Jewish Manufacturers in Maine: The Gearshifters
by Lyoe Lee ’11 (January 2011)
The classic story of first generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants in small American towns begins with peddling. After years of hard work, some peddlers gradually earned enough capital to establish their own retail store in the community. As Hasia Diner pointed out, peddling was the primary economic activity of most immigrant Jews . Not only were there staggering number of Jewish peddlers in big cities, there was a large percentage of peddlers in small American towns too (Diner 99).
In fact, census records in Waterville showed that in 1900, 16 out of 18 employed Jewish men listed peddling as their occupation. William Levine is a character in such a story. He came to Waterville with his wife, Sarah, in the late nineteenth century as a peddler. A few years after settling down, they opened their own retail store named Levine’s, first on Ticonic Street and later on Main Street. The store lasted 105 years and served several generations of Waterville residents (Bloom).
Not all Jewish immigrants, however, chose to establish a retail business after peddling for years. There were a handful of Jews who went into manufacturing and became some of the biggest employers in Maine during the mid-20th century. It was unusual for Jews to get into the manufacturing industry, and strong personality and business views played key roles for those who did. One primary characteristic of these manufacturers was the ability to “gearshift.” “Gearshifting,” as described by Peter Alfond, is the “ability to gearshift into whatever style was needed to accomplish the goal at hand.” Three narratives of distinctive and successful Jewish manufacturers in the mid-Maine region demonstrate that gearshifting was a key element for the success of Jewish manufacturers navigating the rise and fall of their industries.
To understand how Jews got involved in manufacturing, we have to contextualize it with the history of industry in Maine. Maine residents in the nineteenth century were commercial people with very low incentives to manufacture goods. This was a result of coastal and transatlantic shipping, which brought Maine communities a substantial supply of manufactured commodities. Eventually, due to Maine’s abundant hydropower from rivers and streams, Maine gradually became one of the most significant manufacturing states (Judd 319). From 1860 to 1920, the number of workers in manufacturing nearly tripled from 34,000 to almost 89,000 people. More strikingly, the value of manufactured goods produced in Maine increased more than tenfold during the same period – from about $38 million to $456 million in merely 60 years (Judd 451). Evidently, Maine became a frontier for manufacturing during those years.
There were several ways Jews began to get involved in manufacturing. One way was through junk dealing. Sumner Lipman recounted that his father and uncles drove a truck to pick up junk and scrap metal around Maine. Since they had a truck, they would also use it to carry live chickens to Boston for processing. During this time, the poultry industry was virtually non-existent in Maine. The Lipmans seized this opportunity as they began to build a poultry processing plant in Bangor. They first raised and processed the chickens, then shipped them to places like Boston and Rhode Island to sell them. This was how Lipman Poultry was founded. Gradually, their chicken processing company evolved to a 3,000-person business, which Sumner described as a “totally vertically integrated operation.”
Census data shows that in 1910 there were more Jews dealing junk in Waterville than there were Jews involved in any other occupation, but by 1920, only half of those 22 junk dealers still remained in Waterville. By 1930, there were only 4 Jewish men whose occupations were listed as junk dealers.This data suggests that those Jewish junk dealers who remained found success in their occupation, whereas others such as the Rabinovich and Brisk families either moved away or switched their occupation. One of the most successful junk dealers was Louis Rosenthal, who gradually moved from junk into wool waste. As his son Bob recounts, “Maine was a very heavy manufacturer of woolen cloths.” Louis envisioned that “there was a better and a bigger market” in the woolen industry, “and it turns out there was for him.” Indeed, as data shows, by 1925, the woolen industry was one of the three biggest manufacturing industries in Maine, hiring about 12,000 people (Judd 452). During the Great Depression, Louis could not sell the wool waste he collected, so he decided “to hire someone to make wool blankets and sell them.” Instead of giving into the Depression, Louis Rosenthal “gearshifted” and turned the downturn into an opportunity to move into the manufacturing industry. Subsequently, he bought several woolen mills and began manufacturing clothes.
Not all Jewish manufacturers started off with junk dealing. Harold Alfond followed his father, who was a worker at a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts, into the shoe manufacturing business. Harold’s father transitioned from labor into management, and Harold established himself as a manufacturing employer right from the beginning. According to Harold’s son, Peter, Harold came to Maine because he “had a little more entrepreneurship” and Maine offered cheaper labor and power than Massachusetts. Indeed, the boots and shoes industry was the fourth largest employer in Maine during early twentieth century, hiring close to 10,000 workers (Judd 452). Harold sold his car for $1000 in order to purchase an abandoned factory in Norridgewock. A mere five years later, he sold the company for $1.1 million. Subsequently, Harold established Dexter Shoe Company in Dexter, Maine, in 1958, which gradually became one of the biggest shoe manufacturers in the United States (Harold Alfond Foundation website). Harold’s gearshifting ability is evident in his aptitude for detecting a market on which he could capitalize, seizing an available opportunity in Norridgewock, and accomplishing the goal at hand.
