The Coopers of Maine and their Products

The beginning of King Philip's War in 1686 resulted in the depopulation of the entire colonial population of coastal Maine east of Wells. The gradual resettlement of the coast of Maine occurred after 1710 and especially after the fall of Norridgewock in 1724. After the final end of the French and Indian War (1759) and the Treaty of Paris (1763), settlers from southern New England streamed into Maine, including the Pleasant River settlements of eastern Maine. The roots of the golden years of Maine's shipbuilding era in the 19th century lie in the 18th century and the rapid growth of coastal communities, the coasting trade, and Maine's fisheries and lumbering industries. In 1790, the federal government was organized, it's customs districts were delineated, and federal policies were implemented to encourage coastal trading and the cod fishery. The rapid increase in shipbuilding that resulted gave rise to a century of coopering, whereby farmers, as well as shipwrights and other artisans, produced woodenware during the long Maine winters. This woodenware included jointed and crozed staves, hoops and heads used for rum and molasses hogsheads (tierces), codfish drums, lime casks, and many other wooden products, including boxes for candles, sugar, and coffee and containers for pork, mutton, beef, grain, onions, potatoes, and other produce. These wood products were shipped as "shooks", a term for any complex piece of woodenware like a box or a barrel that was broken down and packed as one unit to save space in the hold of the ship. The West Indies trade was a particularly lucrative market for products the cooper would make. Tropical forest products suitable for making rum kegs and sugar boxes were simply nonexistent on Caribbean islands. A second most important use of coopered woodenware was for the robust New England cod fisheries, where salt boxes, tub trawls, codfish drums, and other wooden containers and tools were an essential ingredient of every fishing voyage. Coopers also supplied a burgeoning market economy with woodenware to store fruits, vegetables, and other products for transport by the coasting traders that plied the waters of New England and the Atlantic coast. A third important market for the cooper was the lime industry of Rockland where huge lime casks were produced in communities such as Liberty and Montville and transported in large wagons to Rockport to store the lime produced at the shoreline kilns. A fourth activity of the cooper was to produce treenails (pronounced trunnels), large wooden pegs, which, when inserted into the ribs of ships, were much more efficient fasteners than rusty nails. Once the wooden treenails were swollen by exposure to salt water, they were essentially unremovable, contributing to the durability of wooden ships. After the Civil War, factory-made wood and sheet metal containers began supplementing the products of the coopers. Production of lime casks lingered until late in the 19th century in Liberty and nearby communities.

Also see the Davistown Museum exhibition An Archaeology of Tools for a listing of cooper's tools in the collection.