June 23, 2018
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Liquor carnival followed ‘drouth’

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Was Bangor experiencing a “drouth” a century ago this summer — a liquor drought that is? A Bangor Daily News reporter, who doubtlessly had visited more than a few of the seamy watering places on Exchange Street and other nearby avenues where the drinking crowd gathered, tried to sort out the prohibition situation on Aug. 10, 1908.

“Bangor is probably drier than it has been for a dozen years. … [But] there is no excuse even now for anybody going thirsty. There are plenty of places where a drink will follow the appearance of the price. But of the 200 or 250 or 300 saloons and near-saloons which flourished openly a few months ago, it’s a safe guess that at least two-thirds are closed.”

Really closed, this scribe claimed. “Cobwebs disport over the wooden counters where foaming half-barrels were once horsed up, and the proprietors are out of town.” This was especially true of “respectable” places near the business district where respectable people used to be able to get a drink. Instead, the business had been driven into “kitchen bars and dives,” like the backroom on Hancock Street where between 50 and 75 immigrants had been found in various states of intoxication, according to the newspaper on May 11.

“What is the meaning of the drouth?” the reporter asked rhetorically. The grand jury was scheduled to sit the next day and there were rumors that dozens, indeed hundreds of liquor dealers and their minions were going to be nailed. But that was old hat. The real reason, claimed the reporter, was that the Sturgis Commission had threatened to prosecute property owners as well as saloon proprietors. (The Sturgis Commission was the much-reviled state agency created by the Legislature and the governor to rout out liquor dealers where local officials couldn’t seem to do the job — as in Bangor.)

“This decision, made known in private circles long before it was published in the newspapers, was a bombshell with a vengeance, striking directly at some of the richest, most influential and best known people in the community; and it was followed by scores of curt orders from high places that certain previously desirable tenants must quit and be quick about it. Hence the present drouth,” the reporter wrote.

These rich, influential property owners, of course, included some of the same rich, influential people who ran Bangor. While they might have turned off the taps, it was “extremely unlikely” (translation: It would be a cold day in hell) any of these esteemed individuals would be prosecuted. Besides, the Sturgis Commission had accomplished its goals, at least temporarily, by drying up some of the most prominent watering holes just by threatening action.

This reporter, as it turned out, had good sources. Sure enough, the court session came and went and liquor hardly dampened the docket. The result was predictable. The evening of the day the court concluded, Saturday, Aug. 22, the celebrating began in the saloon district. Bangor was wide open again.

TURBULENT NIGHT FOR THE POLICE, said the headline. Saloons Held Grand Opening Carnival and Fights were Frequent. The Bangor Daily News reporter had made a tour of the liquor district, (which was next door to his office on Exchange Street). He reported, “The music began about 10 o’clock, and when two hours and a half later the first shift of patrolmen came into the guard room, they were all in from preventing individual fights and general riots. They all had the same story to tell — that they never had seen so much drunkenness on a Saturday night, and they had been too busy keeping the crowd going to stop and make arrests.”

The fact that the Eastern Maine State Fair was attracting thousands of farm boys and unemployed woodsmen up at Maplewood Park, many of whom found their way down into the wet district, only added to the mayhem that night.

Bangor’s liquor carnival was back in full swing for the moment. The Queen City had become so famous that people studying the impacts of prohibition routinely visited. One of those visitors, on Aug. 18, was John H. Roberts, a well-known English temperance advocate and founder of the British National Independent Temperance Party.

“In England,” he told the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 19, “the opposition to the temperance movement are constantly pointing out that prohibition in the United States does not prohibit, and refer to Maine as an example. Bangor is notorious the world over as the most wide open city of its size in the country, but I do not believe all that I hear about it. I want to see for myself.”

During the next two days Roberts gave speeches in Center Park and at City Hall. It is to be hoped he also took a walk through the liquor district that Saturday (with a police escort) when the Bangor saloons held their grand opening carnival.

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