Help Wanted – The White, Protestant Kind

Abandoned Farm, Bethel, Maine, ca 1895. Image: Bethel Historical Society/Maine Memory Network


Rural Maine was in a bad way. Young people were leaving in droves, headed to the cities, or to other states to seek their fortune. Farms sat empty, while the farmers that remained couldn’t find enough help.

It’s a story that has resonance today, when economists are warning that Maine, especially its rural areas, are seeing economic stagnation and a lack of population growth. In 1908, the Maine Bureau of Labor Statistics summed up the problem like this:

The great need of the State is for young blood, people who will increase the population by rearing families that will have a love and desire for agricultural pursuits. This is the kind of people that will solve the question of abandoned farms and decrease in population

Then, as now, one solution was to encourage immigration to Maine. In the early 20th century, the hope was that Maine could see the same kind of population growth that the prairie and plains states had seen in prior decades. Maine had experimented briefly with incentives for immigration before. In 1870, the state offered cash assistance and tax abatements for families to travel from Sweden to Aroostook County, where they founded the town of New Sweden.

Farm Life in New Sweden, ca 1910. Image: New Sweden Historical Society/Maine Memory Network

State support for the New Sweden project ended by 1874, however, and while immigrants (especially French Canadians) continued to stream into Maine’s manufacturing cities, the state’s rural areas continued to suffer depopulation and stagnation in the later 19th century. Farming in Maine was (and remains) a tough occupation. Many young families moved to the cities for different lines of work, or headed west where land was cheap and productive.

In 1908, the Bureau of Labor took up the issue of rural decline in its annual report. In addition to examining the policy solutions adopted in other states, the bureau surveyed farmers across the state. The bureau asked town clerks to supply them with the names of six “representative farmers” who could report on local conditions. The 1908 report includes accounts from hundreds of communities, with details of the number of farms for sale, the local need for labor, prevailing wages, and key local industries.

The bureau also asked farmers about immigration. Respondents were asked, “in case immigrants from other countries were coming to your town to  become permanent residents, what nationalities would you prefer?” While hardly a scientific survey by today’s standards, the answers given in 1908, offer a rare and candid look at the attitudes of everyday rural Mainers of the time towards immigration.

The bureau itself recognized that there was “an aversion to anything that savors of alienism,” but recommended Mainers put aside their prejudices. The perspective of the Bureau is emblematic of the ambivalence around immigration at the time. On the one hand, it warned:

When we apply prejudice against everyone born outside of the United States, it is also well to remember that the people who discovered Maine and the rest of the Western Hemisphere were foreigners…In our own state we have communities made up of people from foreign countries and their presence is certainly not detrimental to the prosperity and prosperity of the Commonwealth.

Yet even as it extolled the virtues of immigration, the Maine Bureau of Labor qualified that support. It distinguished between “desirable and undesirable [immigrants]” but was ambiguous about what made someone “desirable.” The Bureau quoted President Theodore Roosevelt’s recommendation that the quality of immigrants be assessed on “the individual qualities of the individual man” regardless of nationality or religion – but immediately followed this with reports of several Finnish communities in Maine, reinforcing the impression that nationality was a key component of desirability.

Finnish Congregational Church Sunday School, West Paris, Maine, 1910. Image: Maine Historical Society/Maine Memory Network

The farmers and town clerks surveyed by the Bureau displayed a similar range of opinions about immigration. Some of the respondents expressed outright hostility to immigrants. For example a Hodgdon farmer wrote

I am not much in favor of foreign immigration except those from English speaking countries…I believe in encouraging our own people to settle on our land and keep up the old stock.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few respondents expressed openness to newcomers, saying they would be happy to see any kind of immigrant in their town. Frequently, however, even this broad-mindedness came with a caveat. A common response was one from a Bridgton resident, who welcomed arrivals, “so long as the people are temperate, honest and industrious, and have intelligence enough to take advantage of the opportunities and benefits of American institutions and citizenship.”

Those traits weren’t just general descriptors. Americans of the time had strong ideas of which nationalities exemplified those qualities. They were generally Northern European Protestants. Immigrants from Eastern or Southern Europe, Catholics and Jews, were caricatured as lazy people who failed to assimilate, and who drank too much. One farmer from Greenwood, described by the Bureau as having “a general prejudice against foreigners” laid bare the stereotypes attributed to immigrants:


Of course there are some good ones, as there are some good and bad Americans. I have more faith in those coming from the Protestant countries of Europe than the Latin countries…we also have quite a number of Finlanders newly settled and they seem better than we ought to expect from the way their country is run.


Aside from these prejudices, there was some general concern about immigration that would be familiar to readers today. A Prentiss farmer told the Bureau it should focus on attracting urban Americans to the countryside, rather than “foreign hoboes [sic].” He also worried that immigrants were “made voters for a political purpose.” Claiming that foreign-born residents had the same mental abilities as children, he proposed a waiting period of 21 years before new citizens could vote.

These outright hostile and discriminatory views may well have been minority opinions in early 20th century Maine.  But even the vast majority of the responses listed in the Bureau’s report display a clear preference for white, northern European Protestants in favor of any other immigrants.

