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We've all heard the stories about the origins of what is now observed throughout the country as Labor Day, or the unofficial end of summer. According to most accounts Labor Day was started by labor unions and was observed with parades and rallies and picnics and speeches. But, what most people outside Maine don't know is that Labor Day was first observed in Maine.
That's right, Labor Day was originally celebrated by Mainers who “labor” throughout the summer to provide all kinds of services to the tens of thousands of tourists who come to Maine each summer to be tended to and fussed over.
A little more than a century ago a Mainer – who's name unfortunately is now lost to history – came up with the clever idea of a having a deadline day in early September when all summer visiting of any kind had to come to a screeching halt.
The way we heard the story is that this unknown Mainer formed a small secret group of like-minded people and that courageous group, desipite much hardship and adversity, managed to come up with the idea of not-too-subtly reminding “summer complaints” that it was time to leave the ol' State O'Maine; time to pack up and head home; time to stop whatever you were doing of a relaxing or vacation-y nature and start doing something of a pack-up-and-leave nature.
This group was made up of hearty, hard-working Mainers. These were the people who began in early May to get things ready for the well-to-do visitors of summer. These were the people who painted the fancy yachts and mowed the acres of beautiful lawns and cleaned the countless “cottages” owned and occupied throughout the summer by those well-to-do papered rusticators from Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts who called Maine home during the season.
A century ago, around this time of year, those rich rusticators among us would have their servants start to pack up the necessities for the train trip to New York, where many of them would then board luxury cruise ships to Europe where they would begin a fall season of fun and games on that continent.
The caretakers would be left behind and a few days after the summer gang left they would have great parties on those beautiful manicured lawns they had labored on all summer.
They say that at the beginning of World War I, in the fall, all ships on the East Coast of the United States were suddenly ordered to the nearest port because of the threats posed by German U-boats. A dowager, who had recently left her rustic 18-room cottage in Bar Harbor for the summer and was sailing to Europe on a luxury-liner, found her ship suddenly diverted to Bar Harbor for safety.
As her vessel glided into the familiar harbor the woman could see through her binoculars that all her summer help and their families and friends and neighbors were having a wild party on her manicured front lawn. Laid out on tables – brought out of the main house for the occasion – was her priceless silver tea service, her silver soup tureens, all her fancy dishes, everything you'd need for a great party.
They say the relationship – such as it was – between Mainers and our wealthy summer visitors hasn't been the same since that day.
I'm telling you all this because I think it's something you might want to think about if you are one of the thousands of out-of-staters who hire a trusted townie to look after your place for you when you’re gone.
Anyway, to get back to Labor Day, the firm rule used to be: by Labor Day all summer residents’ boats, docks and floats had to be out of the water, all their cottage pipes drained and places closed, and they were all required to be on the turnpike headed south. NO EXCEPTIONS!
The idea worked slicker than a smelt for most of the last century but then it went unenforced for a few years. Since then summer people – like misquitos and black flies – have been staying longer and longer every year.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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