Cigar girls: Story of a poem's birth

By Linda Buckmaster | Apr 08, 2021

In the mid-'70s, I worked at the Belfast Area Children’s Center (now Belfast Area Childcare Services), which was located in the old Waldo elementary school through the generosity of the city. Most of the children we served at that time lived in Belfast and their parents worked at the various plants in town — shoe shop, poultry processing, sardine plant, the “slacks factory.” Since the center was so far from Belfast and the factories all started so early in the morning at 6 or 7, we ran a little van into town to pick up the kids at their homes and take them back at the end of the day.

This was a radical idea in Waldo County at the time — a public day care center — and it was decried as “socialism” in some circles. We wanted to create a safe, inexpensive, fun and educational place for kids to be while their parents worked, many of whom were always shifting around for child care.

I remember one little boy we picked up from a stark two-story shingled house down by the water in an area of Belfast now thoroughly gentrified. (Like many coastal towns in previous centuries, the wealthier citizens lived up on the hill, and the working class near the water, where the docks, factories and jobs were.) We’d honk when we pulled up into the driveway, the door would fly open with the little guy dashing for the “bus,” Grammy waving at us from the door. A version of this simple, joyful sight was repeated all over town.

A couple of decades later, when I was poet laureate, I took a group of poets to the Belfast Historical Society to poke around and see if there was anything that sparked inspiration. I saw a flyer with the words: “Girls Wanted at once to learn the cigar trade.” I hadn’t known there had been a “cigar trade,” nor that there was locally grown tobacco in the county. It made me think of all the women over the past hundred or so years who had labored on so many fronts well into the 20th century. Women and older girls made up a major part of the industrial workforce in Belfast and other towns throughout Maine. In my 40-odd years in Waldo County, I’ve seen most of those jobs disappear. And so, a poem was born.

“Girls Wanted at once to learn the cigar trade”

Poster at the Belfast, Maine, Historical Society

 

Girls wanted — those delicate fingers needed

to roll local-farmed tobacco, picked

by other girls in thin frocks or boys fed

on pies and potatoes wanted from the hands of girls.

Girls wanted for blanket mills, pants factory, shoe shops,

sardine plant. Quick, nimble, no married women need apply:

can’t keep their minds on the work thinking about families,

thinking about sick child, thinking about himself coming home,

dinner to be got, baby to be nursed.

 

Girls want it — money, love, power, and more for you

if you’re faster than just fast enough filling tins, threading

looms, stitching soles, plucking chickens. Girls wanted

for organizing union, but not there long enough

before the next baby, next injury, next man.

 

Girls into women, married and later wanted to

make family ends meet, wanted for maturity, wanting

maybe to make supervisor someday, easier on the hands

and feet, earning more but more responsible — no theft

on the floor or paybacks out of your pocket.

 

Girls want it — respect. Forty years on the line so

you can say, “Forty years on the line. I’m gonna miss the girls.”

 

Linda Buckmaster was Belfast's poet laureate from 2009-2011.


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