Overwhelmingly, the first choice of most farmers was for Swedish help. Of 447 responses, some 162 (36%) indicated a desire for Swedes. This might partly have been because Mainers were familiar with the New Sweden colony, and the presence of Swedish immigrants in the state. Several Mainers also said they thought Swedes made the best farmers. Yet Swedes also fit the model of white Protestants from Northern Europe who were thought to be most similar to the old Yankee stock in New England, and who were preferred to other groups. In his 1870 address to the Maine Legislature, then-Governor Joshua Chamberlain explicitly promoted the New Sweden colony by saying that “a little retouching of our color by the infusion of fresh, young Northern blood, would do us no harm.”

Other popular choices included immigrants from elsewhere in Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Germany. British immigrants and those from British provinces (like maritime Canada) were especially desirable from the respondents’ perspective because they already spoke English. A Smyrna resident preferred English speaking residents “as they have a language and a religion [i.e. Protestant Christianity] in common with our own.” Yet the same farmer was concerned that even these immigrants displayed “unfriendliness to American institutions.”

A Pownal farmer reported a “preference for the Englsih speaking races,” illustrating the nebulous nature of race theory at the time, which distinguished between different groups of “Whites.”

Somewhat surprisingly, a number of those surveyed expressed a preference for Irish immigrants. When they first came to Maine and the United States, the Irish were treated with suspicion and hostility. But by 1908, they had become part of the group of “good immigrants,” despite their Catholicism. This may partly have been due to their reputation as farmers.

Immigrant workers at Hall Quarry, Mount Desert, 1905. Image: Maine Granite Industry Historical Society/Maine Memory Network


Other nationalities were seen as preferable for certain jobs. In York, the correspondent said Italians were sought after, since the town planned several projects in the future, including “road building, brick making, and sewer construction…and they are desirable laborers for this kind of work.”  An Oakland man preferred “Dutch for dairymen, Germans for all-round farmers, and Italians as truck drivers.”

Table of Responses, 1908 BLS Report

Nationality Number Share
Swedes 162 36%
Germans 59 13%
Irish 36 8%
Scots 32 7%
English 26 6%
(Anglo) Canadians 22 5%
Norwegians 20 4%
Danes 19 4%
French 18 4%
No preference 13 3%
Finns 9 2%
Poles 5 1%
Russians 5 1%
Welsh 5 1%
Italians 4 1%
Dutch 4 1%
Scandinavians 2 0%
Northern Europeans 2 0%
British Isles 1 0%
Great Britain 1 0%
“Russian Finns” 1 0%
Hungarians 1 0%
Total 447

The preference for Northern Europeans expressed by the Maine farmers was very different from the reality of immigration at the time. According to the records of the 1910 census, immigrants arriving to the US in 1908 were much more likely to come from Russia, Italy, or the Austrian Empire.


Origin of Immigrants to the United States in 1908

Origin Share
Russia 17%
Italy 17%
Austria 14%
Hungary 7%
Germany 6%
England 5%
Ireland 5%
Canada (English) 4%
Mexico 4%
Sweden 3%
Canada (French) 2%

Source: 1910 US Census, via the Integrated Public Use Microdata System (IPUMS). Canadian immigrants broken out by native language.


Origin of Immigrants to Maine, 1906-1910

Origin Share
Canada (French) 38%
Canada (English) 30%
Russia 8%
Turkey 6%
Italy 5%
Ireland 4%
England 2%
Finland 1%
Puerto Rico 1%
Denmark 1%
India 1%
Sweden 1%

Source: 1910 US Census, via the Integrated Public Use Microdata System (IPUMS). Canadian immigrants broken out by native language.


While not totally ignored, French Canadians were rarely listed as the preferred immigrants in the Bureau’s survey. French Canadians fit the “Latin” and Catholic profile seen as “undesirable” immigrants. Mainers may also have felt that there were so many Francos already coming to the state that they hardly needed encouragement.  There may also have been perception that Francos were best suited to manufacturing work (despite the agricultural roots of many French Canadians who came to the United States), rather than the farm labor which was most in demand. A respondent in Saco, for example, specifically mentioned that “French” immigrants were needed for the textile industry. Some of the rural communities looking for French immigrants as farm workers were in Aroostook County, where Acadians had been farming the land for generations.


Aroostook Potato Field, 1916. Image: Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum/Maine Memory Network

In the end, whatever plans the Bureau of Labor had for repopulating rural Maine by encouraging immigration never came to pass. As in the rest of the country, 1908 would represent the high water mark of immigration in Maine. New federal laws would place the first broad-based restrictions on immigration in 1917 and again in 1924. In retrospect The 1908 Bureau of Labor report is a reminder of a path not taken. Instead of attracting more residents from diverse backgrounds, Maine turned inwards in the 20th century, seeing a continued decline in population growth and the flourishing of anti-immigrant movements like the Ku Klux Klan.

Maine’s population continued to grow through the 20th century, but slowly. Between 1900 and 1970, Maine’s population grew by just 300,000, an average of 0.6% per year. As a result, the state’s influence relative to the rest of the country declined. In 1900, Mainers made up 1% of the US population and were represented by four Congressmen. By 1970, that share had halved, and the state now has two Congressional Districts.

Without welcoming more newcomers, Maine’s 21st Century decline could be even more dramatic.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.