Much Happening at the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark

Due to open in 2021, a grant helps it realize its goals.

Frances Perkins at her desk at Secretary of Labor. Library of Congress Photo.

With national thoughts turning towards cabinet members, perhaps one is wondering Who was the first woman appointed to be a cabinet member? And the answer would be Frances Perkins (1880-1965), a person with a longstanding connection to Midcoast Maine.

Frances Perkins with Carnegie steel workers in 1933. Library of Congress Photo.

Born in Boston and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, Perkins spent summers at her family’s homestead in Newcastle, Maine. Her life was remarkable by any measure. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902, taught physics and biology, and moved to Illinois, where she began to work on a constellation of issues related to social justice, which became her life’s work. In 1907, she moved to New York City and attended Columbia University, getting her master’s degree in sociology and economics. Working next at the New York Consumers’ League, she continued learning about unfair and unsafe labor conditions and practices, and about lobbying effectively for change. She was appointed in 1918 to the New York State Industrial Commission, the first woman to serve in this capacity. It was through her longtime, dedicated work with the commission that she came to know then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Frances Perkins with Eleanor Roosevelt. Library of Congress Photo.

 In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt chose her to be his Secretary of Labor, and she remained in that post until 1945. During her tenure, she worked to restrict child labor, and she championed Social Security, which passed into law in 1935. She also advanced safety protections for workers and pursued other initiatives to create society’s “safety net,” such as unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week, and the minimum wage. In her words, “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen.”

This fall, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Frances Perkins Center received a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service’s “Save America’s Treasures” program. The funds will be used to preserve and restore the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in Newcastle. The Frances Perkins Center needs to raise equal matching funds, and together these funds will help administrators do needed work on this historic venue preserving it for future generations. The Center’s planners also have set a priority to enhance the homestead’s educational capabilities, so it can help to further knowledge of Perkins’ life and work. A capital campaign is ongoing.

The Frances Perkins Center was established in 2009, and early in 2020, it purchased this beautiful and significant historic property, with the goal of preserving and honoring Perkins’ legacy. As the Center’s website states, the farm is “the place Perkins considered her true home—a 57-acre farm that was settled by her ancestors on the Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine. Perkins spent her childhood summers at the 1837 ‘Brick House’ surrounded by fields, forests, and miles of stone walls, and returned throughout her life.”

The Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in Newcastle.

 Perkins is buried nearby in the Glidden Cemetery in Newcastle.

The Center’s planners want more people to know and appreciate the fact that, as they write, “Perkins had deep roots in Maine. The Homestead was continuously occupied by the Perkins family from the 1750s.” Frances Perkins owned it from 1927 until her death in 1965.

Frances and Balto, the family dog, in 1930.

Designated the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in 2014, the property will serve as the Center’s headquarters and as a living memorial to its namesake when it opens in 2021. Plans call for exhibits, programs, and community events. In light of the COVID epidemic, “the Center will continue to offer educational programming virtually and through its traveling exhibit during COVID, with in-person programs to be announced when viable and safe.”

The family’s Fourth of July parade at the homestead circa 1925.

Sarah Peskin, Board Chair of the Frances Perkins Center, said, “We’re thrilled to be recognized by this National Park Service grant that will let us welcome visitors to a safe and accessible Frances Perkins Homestead, and to make it a living memorial to a great American.”

Paul, Frances, and Susannah at the homestead.

To learn more about this project and the Frances Perkins Center, contact Michael Chaney, Executive Director, email mchaney@francesperkinscenter.org, call (207) 563-3374, or visit www.FrancesPerkinsCenter.org.

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