1949: Jack DeCoster, age 16, first takes responsibility for 150 hens on his family's farm in Turner. "He started with a chicken coop when he was in high school," James Tierney, who repeatedly prosecuted DeCoster in the '80s as Maine's District Attorney, told me. "Chickens reproduce, so he'd get more eggs, and collect the eggs himself, and he grew that way." Locals speak with a mixture of awe and scorn about the man who built an empire from scratch in their backyards—and who has also shown, as one resident told me, a willingness to "screw even his best friend to the wall for a buck." Another resident, who's known DeCoster all her life, told me, "It was always his ambition—to be the largest egg producer. He just kept going and going, until he got too big. Out-of-control big."
1961: Having grown his operation steadily every year, DeCoster founds Quality Egg in Turner, the business that will grow into the modern-day giant.
1967: DeCoster begins building his first commercial barn across the street, large enough to hold 30,000 hens. Residents recall the late '60s and early '70s as a period of unchecked expansion, with DeCoster putting up as many buildings as possible, whether or not he had state approval.
Spring 1975: James Tierney, then Majority Leader in the Maine's State Legislature, proposes legislation meant to force DeCoster to adhere to minimum wage laws. In Maine, some agricultural companies are exempt from minimum wage, but Tierney's new law "created an exemption from the exemption"—any farm that has more than 300,000 laying birds now has to pay all workers minimum wage. The new rules, he told me, specifically targeted DeCoster, whom Tierney felt was running an assembly-line-based factory operation and not a traditional farm. The bill passed, and by 1976, DeCoster was forced to pay the minimum wage. Tierney cites it as a watershed moment—after the legislation, DeCoster began to look for property in other states.
1976: DeCoster is fined $16,500 by government regulators who show that Quality Egg truckers, under DeCoster's supervision, have been doctoring their log books. The logs claim truckers have worked only the federal limit of hours—when they have actually worked far longer shifts.
November 1978: 27 DeCoster employees are fired after walking out in protest of low wages and poor working conditions. A Maine judge decrees that the workers be restored to their roles, and orders DeCoster to desist "interfering with or restraining" their attempts to unionize.
May 1979: Though Maine allows child labor in agricultural contexts, lawmakers vote to ban child labor "involving hazardous machinery" for industrial food processing as a result of alleged injuries on DeCoster's premises. DeCoster publicly comes out against the measure, according to The Washington Post, saying he has been unfairly targeted.
June 1979: Twenty-seven Turner residents file a $5 million suit against DeCoster for creating a widespread beetle infestation that spread to their homes. Some of the plaintiffs report invasions of thousands of beetles. DeCoster brought the insects in to help control growing fly problems in his chicken houses' manure pits. "We didn't know they would leave the [laying] houses," The Washington Post quotes him as saying.
August 30, 1979: Facing increasing legal scrutiny in Maine, DeCoster announces the sale of DeCoster Egg Farms, Inc. to Acton Food Services Corporation. The Massachusetts-based snack-food and cable television company buys DeCoster's Maine facilities, including livestock and machinery, for $17.2 million. DeCoster keeps a hand in the region with Maine Egg Producers, a spin-off company; his name is mentioned specifically in litigation during this period. His full-time focus becomes a newly built Maryland operation.
1980: On Route 4 in Turner, across from DeCoster's facilities, the fly problem has become severe. Flies are so thick in the summer that even mundane tasks like unloading groceries become unbearably arduous. Outdoor spaces like pools and picnic tables are unusable. "Sometimes the flies would cover my screen door completely, or the whole back wall of my house," Jerry Moulin, who eventually became lead plaintiff in a related 2002 environmental suit against DeCoster told me. Spraying and flypaper don't help. A group of residents begins to reach out to their local governments, to no avail. "We went to the state agriculture department, and they were no help to us," another future plaintiff, who wanted to be quoted anonymously, told me. "We went to our town, state, and federal representatives—nobody would help us. At our selectman meetings, we would at times almost be laughed at by those officials." In her view, DeCoster's big tax dollars were a boon in the eyes of regulators—no one wanted to get in the way.
May 2, 1980: The U.S. Department of Labor files a civil action against DeCoster Egg Farms, Inc. and Maine Egg Producers, and Jack DeCoster is also named personally in the suit. The complaint alleges that the defendants "have violated the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act since May 1st, 1977, and, since January 29, 1978, have violated provisions of the Act prohibiting the use of oppressive child labor." One portion of the case accuses DeCoster of employing five 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old in his facilities.
NEXT: 1985 - 1997: "Egregious and willful violations"