Bodwell Blue

Condensed from an article by Roger L. Grindle


When the Bodwell Granite Company's store on Vinalhaven, Maine, sold out the last of its goods and chattels, in 1919, it marked the end of nearly a half-century of company dominance over the island's economy. The firm's stone wagons , galamanders, derricks, and other equipment were pained "Elder Littlefield Blue," locally known as "Bodwell Blue." In 1901 therer were 152 quarries in the state and those of the Bodwell Granite Company were among the most extensive and productive.

Vinalhaven, first called South Fox Island, is located fifteen miles east of Rockland in Penobscot Bay. According to local historians, a New Hampshire man by the name of Tuck quarried the first cargo of stone at Arey's Harbor, Vinalhaven, in 1826. Joseph Kittredge and Enoch Carleton opened the East Boston Quarry in 1849, and were joined in the following year by William Kittredge. But Vinahaven's granite industry really began with the arrival of Moses Webster and Joseph R. Bodwell in the early 1850's.

Webster came from Hudson, New Hampshire in 1851 and Bodwell arrived from Methuen, Massachusetts a year later. E. P. Walker of Montville, Maine joined them in 1854. The copartnership operated under the name of Bodwell, Webster and Company until the Bodwell Granite Company was incorporated in 1871. During the years following the Civil War Bodwell and Webster purchased several smaller quarry operations and culminated when Cobb, Wright and Case, the leading lime manufacturers from Rockland, agreed to transfer their Spruce Head granite property to a new company, The Bodwell Granite Company. The first meeting of the stockholders held in Rockland. J. R. Bodwell was elected president and Moses Webster, vice-president.

In 1872 over 600 men were employed by the Bodwell Granite Company quarrying and cutting granite for the State Department Building in Washington, the piers of New York's East Bridge, and for the Union Mutual Life Insurance Building in Boston. In 1877 Bodwell Granite ws low bidder of 6,876 yards of granite for the New York Bridge Company and on cut granite for the Rockland (Maine) Custom House. The biggest contract for the year was for $3,000,000 to $4,000,000 worth of dressed stone for the new government buildings in Cincinnati.

The Panic of 1873 resulted in a curtailment of orders and the discharge of 300 workers. The following year the Vinalhaven cutters formed a union. At the time it was customary for the U. S. Government to let contracts guaranteeing a 15 percent profit. When the cutters compared their wages to the apparent huge profits of the granite owners they were attracted to the unions. In 1877, U. S. Attorney General Devens declared the fifteen percent contract illegal. Local cutters feared the owners would protect their profits by lowering wages. This in the fear that the contractors would hold back their pay and compel them to spend it all in company stores, led more of them to consider joining the union.

The men remembered that only eighty had worked for the "Company" during the winter of 1876-1877, and even they could not earn a decent living at the wages paid. Moreover, the company refused to give them credit at the store. Admittedly, the company paid "big wages" at times, but this was offset by the fact that it sometimes held back on the payroll for three or four months. Two explosions rocked the polishing mill and set the company back three weeks. The mill had been running even Sunday nights, and more reasonable hours at the mill were one of the goals of the union.

President Bodwell made a trip to the island in the spring of 1877 and "passed sentence" on one man, supposedly denying him work on Vinalhaven because of letters he had written for the Rockland Opinion. One Vinalhaven observer vouched that another worker who had voted straight Demoncratic ticket the previous fall was told by "one of the company's tools" that he too could not get another job on the island.

Meanwhile, work continued. At summer's end there were 300 cutters at work. Some earned $2.50 per day on the Chicago job. Quite a number did piecework on the Cincinnati Post Office and Custom House. Bodwell's return to the island in the fall was considered a good omen by union members. One brother noted, "I expect some changes as there is generally at the time of his visits." A rumor circulated that Bodwell had added to the prices paid for some stones, but the men wanted something more substantial than rumor. Consequently, the local union raised money to send a delegate to the union congress where they would establish a bill of wages and hours of labor. It was hoped that with standard wages and hours, the contracting companies would know what they had to pay for stone, and so would know what they needed to charge.

Approximately 400 cutters on the various jobs at Vinalhaven found it possible to make "a fair average pay," as winter approached in 1877 and the men seemed more content than they were at the start of work under the piece work system. The force was increased in anticipation of a partial contract for the East River Bridge in New York, but the economic picture reversed with the suspension of work on the Cincinnati job. Morale collapsed as prospects for the granite trade were evaluated as "very poor." One of the workers wrote a "plea for liberty." Saying. "We are crushed down by the great sould destroying corporation...These Ring masters came here as poor as Job's turkey and have fattened and feasted on us..." He had specific complaints. "There are many who have no alternative but to do as the Ring commands and that is to toil and work for a miserable pittance, paid when the Ring chooses to pay it, in such commodities as they have, for which they charge any price they see fit."

