Maine has a unique form of local government – an organized plantation – that exists nowhere else in the nation. Viewed either as a municipality (Maine law) or as a minor civil division (U.S. Census Bureau), it can be found mainly in the northern and central parts of the state.
Organized plantations are created when county commissioners (since 1837) call for an organizational meeting to choose officers. The minutes of the meeting and plantation boundaries are then sent to the Secretary of State. Thereafter, at an annual meeting in March, eligible voters serve as the governing body to elect officers, raise revenue for expenditures and discuss other issues. A three-member board of assessors acts as the executive body, values property, approves expenditures and handles other business. Plantations generally have the same powers and duties as towns and cities, but can enact ordinances only for state-approved purposes. Those include animal control, fireworks and unwanted material on private propert). State legislators from towns represent their interests.
The First Plantation
In 1607 Popham (Sagadahoc) Plantation or Colony became the first English attempt at permanent settlement in New England, near the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine. It failed a year later (unlike the 1607 settlement in Jamestown, Virginia). Following the establishment of fishing stations after 1610 by proprietors who could easily withdraw their support, more permanent settlements by families had emerged by the late 1620s. Among the earliest plantations along the lower southern coast were Kittery (settled in 1623), incorporated as the first town in 1647; Wells (1622), incorporated as the town of Wells in 1653; and Agamenticus/Acomenticus (1636), incorporated as York in 1652 as the second town. Meanwhile, Native Americans destroyed various 17th century plantations including Kennebec (settled in 1654) in 1689 and New Dartmouth (1665) in 1688.
Before 1751 these settlements were controlled by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1751 plantation freeholders (landowners) had the authority under Massachusetts law to hold a meeting to elect a moderator and clerk. They could also choose assessors of property and collectors of province and county taxes. Thus, these organized plantations gained limited governmental powers. After 1821, plantations often served as an intermediate step between an unorganized township (i.e., no local governmental powers) and an incorporated town. They had authority to provide some public services (e.g., policing, road maintenance, and education).
The Maine Plantation
Maine, still under the control of Massachusetts, finally became a state in 1820, while retaining its local governmental units.
In 1820 Maine had thirty-seven plantations, with nine of them becoming towns by 1840. Fifty years later, there were 78 plantations. However, over the next hundred years, U.S. Census data showed their numbers steadily declined to 57 in 1970 and 30 currently. U. S. Census data also indicates that 116 plantations existed at one time or another between 1870 and 1970, with Baring (Washington County) the last one created in 1961. Of these, 45 became towns and 41 deorganized and became unorganized townships. Thus, not all plantations became towns. Conversely, towns were incorporated without first becoming plantations.
All but three of the 30 plantations are located in the northern and central parts of the state. One half of the plantations are in Aroostock and Somerset Counties. All of the plantations have relatively small populations residing in forested areas with various water bodies. Population sizes range from 200 in Baring (Washington County) to five in Glenwood (Aroostock County). Land areas range from 59.0 sq. mi. in Reed (Aroostock County) to 0.9 sq. mi. on Monhegan Island (Lincoln County).
Since the 19th century plantations have frequently deorganized, with 27 plantations approving this decision after 1970. The trend has accelerated recently: Oxbow (Aroostook County ) in 2017, Codyville (Washington County) in 2019, Cary (Aroostock County) in 2019 and Magalloway (Oxford County) in 2021. The main reasons cited: rising property taxes, declining job opportunities and changing demographics.
Deorganizing a plantation is a time-consuming process that ultimately leads to a loss of decision-making by residents over local affairs, including having the state and county governments assume the provision of public services. Nevertheless, if the afore-mentioned problems continue, then the future of these remaining entities becomes more precarious.
Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Siena College near Albany, N.Y.
Images: Coplin Plantation schoolhouse By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34201233. Sturtevant Pond By Jim Pennucci from Hope, USA – 20090818-JAP_0035, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75761098. Rangeley Lake overlook By Doug Kerr – originally posted to Flickr as Rangeley Lake Scenic Overlook – Maine, CC BY 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12253715. Site of Popham Colony By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71452873. Matinicus Island By Jim Kuhn – originally posted to Flickr as Harbor Low Tide Panorama (Matinicus Island, Maine), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7846479.