It was a time when French-Canadian families assimilated into their new homes quickly. Many promptly changed their religions and/or the spelling of their names—e.g., Antoine became Anthony, Plante became Plant. It was also before the wave of French-Canadian and Irish immigrants who would later follow to fill factory jobs in the mill towns of Maine and New England. Tom was born on French Hill, an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Bath, to Anthony Plant and Sophie Rodrigue with a pedigree that would otherwise have doomed him to a life of predictable monotony and hard work, but for the fact that he wasn’t one to settle. The growth of industrialization created opportunities for working people to rise, regardless of their origins, and to obtain more than what their parents had had before them.
His first jobs appear to have been like those of many young people today who find work where they can while leading them toward their ultimate vocations. He is thought to have worked more than one job at a time, including work in a rope and cordage factory, boiler shop, and ice manufacturing business in Bath and along the Kennebec before taking work in a country shoe factory. He became what was known as a “laster,” attaching the tops of shoes to the soles. Lasting required a high degree of skill and was therefore one of the most coveted and highly paid positions in the factory. During this time, he also demonstrated a strong fondness and skill for playing baseball, where he enjoyed a reputation for being one of the best ball players on one of the two teams in Bath.
After leaving Bath, and holding several jobs in the shoe business, in 1886 he became one of ten investors in his first shoe company venture using $100 won from a baseball wager. In 1891, he would create the Thomas G. Plant Company in Lynn, Massachusetts. His ingenuity began to demonstrate itself. Instead of using children to lug the heavy loads up the floors, he would begin the construction of shoes at the top, using gravity and chutes to eventually land them on the first floor for shipment.
In 1895, he would purchase additional property in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where he eventually built and consolidated his operations. His direct involvement in all aspects of the business, as well as his experiences with labor unions, employee accidents, and economics would influence his practices. He became one of the leading progressive industrialists of the period, practicing what became known as “welfare capitalism.” The self-serving and limited focus of production and profit above all else would be replaced with the enlightened knowledge that providing advanced safety measures, as well as more benefits and incentives to employees, could have a direct and positive impact on revenue. Accidents and union disruption went down while employee satisfaction and productivity went up. We may be tempted to believe that our generations are responsible for the types of modernization seen in organizations today. However, Tom would be one of the first in history to create a renowned and modern work environment where many would hope to find work. At his factory, employees were of a mixed ethnicity, and like Tom, they were often first- and second-generation Americans. Not unlike him, they were extremely talented. As a result of their position in life at that time, they possessed the ability but only lacked the mobility. Perhaps the previously established families in similar businesses wouldn’t hire them, but Tom would, and it would be to his advantage. The company he would build in Jamaica Plain would cover 13 acres. No expense was spared. By 1900, his shoes were sold in every state and city in North America while sales and shipments extended overseas.
In 1902 he built a six-story addition to his factory. In its design, light would be used to maximum advantage, and several floors were to be designated solely for recreational purposes. He supplied a gymnasium with an athletic instructor, bowling alleys, a doctor, nurse, eye doctor, showers, sick room, library, theater, rooftop garden, men’s smoking room, stage, free entertainment, concerts, cooking classes, kitchen, and restaurant. He also built a baseball diamond and sponsored two company teams named after, not surprisingly, two lines of his shoes: the Dorothy Dodd’s and Queen’s Quality.
In the business of shoe manufacturing, he was ingenious. Because he understood both the origin and evolution of machinery, he was directly involved in its application and improvement. Working with his expert staff, he obtained patents for several new and improved machines. Always forward thinking, it wouldn’t be many years before his blatant success and innovative nature brought him squarely into conflict with United Shoe Machinery Corporation, whose business it was to build and lease equipment to companies such as his. They were enforcing exclusive agreements with manufacturers as well as further taxing them with additional royalties. This was especially irksome to Tom. He had frequently designed and used his own equipment. The royalties, based on the scale of production at Thomas G. Plant Company, substantially cut into his profit. Just as he would not let his birthright determine his future, neither would he let the massive United Shoe Machinery Corporation hold him hostage. In effect, they were a monopoly of Goliath proportions, and Tom would be the David who would take them on. The case was held up and fought in the courts for months and even years. Still, Tom would not budge. The man with the humble pedigree and big purpose took on Goliath and won. By the end, however, it seems that the protracted battle was likely to have diminished the satisfaction he’d once taken from the business, and when his success against United Shoe Machinery was imminent, he ultimately sold his business to them in 1910.
