Changing Occupations in Calais, ME Entering the 20th Century

This week’s challenge is to share ancestral occupations. Rather than sharing the story of one ancestor, I’d like to provide a glimpse of the drastic changes that the town of Calais, Maine, home to my mother’s side of the family, endured as it began as a small fishing and farming community in pre-Civil War days to a bustling small city in its heyday.

Calais is located in northern Maine, not quite on the Atlantic coast, but along the St. Croix River, which empties into the Bay of Fundy. New Brunswick, Canada is a short walk or drive over the International Bridge.

In 1810, the census population count was a whopping 418 people, but there was a huge growth spurt shown in every census up until 1900. Calais’s economy began to sink and the population mostly fled to Massachusetts. Today, there are only about 3,000 residents and Calais is very much a working class community.

The years from about 1880 to 1900 represent the heyday of Calais life. The occupations of my Calais ancestors pretty much reflect those times.

Thomas Coleman, my 3x great grandfather, was typical of the early settlers of Calais. He bought land in the Red Beach area of Calais and spent his life as a farmer, tilling the soil and raising livestock.

In 1870, Thomas had 50 acres of land, valued at $600. He owned 1 horse, 2 cows, 2 heads of cattle and 8 sheep, valued at $232. He produced 20 bushels of barley, 100 bushels of Irish potatoes, 500 lbs. of butter and 15 tons of hay, valued at $670.

Thomas’s son, William, my 2x great grandfather, found that farming wasn’t for him and, instead, was drawn to life on the water. He became a tugboat captain and sailed the waters around Maine and New Brunswick.

William’s son, Hartwell, and his grandson, Hazen, also went on to become master mariners. However, as the Calais boom came to an end, they plied their trade in Boston Harbor.

The Colemans were my grandmother Hazel’s family. She married Vernon Tarbox Adams and his family were also long-time residents of Calais.

Vernon’s great grandfather, George Tarbox, owned a granite quarry, also in Red Beach. The 1870 census showed he manufactured tombstones.

The Tarbox family owned the quarry for at least a couple of decades. Henry Eaton, a wealthy Calais resident, donated this fountain to the city of Calais. It was made of granite from the Red Beach quarry.

Vernon’s Adams grandfather and great grandfather were both boat builders. Calvin Adams and his father, Daniel Adams, had a boatyard on the waters of the St. Croix River. Daniel’s father, Thomas, had been an early fisherman, living on nearby Adams Island in Canadian waters.

As Calais made the leap into the 20th century, it also began the start of its decline. In the time period from 1900 to 1910, for the first time since it was settled, the city lost population and in a big way. The census showed a 20% drop in residents.

Occupations, too, began to change with the times. Hartwell Coleman, the master mariner, opened Coleman’s General Store and became a shopkeeper of sorts.

The Adams boat building years came to an end, too. Vernon’s father, Charles, became a shoe cutter in the local shoe factory.

By 1920, Vernon’s parents had a new, successful business venture going. His mother, Annie, decided to open a ladies’ hat shop. Hats, gloves and other fineries for ladies were offered for sale. The 1920 census lists Charles Adams, manager, and wife Annie Adams, merchant, both working in the hat shop.

The neatest thing happened when I visited Calais in 1981. I met a senior citizen who remembered “Mrs. Adams’s” fine shop. Her mother used to take her along when she went shopping for a new hat.

Sadly, by the 1920’s, many young people were moving away, including my newlywed grandparents. Calais’s heyday was truly a thing of the past.

To recap, in a forty year span of time from 1880-1920, my family went from fisherman and farmer to rock quarry owner, boat builder, tugboat captain, master mariner, shop keeper, shoe cutter and ladies’ hat shop owner before finally departing for better opportunities in Massachusetts.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.