Managing a manufacturing business was very different from managing retail stores in many ways. Perhaps the greatest distinction was the number of employees involved. As Peter Alfond said, the Levine’s retail store’s “management style was more Jewish in a sense that it was very family-based, very controlling, and it was a typical ethnic successful business template.” The Lipman and Alfond manufacturing businesses, in contrast, expanded to hire over several thousand workers, and Rosenthal’s woolen business hired over 200 people all over Maine. Since most of the workers were non-Jewish, the Jewish managers needed to develop ways of handling the multi-ethnic situation.
The Lipmans tackled this challenge by hiring Franco-Americans into the management level. As Sumner Lipman recounted, “Something unique was that in the higher management, a lot of them were Franco-Americans. At this time, Franco-Americans were not that well received in executive positions in other Maine companies,” as they were viewed as lower, working-class people. The Rosenthals took extensive measures to keep their employees content. They kept open communication with employees at all times and, as Bob Rosenthal described,
We bought health insurance for them in the very early days, and we would pay 80% and they would pay 20%. As a matter of policy, when employees got sick, even though we’d have the medical care fee uncovered, we would keep them on the payroll. We would keep them on the payroll until they die. Indeed, there was a case where one employee had cancer and could not work, but he was on payroll until he passed away.
Harold Alfond had an all-together different way of working with the diversity of employees. In Dexter Shoe Company, a family-based business in which “most people who were Jewish were in the management,” Harold Alfond viewed everybody with no discrimination, and often emphasized that everybody was equal. Peter described his father’s perspective as follows: “No matter whether … Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Black or White, everybody was the same. It was all about what you achieved…. He had a great saying, ‘Show me, don’t tell me.’” His personality as a man of actions and results made him a great leader, and he influenced others to be the same. Consequently, multi-ethnic employees did not pose as a challenge.
In addition, Harold Alfond’s strong belief in teamwork also made him a successful leader. Peter Alfond described his management style as “much more universal, and if anything, his style was more traditionally American, like the Henry Ford model rather than the typical Jewish model.” Hence, rather than following the typical Jewish model, Harold Alfond gearshifted into a model that could provide him with the most efficient results.
He was a great motivator, and all of his close friends were … coaches from University of Maine, Colby College, and other coaches from town … These people were always optimistic and positive, and my father loved these kinds of personalities. … He would apply those techniques [of motivation] in the business framework. And this explained why he was always motivating people to do better and to stretch themselves. … The lesson was that we should … cooperate with each other, because ultimately, the team was what made everybody great. … Those are the values that he had at the factories, and this was one of the many reasons why he was so successful.”
Harold Alfond, like the Lipmans and Rosenthals, gearshifted to employ effective management methods and, by doing so, created a productive and cohesive environment for both the employers and employees.
The decline in manufacturing in Maine came slowly, starting in the late ’50s. This can be seen in net emigration from Maine, as the number of people leaving the state rose from 21,000 persons in the 1940s to 70,000 persons in the 1960s (Judd 533). As manufacturing activities in Maine slowed due to rising competition from the South and overseas, in addition to expensive transportation and energy costs, many manufacturing factories were forced to shut down. This decline affected the Jewish manufacturers too. The Lipmans, according to Sumner, were not adapting fast enough to catch up with technology, and together with expensive costs to transport the grain for the chickens, Lipman Poultry went out of business. The Rosenthals also experienced the decline of its woolen business due to cheaper competitors in the South. They decided to sell the mills in Maine over a period of time to avoid suffering losses and moved into real estate business instead. When Harold Alfond faced the economic difficulties of Dexter Shoe Company, he started modernizing and mechanizing the plant right at the beginning of decline. Peter Alfond said that Harold “got into technology quicker than most of the other shoe companies. This was a clear example of his abilities to gearshift from one to the other very quickly and effectively.” Later, due to deepening economic difficulties operating in Maine, Harold started to move the operations of Dexter Shoes south to Puerto Rico over a thirty-year period.
The ability to “gearshift” enabled these three Jewish manufacturers to seize opportunities to move into the rising manufacturing industry in Maine, to develop effective ways of managing workers in their businesses, and to minimize their losses in the decline of the manufacturing industry. Gearshifting, however, is not as easy as it looks. The Lipmans, for example, failed to adopt new technologies, which led to the bankruptcy of their business. Furthermore, the most difficult task is in fact sustaining the ability to gearshift, because new factors always create new situations that would need continuous adaptation. Peter Alfond commented on Harold that “he had that unique ability to not get pigeonholed into one style, both in terms of management and life.” Undeniably, the spirit of gearhshifting and not getting pigeonholed brought about success for these Jewish manufacturers during the heyday of Maine’s manufacturing history and, to a large extent, allowed them to successfully navigate through the rise and falls of Maine’s manufacturing industry.
Diner, Hasia, The Jews of the United States : 1654 to 2000 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2004).
Judd, Richard, Maine : the Pine Tree State from prehistory to the present, 1st ed. (Orono Me.: University of Maine Press, 1995).
Alfond, Peter. Interviewed by Lyoe Lee, January 16, 2011
Lipman, Sumner. Interviewed by Spencer Kasko and Lyoe Lee, January 9, 2010, and January 14, 2011.
Rosenthal, Bob. Interviewed by Becky Muller and Lyoe Lee, January 22, 2010, and January 14, 2011.