As he embarked upon the next chapter in his life, he had aspirations of a different kind. He had risen above the narrow provincial views of the established class. Although Tom was self-educated, he had risen to the ranks of the nouveau riche. He was very well read and spoke fluent French—an advantage within the established society of Boston. Not surprisingly, his progressive tendencies extended to politics where they were aligned with those of Theodore Roosevelt along principles of increased business regulation, antitrust legislation, and more. Their travels to Europe and within the United States picked up. His niece had suggested that he look at land in the Ossipee region of New Hampshire. Having traveled there, Tom and his wife fell in love with the area and purchased numerous parcels of land totaling 6,500 acres, including two miles of shore front. He would build his country home here and name it Lucknow, carefully supervising its plan and procuring the purchase of all its materials, including the beams, which all came from his beloved Bath. Today we know the same estate as Castle in the Clouds. He also built an exclusive resort called The Bald Peak Colony Club, which is said to have been called the “St. Andrews of North America.”
At about the same time, Tom was determined to do something specifically designed to improve the lives of others. In memory of his mother, in 1916 he purchased, built, and endowed the Old Folks Home at One Washington Street in Bath, Maine, where it still operates today as the Plant Memorial Home. Situated on the scenic banks of the Kennebec, it was considered to be one of the finest examples of new architecture. At 3.5 stories in height, it also boasted a modern kitchen, spacious living and dining rooms, men’s smoking room, three verandas, elevators, phones, and automatic sprinklers on every floor. Even the trolley was extended to accommodate the residents. A home for elders, his vision was as it remains today, “This home is founded on my sincere belief that those who have lived honest, industrious lives and are without means or friends to take care for them, have earned the right to be cared for. Only through the labor and expenditures of others is it possible….” The Plant Memorial Home remains today as a private, nonprofit assisted living home. If residents are unable to financially maintain the level of payment required, the outstanding balance is covered by financial subsidies based upon the original endowment made by Tom—a truly unique feature in today’s world, he has left his indelible mark on Bath’s history as well as all residents of the Plant Memorial Home, past, present, and future.
Unfortunately, despite Tom’s best intentions, he eventually fell on difficult times. Compounded by the stock market crash and the Great Depression, the brilliant industrialist fell afoul of his investments. Their dismal failures left him financially broken. Properties and assets would need to be liquidated in an attempt to regain solvency. And, when, at the end of this unraveling, he was approached with a scheme that could have saved him, he still could not bring himself to do it. He was nothing, if not a man of principle. His expansive property in New Hampshire was replete with beautiful trees. If he would only harvest the timber, the proceeds could have brought him back to a comfortable financial status. However tempting this may have been, when presented with a contract for its sale, he could not bring himself to sign it. He could not bear to have the land destroyed by the felling of the trees. He ultimately chose impoverishment over comfort.
Imagine coming out of our own present-day orbits long enough to realize that, in the scope of things, our times are simply just not that exceptional. Imagine also, taking encouragement from them and rising to today’s challenges with a similar level of resolve. He was faced with prejudice for having been of French-Canadian descent; he was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Bath; he had no formal schooling after the age of 14; he began his business on next to nothing; he innovated much of his own equipment; he stood up to the unfairness of one the national giants in business; he never forgot where he came from; and in the end, he’d choose ecology over self-preservation.
Almost 100 years later, his legacy continues to thrive at the Plant Home, whose architecture and understated elegance have been preserved through renovations and future planned expansions. Despite it all, he never forgot about his home and community in Bath and created an enduring mechanism for the continuing care of others less fortunate. Thomas Gustave Plant was an exceptional man with an exceptional story that we do well to be reminded of today.
I would like to extend appreciation to Barry Rodrigue, author of Tom Plant: The Making of a Franco American Entrepreneur, 1859–1941, which was use das the primary source for the content of this article. Barry makes his home in Bath where he lives with his wife Penelope. He is both the cousin and biographer of Tom while also Associate Professor, Arts and Humanities, at the University of Southern Maine. A second edition of his book is currently in progress.
Additional information about the Plant Home can be found at www.planthome.org.