawa. After fox farming was outlawed in 1952, Moore donated his property to the National Audubon Society, and today the land is part of Maine Audubon’s Borestone Mountain Sanctuary.
In 2015, the only surviving fox ranch owned by the Gordons in Lincoln was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The property, located at 680 West Broadway in Lincoln, includes an observation tower and the caretaker’s house, as well as the palisade that contained the fox pens. It is one of the only remaining traces of what was once a thriving industry in Maine.