Thursday, December 12, 2013
Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, April 9, 2009: Barbara Burt, executive director of the Fances Perkins Center, and Tomlin Coggeshall, grandson of Frances Perkins at the Brick House, in Newcastle, Perkins's family home. Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The house is being converted into a museum and conference center honoring Perkins.
Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, April 9, 2009: The Brick House, in Newcastle, family home of Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
NEWCASTLE — At the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned to a woman with deep roots in Maine to help the nation respond to its economic crisis.
Frances Perkins, who was Roosevelt's labor secretary for 12 years, was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
She played a key role in developing landmark social and labor policies, including legislation that created Social Security, protected union organizing and set a minimum wage.
In labor circles, Perkins is revered for her contributions and memorialized in many ways -- most visibly with the naming of the U.S. Department of Labor building in her honor in 1980.
In Maine, which celebrates a rich tradition of influential women in national politics, Perkins has been a relatively obscure figure.
But now, scholars, labor activists, writers and family members have formed a nonprofit organization that hopes to elevate Perkins' profile by establishing the Frances Perkins Center in Newcastle.
The organization plans to create a place for conferences, research, debate and occasional public exhibits on the social and labor issues that Perkins made her life's work.
The center will be located on a 55-acre property on the Damariscotta River, in a rambling brick home built in 1837, where Perkins spent time most summers until her death in 1965.
''We want to honor her memory and her work,'' said Barbara Burt, the center's executive director. ''We want everyone to know about this brave, hard-working woman.''
Strictly speaking, Perkins couldn't call herself a Mainer. She was born in 1880 in Boston, where her parents had moved from Maine.
But the Perkins family, which once owned one of several brickyards on the clay-rich banks of the Damariscotta, maintained close ties to the state where they first settled in the 1740s.
Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University. She was active in the women's suffrage movement and in campaigns to limit working hours for women and children.
In 1911, she was in New York City when a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory killed 146 workers, mostly young women. Some died behind the building's locked doors, and others plunged to their deaths from upper-story windows, as onlookers -- including Perkins -- stood by in horror.
The experience was ''seared on my mind as well as my heart,'' Perkins later said, ''a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that would permit such a tragedy.''
Propelled into the labor movement, she became the first woman member of the New York industrial commission, which investigated factory conditions and worked for reforms.
Roosevelt asked Perkins to become U.S. labor secretary after his election in 1932. The two had worked together in New York, where Roosevelt, as governor, appointed her to the state's top labor post.
As a Cabinet member, Perkins worked closely with the president and other executives to craft the key New Deal policies that helped pull the United States out of the Great Depression.
''She was probably one of the four most important advisers to FDR,'' said June Hopkins, chairwoman of the history department at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga.
Hopkins' grandfather, Harry Hopkins, was another of those key advisers, serving as Roosevelt's commerce secretary and directing the Works Projects Administration.
Roosevelt named Perkins chairwoman of the committee that wrote the Social Security Act. She also worked to establish a federal job placement service and for passage of key legislation, such as the Wagner Act, which protects workers' rights to organize; and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Kirstin Downey, a former Washington Post business reporter who recently wrote a biography of Perkins, said Maine was an important part of her identity.
''She loved the town and village culture of Maine,'' Downey said, ''and the fact that the town meets public needs but requires everyone to work for what they get.''
Downey said that ethic informed many of the New Deal policies that Perkins helped to craft.
She said Perkins' family also experienced the ups and downs of economic prosperity and hardship in Maine, having owned a brickyard, a dairy farm and other ventures.
''So Frances Perkins' understanding of Maine and its culture really had a major influence in shaping the policies of the New Deal,'' Downey said.
After she left the Labor Department in 1945, Perkins became active in the international labor movement and as a professor at Cornell University.
She died at the age of 85 in 1965 and was buried at the family's plot on River Road in Newcastle.
Burt, the director of the Perkins center, said Perkins previously was regarded as ''an astute bystander'' to events of the Roosevelt era, but her historical role is being redefined.
She said the center's organizers decided to move forward now because the political culture has changed. Social Security no longer seems to be the object of privatization, she noted, and labor organizations have more social and political support.
''There's just been attack after attack on her agenda,'' Burt said.
One of the center's key goals is to convert the Perkins family home into a place where labor leaders, activists, scholars and historians can retreat for study and discussion.
Burt said the center hopes to bring disparate groups together -- such as labor and management -- to seek solutions to problems and explore issues.
Public visiting hours would be offered at the farm, and the center hopes to create a digital archive of Perkins' papers and other records, which are scattered among various institutions.
Tomlin Coggeshall of Newcastle, Perkins' grandson and her only surviving relative, said developing a retreat at the farm would be appropriate, because Perkins came to Maine each summer to regroup.
Coggeshall, 54, was only 11 when his grandmother died, so his memories are seen through the prism of childhood. But he recalls her as a kind, supportive woman who encouraged his curiosity.
On Sundays, she took him to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and, after the service, for a milkshake, provided he behaved himself in the pew.
''Too much fidgeting, and maybe I wouldn't get a milkshake,'' he said.
Perkins also enjoyed swimming with friends who lived nearby on River Road. Coggeshall said he can still see her, clad in black bloomers and white sneakers, bobbing on her back in the Damariscotta.
''She was wonderful,'' he said.
Downey, the author and a member of the center's board of advisers, interviewed Coggeshall, who agreed to give her access to Perkins' private papers at Columbia University.
''For me, it's a wonderful bringing together of my grandmother's family,'' Coggeshall said of the book.
Next week, the center will host a program of remembrance for Perkins and a fundraising reception in Washington. Speakers will include present U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
In May, the center will also sponsor a conference in Belfast, ''The New New Deal: Building an Economy That Works for All of Us.''
The event will feature speakers from labor, state government and social justice groups, as well as workshops on unemployment, the future of organized labor and other issues.
Political Correspondent Dieter Bradbury can be contacted at 791-6329 or at:
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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, April 9, 2009: The sitting room at the Brick House, in Newcastle, family home of Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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Courtesy of the Frances Perkins Center: Frances Perkins greets President Franklin D. Roosevelt in this photo from the 1940s. Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt, and now a group is converting her family home, The Brick House, in Newcastle, into a museum and conference center.
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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, April 9, 2009: The North Chamber bedroom on the second floor of the Brick House, in Newcastle, family home of Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, April 9, 2009: Tomlin Coggeshall, the grandson of Frances Perkins, looks at a sign likely made by his grandmother, at the Brick House, in Newcastle, Perkins's family home. Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in which 146 workers died.