Whispering Pines: An Unsparing Pen

Whispering Pines

When the Women’s Alliance of First Parish Church invited Bowdoin Professor of History Edward Kirkland to talk about “Brunswick’s Golden Age” at their 1940 Institute, they probably got a bit more than they had bargained for. “Kirk” had a reputation as an internationally-known economic historian and a scholar with a keen appreciation of irony. He undertook his assignment with a commitment to historical evidence, wherever that might lead him—and it led him into some decidedly “un-gilded” corners of the town’s past.

Edward Chase Kirkland, Frank Munsey Professor of History, 1930-1959.

Edward Chase Kirkland, Frank Munsey Professor of History, 1930-1959.

Kirkland’s audience was expecting to hear about the march of progress, the accomplishments of Brunswick’s sons and daughters, stories of shipyards and sea captains, and accounts of how cultural life had been enriched by the College on the hill, a public library, and an active historical society. After all, architectural symbols of Brunswick’s prosperity, power, and piety stood at opposite ends of Maine Street—the spire of First Parish Church at the top of the hill by the College and the eastern brick tower of the Cabot textile mill down by the Androscoggin River. Almost midway between these landmarks was an imposing brick Town Hall, designed by architect John Calvin Stevens and built in 1884. After having weathered the Great Depression and now faced with war in Europe, town residents may have sought reassurances that Brunswick had experienced a “golden age” in the decades that had followed the Civil War—an era of progress and prosperity that might live again.

Albert G. Tenney, Class of 1835.

Albert G. Tenney, Class of 1835.

Professor Kirkland bundled a lot of information into his view of 1880s Brunswick as it prepared to celebrate its 150th anniversary as a town—the selectmen’s decision to set the town clock according to the time zones of “railroad time” instead of local time, the decline of wooden ships and the age of sail, and an economic shift from farming to factories. He drew on many sources for his account, but he found an especially clear voice in the writings of A. G. Tenney [Bowdoin Class of 1835], the editor of the weekly Brunswick Telegraph newspaper.

Tenney was born in Newbury, Massachusetts, in 1814. He attended Amherst College for a year before transferring to Bowdoin, where his father’s cousin Parker Cleaveland was professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and natural philosophy. Tenney began his career as a “vigorous political writer” at the Baltimore Sun. He moved to Boston in 1840, and over the next fifteen years he edited the Whig-leaning Daily Times and Boston Evening Telegraph, was the chief reporter for the Boston Daily Journal, served as private secretary to Commodore John Downes in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and worked in the Boston customs house. He returned to Maine in 1855, editing a newspaper in Bath for two years before becoming the editor of the Brunswick Telegraph, a position that he held for the next thirty-seven years.

Tenney’s “beat” was anywhere he could get to in his one-horse carriage, and he wrote about whatever struck him as worthy of comment. A Bowdoin classmate wrote of him that he put into The Telegraph “…the vim and piquancy that made it famous throughout New England. Mr. Tenney was perfectly fearless, never on the fence, and in the treatment of a subject which seemed to merit his disapproval, spared neither friend nor foe…a cow on the Mall bred a Philippic. A paternal care and a radical effort to cure all things in the bailiwick which seemed to Brother Tenney to be at sixes-and-sevens, was the persistently exercised function of the editor….The end of the pen of this most companionable of men carried his gall away.”

Thomas and Josephine Ouellette and Family, ca. 1905.  According to the 1880 Census, the father and children over the age of ten worked in the cotton mill.

Thomas and Josephine Ouellette and Family, ca. 1905. According to the 1880 Census, the father and children over the age of ten worked in the cotton mill. (photo courtesy of David Vermette).

It was Editor Tenney, and not the keepers and chroniclers of the town’s (or the College’s) history, who ventured into the world of the French-speaking mill workers recruited from communities in rural Quebec to work in the Cabot textile mill in the decades after the Civil War. Researcher David Vermette has pointed out that while Brunswick’s population grew modestly between 1860 and 1880 (from 4,723 to 5,384), the percentage of French-Canadian and Franco-Americans in Brunswick rose from 2.5% to 22%; by 1900 the figure was 38%. The Boston-based Cabot operation built tenements to house the new workers in the shadow of the mill on the west side of Maine Street and along the river. Tenney remarked on the size of these new immigrant families (often including ten or more children); he also described the vibrant spirit of the French-speaking community on display at festivals, weddings, christenings, and even at funerals.

In the course of conducting decades of research on the Franco-American experience in New England – and in Brunswick, where his family had moved to find work in the mill – David Vermette has shared the fruits of his historical, demographic, and genealogical research on his blog . He describes a strike by young boys in 1881, which was triggered by the discovery that boys in textile mills in Lewiston were getting paid a penny more per day than their Cabot Mill counterparts. Tenney reported that boys and girls as young as eight were working ten-hour days in the cotton mill for $1.00 a week, changing spools of thread on running machinery and doing other dangerous work where small hands and bodies were an asset. When the adult workers demanded higher wages the mill shut down for a few days, and the Cabot Mill agent promptly sent eviction notices to all workers living in the tenements, closed the company store where mill workers were expected to trade, and lobbied local merchants not to sell to the strikers. The strike lasted three days, with slight wage increases for men and women.

