Lumber made Bangor rich in the 19th century, but as the lumber trade declined other wood products — such as shooks — helped fill the economic gap. Shooks were small slices of pine logs used to make boxes for shipping fruit and vegetables. They were bound together with string and sent to Italy for shipping lemons, oranges and grapefruit, and to the Bahamas for tomatoes, onions and other fresh vegetables.
Capt. Thomas J. Stewart was the dominant figure in the Queen City’s shook trade, which peaked in the late 1870s and 1880s. Cutting lumber for shooks was big business for some Maine lumbermen, and Stewart moved most of it to market. To stay on top of the business he even helped finance sawmills and supplied them with men and provisions to maintain a ready supply.
An unsuccessful congressional candidate on a tariff reform platform and the founder of the Bangor Daily News late in life, Stewart had been raised in Bangor. After being shipwrecked in 1850, he ran a grocery store in West
Market Square, later becoming a ship broker and commission merchant. He was a towering figure in Bangor commerce, the largest individual importer and exporter in New England, and he maintained a fleet of ships “sailing under his private signal,” said his obituary in The New York Times in 1890. Stewart handled many products including lumber, ice, spool bars and barrel staves. Sometimes he had trouble finding enough railroad cars and vessels to carry his products to market.
Bangor’s involvement in the shook export industry was waning a century ago when this column is set, nearly two decades after Thomas J. Stewart’s death. This loss was one of the reasons Bangor’s harbor was rapidly declining from the days when legend had it you could step from Bangor to Brewer on the decks of sailing ships.
A multitiered headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 25, 1908, contained an accusatory note. It said, Only Two Mills Manufacturing Shooks in Maine Now — THE GERMANS BUTTED IN. The event that provoked the story was the beginning of shook shipments for the season.
The Bangor company founded by Thomas J. Stewart and now run by his sons was still in charge, but the shooks were no longer being shipped through Bangor’s harbor. The Italian bark Jeanne was discharging salt at Bucksport, after which it would go to the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad’s new docks at Stockton Springs to take on a cargo of box shooks for Sicily. The shooks, which had been manufactured at mills at Oakfield and Robinson, were the first of four shipments scheduled from Maine that year.
There used to be many more mills in Washington and Aroostook counties. “Every season many cargoes of shooks were shipped from Bangor and Calais, and the big Italian barks at High Head [near where the Veterans’ Remembrance Bridge is today], where the shooks were loaded, was a familiar sight,” said the Commercial.
The reason for this decline, said the newspaper, was the introduction of modern machinery and methods in Europe. The extensive manufacturing of shooks in Europe began in 1902. Germans visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo the year before saw modern shook-manufacturing machinery and took the ideas home with them. Cheaper wood in the forest of Austria-Hungary, cheap labor and proximity to Italy made it possible for the Europeans to make a large dent in Maine’s market.
On Nov. 14, the Commercial further chronicled the demise of the shook export trade as the shipping season trailed off and Bangoreans jealously watched developments downriver. “Last Shipment for the Season Leaves Next Week — BUSINESS FALLING OFF,” said the headline. “When the American barkentine Mabel I. Meyers of Searsport clears from Stockton Springs next week, the last cargo of orange and lemon box shooks for the season will have been shipped to Italy.”
The story continued, “The T.J. Stewart Co. of this city handles all the box shooks shipped to Italian ports from this section, and according to Charles M. Stewart of the firm, the past season has been an average one, with between two million and 2.5 million boxes shipped to Italy. There have been six cargoes shipped, and the Mabel I. Meyers will take the last cargo for the year.”
The paper’s nostalgia perhaps had more to do with the decline in Bangor’s trade than with the decline of the industry generally. The same could be said of spool bars, which were made from birch and shipped to England and Scotland by the Stewart Co. for use by thread manufacturers. “In 1905, the last shipment of spoolbars went from this port and in the fall of 1906 the last cargo of box shooks left Bangor,” the newspaper recounted. “With the removal of the trade went in the neighborhood of $5,000 a year, which was collected and disbursed among the residents of this city. This money included the stevedore’s bills, etc.”
Ah, for the days when Maine entrepreneurs were known round the globe. Stewart had originated the box shook trade with Italy in 1858, said the newspaper. “He convinced the Italians that the rough boxes they were using were far inferior to the article that he could furnish, took samples to Italy on one of his voyages and went ahead and supplied them. There was a time when nearly every box used for the packing of fruit in Italy came from the forest of Maine, but during recent years there has been lively competition from Austrians.”
Thomas J. Stewart, one of Bangor’s greatest merchants, saw how to compete in the global economy and had the courage to do so. His career deserves further study in an era when the global economy has taken on a much greater significance.
Background material for this column about shooks and Thomas J. Stewart was found in David C. Smith’s “A History of Lumbering in Maine, 1861 to 1960.”