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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. We’ve also heard the saying: Every day is Labor Day in the Maternity Ward.
But if we go looking for the facts, we’ll find that Labor Day was started by labor unions and was observed with long parades, loud rallies and endless speeches. But, what most people outside Maine don't know is that a local version of 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 millions 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 activity of any kind had to come to a screeching halt.
According to the story, this unknown Mainer formed a small not-too secret group of like-minded people and that courageous group, despite much hardship and adversity, managed to come up with the idea of not-too-subtly reminding “summer complaints” that it was time to end the good times and leave; time to pack up and head out; time to stop whatever you’re doing of a relaxing or “vacation-ee” nature and start doing something in the pack-up-and-leave mode.
This group was made up of hearty, hard-working Mainers. These were the people who began in early May to get things all ready for the well-to-do, fair-weather visitors.
These were the people who painted the fancy yachts and mowed the acres of lawns and cleaned the countless “cottages” owned and occupied throughout the summer by those papered visitors from Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, who called Maine “home” for the season.
A century ago, around this time of year, those rusticators among us would have their servants start to pack up the necessities for the long train ride 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.
The caretakers would be left behind unsupervised and a few days after the summer gang left they would have great parties on the manicured lawns they had labored over 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 threat 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 slowly 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 front lawn. Laid out on tables – brought out of the main house for the occasion – were her priceless silver tea service, her silver soup tureens, all her fancy dishes, everything you'd need for a great, unsupervised 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. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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