Rockland and Rockport were once hotbeds of labor activism: ‘Fed up with being treated like machines’

Labor Day 1896, more than 5,000 people gathered at Oakland Park on Labor Day
Sun, 09/04/2022 - 3:30pm

One hundred twenty six years ago, on Monday, September 6, 1896, 5,000 people gathered at Oakland Park in Rockport for a Labor Day celebration sponsored by the Knights of Labor and other Midcoast labor unions.

At the time, the holiday was still relatively young. President Grover Cleveland signed the law establishing the first Labor Day as a federal holiday in 1894 when the labor movement was finally gaining strength. Fed up with being treated like machines, workers demanded an end to poverty wages, excessively long work days, dangerous working conditions and child labor. But Mainers celebrated the holiday much earlier.

The Knights of Labor were the first Maine workers to celebrate Labor Day on August 31, 1886 when over 3,000 people gathered at Peaks Island for a day of rest and recreation.

It was a time of intense labor unrest following the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and at least 21 strikes in Maine that year alone. The Knights of Labor was at its peak with roughly 41 percent of Maine’s workforce belonging to the organization that welcomed nearly all working people to its ranks, including blacks and women, which was very radical at the time.

The Knights advocated for the replacement of the capitalist system with a cooperative commonwealth and was particularly powerful among the granite and lime workers of the Midcoast. By the 1890s, the Maine Knights' agenda included the eight-hour day, the secret ballot, the citizen initiative and an end to anti-union conspiracy laws. Maine became the ninth state to legally recognize Labor Day in 1891.

As the Rockland Opinion observed, when Labor Day was first officially established in 1891, it was seen as merely a “sop for labor” and a “cheap way for politicians to conciliate the labor vote.”

But as the other holiday celebrations had either waned in popularity or even ceased all together, Labor Day festivities were growing larger every year. The Opinion remarked that the ideas that underlay the holiday’s creation, “have lent it dignity and importance” and emphasized “the grandeur and nobility of labor and protesting against the false social and political economy that deprive it of the power, honor and emoluments that are its own right.”

“It is no longer observed merely as a day for workingmen’s picnics,” the Opinion noted. “At first, business paid very little attention to the day, and did not appear to regard it as any of their concern. This year, every place of business was closed and there were perhaps as many business and professional men as mechanics and laborers in the crowd that took part in the celebration. And all recognized the fact that the day is not for a class, but for all humanity. We rejoice that such is the fact. Labor Day may render a service that we had never expected of it.”

The rail line to Oakland Park was pushed to the max as hundreds of revelers piled out of street cars and labor delegations from Vinalhaven to Bangor arrived.

The morning began at 9 a.m. with bicycle races from downtown Rockland and Rockport to the park and prizes awarded to the winners in the boys’, girls’ and handicapped categories.

A fish dinner was held at noon and refreshments sold throughout the day.

In the afternoon, locals took part in several competitions, including a men’s tug-o-war between Rockland and Camden, a hammer throw, a pole race, a half-mile foot race, a pipe race, a shoe race, a pie race, a fat men’s race, a ladies egg race, a three-legged race, a bag race, a running jump and a 200-yard dash. The organizers made it clear that no person under the influence of liquor was allowed to compete and brawling would not be tolerated.

Winners of the various afternoon competitions were awarded very practical prizes including half ton deliveries of coal, boxes of cigars, 12 pounds of the best java and mocha coffee, vases, nickel tea kettles, cigar holders, silver cream pitchers, butter dishes, rockers, commode sets, alarm clocks, umbrellas, $1 worth of laundry work, traveling bags, smoking sets, pairs of gloves, shirts, pictures, jack knives, fishing poles, caps, hats, vest and pants patterns from a local tailor, fruit dishes, cuff buttons, $2 worth of goods at Gregory’s Store in Rockland, cabinet photographs and a year’s subscription to the Rockland Opinion. First, second and third prizes for those who sold the most tickets to the evening dance included a barrel of flour, a half cord of wood and an oak table.

