Exclusive canoe club was 1908’s place to be

Posted Sept. 28, 2008, at 6:15 p.m.

If you were an up-and-coming young man in Bangor a century ago, chances are you were looking for an exclusive club to boost your social standing. The Conduskeag Canoe and Country Club was a good bet. Of course, not just anybody could get into the club. It was “one of the most prominent and best-known organizations of its kind in the state of Maine,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial in a major puff piece on Sept. 28, 1908. Membership was capped at 100, and there was a waiting list.

Among the prominent members then were J. W. Cartwright Jr., the treasurer of the Bangor Railway and Electric Company; Nathan C. Ayer, vice president of Eastern Manufacturing Company; Roland J. Sawyer, vice president of Sawyer Boot and Shoe Company; Dr. Harry Butler, a prominent physician; and George W. Dunning, president of R.B. Dunning and Company. Not surprisingly, considering all the publicity the club was getting, a prominent newsman, Oliver L. Hall, city editor of the Bangor Daily Commercial, had been accepted for membership as well.

Besides social standing and income level, membership hinged on geography and sex. Even though the clubhouse was located in Hampden, it helped an applicant to live in Bangor, as nearly all the members did. Meanwhile, a woman from anywhere had to be related to one of those up-and-coming fellows if she expected to be welcomed. This was a men’s club.

Perched on the Penobscot River near its intersection with the Soudabscook Stream, the Conduskeag Canoe and Country Club was a stone’s throw from Hampden’s Upper Corner. The trolley and the motor boat, not the canoe, were the quickest ways to get there from Bangor.

The jolly members of the club expended so much time on frivolity, or so it seemed from reading the newspapers, that membership must have been irresistible to fun-loving souls. The year before, in February, 1907, club members had put on “a bright farce, full of catchy music” at the Bangor Opera House. In March of that same year, they held “a Sea Lion dance” at City Hall, the exact nature of which — whether or not it involved a real sea lion, for instance — is difficult to determine from the witty newspaper stories advertising the event.

On July 4, members held a canoe regatta and fireworks display at their clubhouse in Hampden. “A canoe parade, with canoes lighted with Japanese lanterns, is one of the most charming water sights imaginable,” the Bangor Daily News informed readers.

Sometimes the clubhouse served as a place for distinguished gatherings as it did on June 10, 1908, when 125 doctors from the Maine Medical Association gathered there. Herbert Ringwall, a well-known local musician, played the piano and Dr. E.F. Bowers brought his violin. “‘Doc’ Peters and Cal Thomas did a clog which made a big hit.” And a good time was had by all.

The Conduskeag Canoe and Country Club house was considered a substantial building. The members of the club had dedicated themselves to making renovations that would create one of the most modern and convenient establishments anywhere.

Originally founded as a canoe rendezvous some years before on the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor before being moved to Hampden, club members’ interests had widened. Two clay tennis courts had been completed just that summer, said the Commercial. The club was also used in the winter by snowshoeing and skiing parties. A golf course was added years later.

As for canoeing, that sport was expanding as well. Paddles were growing passe, however. Sailing had been introduced just that past summer. Six canoes were already fitted with sails and leeboards. Next season, canoe yawls were expected to be introduced. They were double-ended, 15 feet long with small cockpits and a centerboard and leg of mutton sail and jib, according to the Commercial.

The gasoline engine was also having an impact on club activities. Several members owned some of the speediest motorboats in the area. A mile-long course had been marked off in the river in front of the club for races.

The walls of the clubhouse’s main room on the first floor, where dances and other social events were held before a crackling fire, were decorated with pictures and trophies. Next to it was a kitchen and another room set aside for women. Upstairs was a chart room, a bedroom and personal lockers, presumably where members could store their liquor using the system adopted by the Tarratine and other men’s clubs to avoid prosecution under Maine’s liquor law.

Modern conveniences recently added included electric lights (even in the boat house), running water powered by an electric pump and new floats down at the dock. A furnace to supplement the fieldstone fireplace was planned.

The greatest improvement during the current season, however, had been the construction of a new, improved road from the trolley line, making it possible for members to drive their horse-drawn carriages and automobiles directly to the clubhouse. Plans called for surfacing it with gravel that fall. Today it is known as the Canoe Club Road. The building that was the clubhouse is a private residence. And canoes are seldom seen out on the river.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net. Thanks to John Chapman for providing background information on the Conduskeag Canoe and Country Club.

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