In the early years of the 20th century, 15,086 wage earners labored in Maine’s lumber and timber products industry. One of the state’s leading industries, it included logging operations, sawmills, planing mills and factories manufacturing wooden packing boxes.

The loggers who fell the giants of the Maine forests have certainly won their share of column space in folklore literature. The romantic image of the loggers is, however, not necessarily reflective of the reality of their life experience.

Overzealous employment agencies that recruited workers to labor in the woods for a fee often falsified the nature of the work and thus played a role in fleecing the workers. The company store, that appendage of many business operations in the state, took a particular twist in the lumbering industry. Workers who were recruited to work in the Maine woods often arrived penniless and were supplied by the company store with the necessary clothing to perform their tasks, e.g., mittens, gum rubbers and mackinaws. Many woodsmen, however, left the lumber camps while still owing money to the company store; the debt was known as the “wangun.”

Many quit for various reasons. In some instances they discovered that their job did not match its advertised description; in others, they found that geographical isolation, wilderness existence and arduous labor formed a mix that made life in the woods disagreeable or too difficult for them. Some traced the phenomenon of these nomads of the woods, who often drifted from town to town, to a decline in the quality of woodsmen who were brought into the state to slay the giants of timber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To ensure greater control over the woodsmen and protection of their financial resources, the lumber interests requested, and secured, legislation in 1907 that made it a crime to leave one’s place of employment while in debt to the company store. No other industry in the state secured such legislation, which revealed the industry’s legislative clout and control over its workers and company store operations.

The controversial law provided: “Whoever enters into an agreement to labor for another in any lumbering operation or in driving logs, and in consideration thereof receives any advance of goods, money, or transportation, and unreasonably, and with intent to defraud, fails to enter into such employment as agreed, and labor for a sufficient time to reimburse his employer for said advances, and expenses or transportation, shall be punished by a fine of not exceeding ten dollars, or by imprisonment not exceeding thirty days.”

By 1917, at least 342 woods workers had been imprisoned under the peonage legislation. Only when the U.S. Supreme Court declared similar legislation unconstitutional, overturning an Alabama statute upon which the Maine law was based, did Maine legislators repeal the law.

The widespread negative publicity given the Maine peonage law also contributed to its repeal. Note, for example, that in 1911 the United States Immigration Commission reported:

“There has probably existed in Maine 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 forests and then have to 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 … .”

No serious effort was made by the established labor order, represented by the Maine State Federation of Labor, to organize the woods workers of the state. It appears that clergy visited the lumber camps more than did labor organizers. The first major effort to organize the state’s woods workers fell to one of the nation’s most militant labor organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World, in the 1920s.

The IWW viewed capitalism as beyond redemption and perceived the American Federation of Labor as part of the system and its mode of organization by craft as inadequate and detrimental in serving and fostering the ends of worker solidarity. IWW organizers were greeted with charges of conspiracy for which they were imprisoned and their office in Bangor raided. Clearly an uphill battle for woods workers and their allies.


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