Thomas B. McGuire, the New York General Worthy Foreman of the Order of the Knights of Labor and member of the Knight’s executive board — who also originally proposed the idea of establishing Labor Day in the U.S. — gave the keynote address from the veranda of the dining hall at 2 p.m.

McGuire said that workers had made great strides in recent years through their collective struggles.

He noted that the limeburners of Rockland, who had organized in 1884 with the Knights of Labor, had prevented wage cuts by negotiating a $2 a day wage rate. He urged unions to accept women into their ranks, both “for the good influence” they would have within them and because women were working in every industry and undercutting the wages of men.

He called for women to be paid equal wages as men doing the same work.

McGuire also denounced politicians who “appeal to votes of workingmen and betray them to their enemies.” He argued that the universal organization of labor would be morally uplifting and pointed out that the Knights banned liquor dealers from joining the organization.

“He absolutely skinned the trusts, and pointed out that they endangered American institutions, while robbing the people,” the Opinion gleefully wrote. McGuire called unions “a bulwark against the power of trusts” and “if they can carry out their purposes they will destroy the trusts!”

“Despite his radical ideas, there is no more popular and winning a speaker than Mr. McGuire,” the Opinion raved.

That evening, young men and women danced to the sounds of the Meservey Quintet. While it was unusually hot that September day, it was not excessively so and the dancers welcomed the cool evening breeze from Penobscot Bay as the bright moonlight brought an atmosphere that was just warm and cool enough for comfort and perhaps, a little romance.

Reading the Rockland Opinion's account of the festivities, I was struck by how the day had transformed from a holiday for unions to hold picnics and celebrate radical labor politics in the 1880s to a more mainstream community festival that gradually became divorced from the true meaning of the holiday.

Part of that may be because Americans chose to celebrate Labor Day as an end of summer party in September, as opposed to on International Workers Day on May 1, which commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair, when a massive general strike for the eight-hour day in Chicago ended with police violence and a stick of dynamite being thrown at local police by some unknown assailant the next night, resulting in a police massacre of workers and the hanging of anarchist leaders.

Rockland was still a hotbed of labor activism in those days and would often host radical speakers to give keynote Labor Day addresses. Two years before the Oakland Park celebration, Socialist-Labor Party leader Daniel DeLeon spoke at the Rockland Labor Day festivities, which inspired the creation of a local branch of the SLP. It ran several candidates for mayor and alderman seats the following year, only to lose in landslides. 

As failed Rockland SLP mayoral candidate A.L. Carleton complained after his loss in 1895, "I verily believe that there are some voters of Rockland who, if the gates of Heaven were swung wide open for them, and they were cordially invited to enter, would hang back and wait for some cheap political striker to come after them with a team and a bottle of rum.”

The following year, Labor Day had become a very popular community celebration, but the meaning of the holiday gradually became diluted over the years.

Although Central Labor Councils still put on great Labor Day cookouts and breakfasts in Portland, Lewiston, Winslow and Bangor (when there's no pandemic), overall the holiday has largely been stripped of its original purpose — to celebrate solidarity, the dignity of labor and the fight for workers' rights — as it evolved into a holiday where most people privately observe it with cookouts with their families, if they do anything at all.

I really would love to have gone to a Labor Day party like the celebration of 1896  though. Unfortunately, we have become so atomized and oblivious to our own history and the collective struggles that allowed average working people to live a dignified life because we haven't had a strong, vibrant labor movement in many years.

Unfortunately, America has also been torn between our human instinct to look to collective solutions for our survival and our radical individualist, consumerist mindset. Writing in the 1830s, Alex de Tocqueville feared that America's individualism would lead to a breakdown of civic cooperation, which in turn might call forth a new form of totalitarianism. 

In America, said Tocqueville, “Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”