Yvon Chouinard remembers the day in 1946 that his family left Maine to chase opportunity in California. “It was kind of a traumatic day,” says the 80-year-old founder of outdoor retailer Patagonia. His dad had worked in and around Lewiston, in the mills and as a tradesman, ever since boyhood, and the family knew little outside the Androscoggin Valley. Chouinard, then 8, spoke only French. He remembers seeing his mother cry to sell off the family’s handmade furniture. Then his six-person family headed west in a Chrysler. “Kind of a Grapes of Wrath migration,” he says.
The Androscoggin looms large in Chouinard’s memories: catching brook trout on tributaries near his Lisbon home; the time his brother caught a pickerel and generously snuck it onto Chouinard’s line. But it’s the Kennebec he calls his favorite Maine place, thanks to the role Patagonia played in removing Augusta’s Edwards Dam, 20 years ago this month. The dam, which prevented the migration of sea-run fish, was the country’s first functioning hydroelectric dam to be breached and the first removed over its owners’ objections. Maine environmental groups had worked for its removal since the ’80s, but headway was slow.
“So we decided to help,” Chouinard says. “We’re pretty good at marketing, so instead of just giving money, we took out three full-page ads in the national edition of The New York Times. What that did was make the Edwards Dam into a national issue rather than a local issue.”
The ensuing torrent of support helped seal the dam’s fate. When it was breached in 1999, it showed activists across the country that dam-removal fights were winnable. Some 1,100 American dams have come down since, including dozens in Maine. For Chouinard, the campaign in his home state was the first time his company really flexed its advocacy muscle nationally. These days, Patagonia proudly brands itself an “activist company.”
“In the environmental movement, there are rarely any victories. You just hold evil back for a while, then it comes back, and it’s never-ending,” Chouinard says. “But when you take out a dam, that is, so to speak, a concrete victory.”