As Professor Kirkland pointed out in his lecture, for nearly the entire nineteenth century downtown Brunswick was plagued with unpaved streets and poor surface drainage. At the foot of the hill below the College, the area of the Mall and railroad yard had been a swamp. The lack of a sewer system and the high water table meant that wells for drinking water were easily—and often—contaminated. Kirkland remarked that a man from the Middle Ages would have felt at home surrounded by the sights and smells of Brunswick.

Pre-1865 tenement on Bow St.

Pre-1865 tenement on Bow St.

Nowhere were the living conditions more appalling than in the overcrowded tenements owned by the Cabot Company. Waste water from sink spouts spilled into the small yards, where pigs, chickens, and cows shared space with outhouses and wells that supplied drinking water. Tenney reported that each block of tenements, holding upwards of a hundred people, was served by four privies which were cleaned out annually. He railed against the greed and the inhumanity of the Cabot Mill owners in the pages of the Telegraph, and laid the responsibility for an 1881 typhoid epidemic at their door.

Despite Tenney’s forceful editorials against the “tyrants of the cotton and woolen mills” health problems in the tenements persisted. A diphtheria epidemic swept through between April and September of 1886 and claimed the lives of thirty-five Franco-American children. By May, Father Gorman at St. John’s Church claimed that he had buried more children than he had baptized that year. Among his Franco-American patients in 1886, Dr. Onésimé Paré counted 152 cases of diphtheria (nineteen deaths), seventy-eight cases of typhoid (eleven deaths) and sixteen fatal cases of diarrhea. Tenney’s words leaped off the pages of the Telegraph: conditions on Mill Street “…were enough to make a Christian swear;” the company showed “no tender mercy for the poor slaves bound to it by the necessities of existence, they dying by slow poison…;” and he inquired “…if a French-Canadian had any rights which his Yankee brother is bound to protect.”

In a 2014 lecture at the Pejepscot Historical Society, Vermette  picked up the story where Tenney and Kirkland left off, and showed how the mill workers overcame the oppressive living conditions of the tenements. The greatest improvements came when the French-Canadian mill workers met at the Brunswick Town Hall and decided unanimously to seek naturalization as American citizens. Within a few short years mill workers were moving out into homes that they were building in new neighborhoods in Brunswick and across the “swinging bridge” in Topsham Heights. With citizenship came greater opportunities, even as the textile, shoe, and paper industries were in decline in the twentieth century.

Cabot Mill Building, drawn by Rich Martel ’76.

Cabot Mill Building, drawn by Rich Martel ’76.

The Cabot Mill building dominates the view at the north end of Maine Street, as Fort Andross, a mixed-use complex that houses an antique mall, restaurants, offices, and a storage facility. Only one of the pre-1865 tenements still stands at the west end of the mill. The others have disappeared, along with a number of commercial buildings, in 1961 when the Route 1 by-pass to Bath was constructed along Mill Street. Readers of The Brunswick Telegraph may have been shocked by Tenney’s editorials and members of the Women’s Alliance of First Parish Church were no doubt unsettled by Kirkland’s lecture. The history of the College and the town are enriched beyond measure by Tenney’s and Kirkland’s willingness to seek and tell uncomfortable truths, by David Vermette’s meticulous scholarship on the Franco-American experience, and by the courage and resilience of Brunswick’s Franco-American community over more than 150 years.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Thank you John. We need these stories to fully understand how our communities have been shaped by so many different situations. The 19th century was full of challenges. I’m glad Kirkland found Tenney.

  2. Bob Spencer'60 says:

    As always a well researched and written piece of local lore – you have access to a treasure trove and mine it well
    Bob Spencer’60

  3. Kurt Ollmann says:

    Great to read this. Thanks for your continued great work.

  4. robert Ives '69 says:

    John, what an excellent article. Its always important as a town or nation to hear the story of our entire history wherever it leads.

  5. Doug Watkins says:

    As a new resident of Brunswick, I appreciated this candid article about Brunswick and the focus on how things were in the 19th century. Too many times our history — whether local or national — gets lost in the myth of “the good old days.”

    Thank you for writing this and for sharing this in the Bowdoin Daily Sun.

  6. Al De Moya '72 says:

    Excellent, excellent as always. I love your digging out the gems of Bowdoin lore

  7. Jose-Manuel Torres '85 says:

    John, I always look forward to reading your articles. Thank you for your excellent work.


  8. Barbara Kaster says:

    John, this is amazing. I knew some of it but had no idea how awful it was for the workers. As always, you amaze me!

  9. Madeleine Msall says:

    Thanks John, for inspiring us all with the story of Tenney. The town of Brunswick has now officially named a street in his honor! Tenney Way is the new name of the road behind Hannaford, home of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Project and (coming soon) a new building for The Gathering Place, a day shelter and social space for everyone.

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