Midcoast Maine has had no shortage of interesting and colorful characters over the years, like Norman Wallace Lermond (1861-1944), of Thomaston. Lermond founded the Knox Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Knox Arboretum on his property, where the St. George and Oyster rivers join. He also was the Maine Socialist Party’s candidate for governor in 1900.

A talented naturalist, Lermond was respected for his deep knowledge of bivalve shellfish and the natural history of Maine. Much of his vast collection resides in Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where an unfinished manuscript of his autobiography was discovered and published in 2004. This autobiography illuminates a fascinating period in post-Civil War New England and national politics, from the perspective of a scientist, publisher and political activist. The political aspect of his life is discussed here.

Lermond was born on a farm along the banks of the Oyster River in 1861. In 1890, a visitor brought Edward Bellamy’s best-selling 1887 romantic novel, “Looking Backward.” This book about a utopian society appealed greatly to Americans after the 1883 depression and post-war social upheaval. Lermond wrote that “Bellamy’s blueprint of a new and very different civilization, and economic, social and political system and government, opened up to me a whole new world: a world without poverty, crime or disease … after reading Bellamy’s book, I became a full-fledged Bellamy Socialist. And I am still a Socialist, a stronger Socialist than ever.”

Various local populist organizations were active in this period, according to labor historian Charles Scontras, and Lermond became engaged in most of them. In 1891, he co-founded the Populist Party of Maine, which carried the town of Washington in 1894. He also edited and/or published newspapers for the Populist Party, the Grange and the Socialist Party of Maine. He rubbed shoulders with many famous people of the era, including William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Clarence Darrow.

In 1895, Lermond and a few friends founded the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth, a movement to form cooperatives, or collectives, that would supply each other with goods and services. This plan engendered some local interest: a local union of the Brotherhood was formed in Warren in 1895, and in Damariscotta and Camden in 1896.

In Lermond’s mind, life was too short to wait for political solutions to society’s problems. He advocated direct action by taking over part of the country. He proposed that socialist pioneers should invest $100 to buy land, natural resources and equipment and turn them into buildings, tools, factories, etc. Each community or colony would specialize in a specific line of industry: clothing manufacture, farm implements, cotton and woolen fabric production, etc. These goods would be exchanged on the basis of an equitable unit of labor. Stay-at-home socialists could put part of their earnings into a trust fund to support these cooperatives until they became sustainable.

The Equality community was founded in Washington State in 1898. At its height, the colony consisted of 300 people on 640 cleared acres. Among the first settlers was A.L. Young of Camden, who was the superintendent of the Manufacturing Department and treasurer. Another Camden native, shipbuilder C.H. Bramhall, built a 95-foot steamboat for the venture, charging only for materials.

The colony, and the Brotherhood, did not succeed. Internal jealousy and organizational disputes divided the colony and Lermond returned to Maine in poor health in August 1898. The colony itself disbanded in 1907 and became a State of Washington model farm.

Lermond continued his involvement in both Socialist politics and scientific pursuits at his Thomaston home until his death. His autobiography says, “Our Socialist county organization hired rooms on Main Street in Rockland, bought a piano and held regular meetings every Sunday. Miss Rogers played the piano and sang. The Rogers boys promoted plays. Hobbs, the Rogers, La Follett the blacksmith, the cigar makers Sobel and Morier, and the baker all took part in debates.”

Utopian socialism did not last into the 20th century. But we have inherited a few of its basic principles: equitable distribution of public goods and services; a belief in social justice or “righteousness of purpose”; and a society that provides for everyone’s basic needs. For that, we owe Lermond and other socialist pioneers a big debt.