Tempers cooled during the winter, and by spring there was plenty of work for the cutters then on the island. The bulk of these worked on stone for the State, War, and Navy Department Building in Washington and on the East River Bridge. Some had resumed work on a few stones for the Cincinnati Post Office, which ahd been left unfinished from the time of the suspension the previous fall. Those cutting Cincinnati stone seemed to be the most contented with the prices being paid. But those men working on the bridge stone had to "rattle their bones" in order to make ends meet.

In the spring of 1878, a list containing the names of 30 of the most important member of the union was given to George Wharff, Bodwell Company agent, with orders to fire them. "An uprising the like of which has never before been seen in Maine" followed. About 200 men immediately left the works. A special meeting of the cutters resolved to stand by the fired brothers, demand a bill of prices, and suspend work until the demands were met. Wharff, in a very excitable and profane manner, refused to listen to the demands of a union committee sent to with him. A relief committee was set up and a relief store established to receive food contributions from sympathetic citizens.

The company feigned indifference, and claimed it was about to shut down, strike or no strike. Union men considered this talk "bosh" because there were two large government contracts under the hammer in addition to numerous private jobs. Funds in the union treasury were insufficient to pay the unemployment benefit of $6.00 a week to approximately 200 brothers for the duration of a long strike, and the Vinalhaven union branch made an appeal for help in the union journal. The appeal met with some success.

Thirty scabs went to work for the company, including three union men. By May, 1878 it was all over. "An arrangement among the Vinalhaven strike committee, the International Union Secretary, and the Bodwell Granite Company was finalized. Bodwell insisted that the company had won its battle with the strikers since the men had agreed to finish stones under the hammer at the old prices. Bodwell asserted the "no advance was made or promised in consequence of the strike," nor were the men's wage demands conceded to in any way. "An advance was ordered on a portion of the work, several days previous to the strike," Bodwell stated, "which advance was not generally known to the workers." This statement could be interpreted to mean that wages had indeed been advanced because of the strike.

Bad feelings eased temporarily by midsummer of 1878. The work force rapidly expanded to 450 cutters and the company announced plans to build a 200 foot extension to the "big shed." The stone for the General Wool Monument was quarried. When erected this monument constituted the tallest oblisk in the country made from a single piece of granite. There was more work than usual, but most of it was for the government. The wages, however, were lower or only equal to those of the previous summer.

The Bodwell Company soon regained its confidence and then discharged some more men that fall. It was feared that some were fired because they were branch officers of the union. National union officials arrived to check out the concern, but left concluding that no discrimination had taken place against the union members. In the meantime, International Union Secretary Murch had resigned to take a seat in Congress.

In early 1879, the Bodwell Granite Company started a fifty foot addition to its new stone shed, making it the longest in the country. The shed provided work for over 300 men. Congressman Murch introduced a joint resolution at a special session of Congress, declaring eight hours a legal workday for all laborers employed on government jobs. A modified version of the resolution in bill form was effectively killed through tabling. Murch also introduced a bill to establish a Bureau of Labor Statistics, only to have it die in committee.

At this time, the Bodwell crew was busy with the last stages of cutting the General Wool Monument. The company carefully executed this contract; it wanted the finished product to be an advertisement of what an enterprising granite company could accomplish. The company also contracted to provide granite posts for the elevated railway in New York.

Late in 1882 Bodwell Granite received orders to resume work on the State, War, and Navy Building. The work had to be completed in two years. A crew of 180 cutters was soon working on the contract. The following spring the Bodwell firm started running their polishing mill day and night, employing the largest force of cutters working by the day that they have had for some years past. The schooner Manitou, bound from Vinalhaven for Baltimore with Bodwell paving, sank off Chatham, Massachusetts. As was typical of many granite schooners, the vessel was not insured and the cargo only partially covered. The highly publicized granite eagles for the new Board of Trade Building in Chicago were shipped that fall.

In 1884, the Bodwell Granite Company readied and shipped twenty-four large, polished granite columns for the Indiana State Capitol.

When the stone cutters for the Washington Monument laid down their hammers in 1884 complaining they could not make a living wage from the fourty and fifty cents per square foot being paid, the government supervisor was quick to call the men's action a temporary stoppage rather than a strike. This was a piecework project and the cutters already had stone ready up to course 470 which was the base for the pyramidal top of the monument. The men were soon back to work cutting the face stone for seventy cents per square foot and sixty cents for the other parts.

In 1885, the Bodwell Granite Company was low bidder on the Brooklyn Post Office. The contract was to be completed in one year. The rooklyn Post Office project was started in June, and the first consignment for this building left on the schooner Ringdove a month later.

