On a chill morning two days before the New Year, I drove north to Fort Kent for lunch with Maine Senate President Troy Jackson.
It’s an almost 50-mile drive along narrow Route 161. Like most roads in Aroostook, it’s narrow, bordered on both sides by thick stands of trees. One has to keep an eye out for moose and deer, and the logging trucks that haul timber from the acres of woodlands in northern Aroostook along with Piscataquis and Somerset.
The County contains the highest number of wooded acres – 8.3 million acres – in the entire state. It’s also home to Jackson.
We met at Rock’s Family Diner, a Main Street eatery that has been offering up great food for 75 years. It’s not fancy, but the food is terrific. As I wait for Jackson, conversations are in both English and French; people laugh, greet old friends, smile and nod as they walk by. It’s comfortable and it smells great.
I’m looking forward to getting to know Jackson, a fifth-generation logger turned politician who almost literally lives at the end of the road in Allagash, and who passionately loves the place where he grew up, graduated from high school, and set out to build his life.
After we order, I assure him I’m not looking for political insight, but more interested in the man who started out as a logger, much like his father and grandfather, and other family four generations back.
Jackson was born in Fort Kent, attended school in St. Francis, but he’s moved a lot in his life, including as far south as Connecticut. The County and Allagash, however, is home and the woods are in his blood. Jackson’s father owned a logging truck for his whole life.
“He’d work all week in the woods,” Jackson said. “Then we’d go to family camp and go fishing or hunting.”
He did well in high school, graduating as salutatorian of his class, but the woods called, and he went to work at 18.
“I’d make $400 a week,” he said. “That was good money.”
The work was hard. There were no benefits, the hours were long, the work rigorous, and there were often arguments with timber owners.
“There’d be fist fights just over overtime,” Jackson said. “The culture was, you just do the work or go home.”
Then, the landowners changed the structure, and Canadian loggers became part of the picture.
“Independents were being treated like employees, but there were few benefits,” Jackson said. “And the landowners played us against the Canadians to make more money. All we were trying to do was make a living.”
Canadian loggers earned more, because landowners relied on the exchange rate. It was a violation of the Department of Labor’s regulations on temporary employment of foreign workers in agriculture, including forestry. At the time, an American dollar was worth $1.43 Canadian.
While Jackson had no real interest in the politics, the sharp difference hurt American loggers and their families.
“I really didn’t want to speak up,” Jackson said, “but somebody had to.”
It’s an old conflict. Maine has long been a leading producer of timber, and as timber in the southern and central part of the state was cut, lumber operations moved north. By the mid-19th century, a series of timber wars plagued state government. Landowners tried to develop a canal from the Penobscot River into Moosehead Lake, and later diverted the Allagash River to reroute the waters of Chamberlain Lake to move timber south, leaving the St. John River Valley without access. Valley folks fought back.
Farming – wheat, potatoes, buckwheat – has been the primary activity of the Valley, but timber is big. As the conflict between American loggers and landholders reached a pitch in 1998, Jackson and three others blocked four border crossings as a means to push timber companies into complying with the labor regulations.
The dispute was resolved within days, but ultimately government sided with the timber companies and that is what pushed Jackson into politics.
“Someone had to speak for us,” he said. “That’s what made me decide to run.”
He ran for the state House of Representatives as a Republican first, and lost to Marc Michaud. But in a second run, as an independent, he defeated Michaud. He held the seat until 2008, when he won the race for Senate District 35.
Jackson moved his way up through the rank of assistant majority leader and then majority leader of the Senate. But then lost a bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat to Emily Cain in 2014. He was burned out. Government is not an easy career.
“If Bernie (Sanders) hadn’t come here,” Jackson said, “I’m not sure I’d be in government.”
Sanders inspired him.
“I don’t know if I’d be doing this if not for Bernie,” Jackson said. “He made me believe it’s important to keep trying.”
A few people stopped by our table to shake hands, say hello, share a comment on an issue or ask how he was doing. Each time, Jackson introduced them.
“The County and the Valley is home,” he said. “The people are terrific, and we have our problems, but people are good and come together. I do it for the people.”
“Now I’ve got to go see someone else,” he said.
We shook hands again, walked out together to our cars. I followed him down Route 11, the opposite direction from his home. I turned left, crossed the Fish River to Route 161 and south. He continued straight on 11, to meet someone else with concerns.
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.