Dr. Israel Dana of Portland came to tend to a very ill and failing Moses Webster in early 1887. Shortly thereafter Webster, who had gone into partnership with Joseph R. Bodwell, now governor of the state of Maine, died. Governor Bodwell and his daughter attended the funeral. Ironically, there were only about fify workers employed at the time of Webster's death.

Thirty-five more men were set to work in early February, and a few paving cutters started on New York and Cambridge paving blocks, at $20 and $14 per thousand, respectively. A Knights of Labor committee met with representatives of Bodwell Granite to settle their differences and come up with a new scale of prices. The Kennebec Journal reported that "a scale of prices is the universally recognized method of adjusting grievances among stone workers, but in this section it is used only by a few firms, and it is not just now reasonable to have a firm bound to an agreement while others are under no obligation." Vinalhaven Knights were viewed as conservative, reasonable and cool-headed men who were fully alive to the welfare of the town." Govenor Bodwell was considered "equally desirous to have the labor matters here satisfactorily arranged for the good of all concerned," an he came to the island to have a conference with his employees. The thanked the men for faithfully keeping the agreement to date. But whereas other granite companies were not bound by fixed prices, the results were so "disasterous" for his company " that no contracts were taken, and Vinalhaven experienced a year of unusual dullness, the quarries and sheds were closed." An agreement for another year was reached, but not in the form of a firm bill of prices desired by strong union men. Before returning to Augusta, Bodwell offered to rent or purchase a reading room for the use of the workmen.

Vinalhaven's Duchane Hill and Diamond Rock granite was to be used for the Harlem Bridge contract. Locally, it was reported that those in charge of construction of the bridge were "so impressed with the Bodwell Granite Company's granite, its cutting, their superior knowledge of the business, that it had been left to their judgement to select a certain portion of the bridge trimmings." Despite this and other smaller contracts, there were two successive layoffs in December, followed by more bad news.

Governor Bodwell died on December 15, 1887, at his residence in Hallowell, less than one year after the death of Moses Webster. Vinalhaven's granite industry was deprived of its "last great head." An edged-in-black local editorial summarized the effects of Bodwell's thirty-six year association with the island's leading industry.

It is to the granite industry Vinalhaven owes its growth and present prosperous condition. The people of this place will feel a loss more than any other community, for the reason that he has been identified in the business interests of Vinalhaven from its beginning up to the present time, and every workman and every household were personally acquainted with him and knew him as he was, honest, generous, and true. The whole community found in him a friend.

Conscious of the fact that obituariies tend to be eulogistic, the editor strove to present a balanced portrait of the deceased governor.

His repute in the business world stood untarnished as it did in social life: his word was his bond with everybody; a verbal obligation to him was a written pledge. His great success in life was due to his courteous, straight forward business ability. He was a man of untiring industry and uncommon natural capacity. He carried out in his birth, training and achievements, the buest traditions of a typical businessman, and Vinalhaven will long revere his memory.

That the average workingman shared this view is uncertain. No special mention was made of Bodwell or his contribution to the industry in the regular branch reports made to the union journal by Thomas J. Lyons. Yet, Lyons, was on the Knights of Labor committee which passed resolves in Bodwell's memory, speaking of the good employer-employee relations. "We deplore the loss of an honest employer...who was ever ready to listen to and redress the grievances of his employees as was evidenced by the agreements entered into between himself and this assembly." The Knights were represented at the funeral.

Between the death of Governor Bodwell and the closing of the Bodwell Granite Company in 1919, is a story of an industry in slow decline. Yet in that short period of 32 years the Bodwell Granite Company contributed stone to many notable construction projects:

Boston Court House

Augusta Post Office

Fidelity Trust ad Deposit, Co in Newark, New Jersey

Congressional Library in Washington, D. C.

City Bank Building in Wheeling, West Virginia

Erie County Savings Bank in Buffalo, New York

The front of the Clark apartment building in Chicago

Washington D. C. Post Office

paving stones for New York City streets

The New Harlem Bridge for the New York Central Railroad Company

The General Hancock Statue

fourteen columns for the Church of Ignatius in New York City

foundation and area walls of the Buffalo Post Office

the eight large columns for the Catherdral of St. John the Divine

Metropolitan Bank Building in New York City

  1. S. Senate Office Building

Cleveland Post Office

Kansas City Post Office

National Bank of Commerce Building in Kansas City

Chicago and Western Railroad terminal in Chicago

Otis Building in Chicago

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Contact: bodwell@onramp.net November 22, 1997

Copyright (C) 1996, 1997 Donald J. Bodwell. All rights reserved.