Bangoreans danced away winter nights

The Nichols Block on Exchange Street, where Society Hall is located on the top floor, narrowly survived the Great Fire of 1911 (aftermath pictured here) as well as urban renewal some years later.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DICK SHAW
The Nichols Block on Exchange Street, where Society Hall is located on the top floor, narrowly survived the Great Fire of 1911 (aftermath pictured here) as well as urban renewal some years later.
Posted Dec. 21, 2008, at 7:46 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:38 a.m.

Bangoreans danced until the wee hours as winter approached a century ago. November marked the beginning of the Queen City’s dancing season, and from then until Lent hardly a week passed that did not include a dance party — perhaps a public gathering in City Hall or maybe a private assembly at Society Hall or the Memorial Parlors.

The first sign of fun each fall was a story in one of the local daily newspapers about all the new dances. The expert source in 1908 was Horace M. Pullen, who gave dancing lessons at Society Hall besides directing the most popular orchestra in town.

“Among the new figures that will be taught and danced in Bangor this season are the New York Barn Dance, Teddy March [for the ever popular Teddy Roosevelt], La Pastourelle, the Bumblebee and Merry Widow waltz,” explained the Bangor Daily Commercial on Oct. 14, 1908. The old dances, such as the waltz and two-step, would be as popular as ever, of course, but it was the new dances that generated the most excitement.

The New York Barn Dance was meant to replace that frightful concoction called the Barn Dance that had been brought to Bangor the previous year by college students. That had been nothing but a fad — a “freak” dance, gasped the indignant reporter. The New York version was more in the minuet style.

The next morning, the Bangor Daily News had a little fun writing about the Bumble Bee. “Now the original movement of this dance was done by dear old Father Adam in the Garden of Eden when he accidentally disturbed a colony of bees.”

Big events at City Hall in November 1908 included the Charity Ball, the seventh annual concert and ball of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers, and the 24th annual ball of the Bangor Firemen’s Relief Association.

The Charity Ball, which featured cornet solos by Miss Louise Horne, raised $200. A high point was the performance of the Rose Dance by several “very attractive young women.” Organized by Mrs. Jennie Johnson, the city missionary, it also featured a reading (of what we are never told) by Mrs. Mary Hexter. Mrs. Hexter also read a selection at the railway men’s dance, which featured long strings of red, white and green lights from the chandelier in the center of the hall.

The firefighters’ dance was an annual Thanksgiving eve affair. The firefighters came in uniform. One of the features was James Grace performing a buck-and-wing dance. A grand march, led by the fire chief, featured nearly 300 couples.

The social season began picking up steam in December. This was the month for the dance parties held to celebrate the arrival of young people home from colleges and prep schools. They often brought friends from faraway places. Most of these affairs took place in Society Hall, the large ballroom on the third floor of the Nichols Building, which escaped the Great Fire of 1911 as well as urban renewal and still can be seen today at the corner of Exchange and York streets.

Newspaper coverage of these parties provides a glimpse of Bangor’s upper crust. Besides the private dance parties, there were four “subscription assemblies” between Dec. 18 and Feb. 12 along with the usual sleigh rides, card parties, house dances, luncheons and other festivities. At least two groups of young people were transported by sleigh and barge to the Niben Club on Pushaw Lake for dinner and dancing.

The Bridge Club put on the biggest dance at Society Hall. Another popular event was the appearance by the Tufts College Glee Club at City Hall, sponsored by Alpha Phi, the high school fraternity.

Some of the parties were described in great detail by the ever-vigilant society reporter for the Bangor Daily News. The word “brilliant” was always worked into the story, if not the headline. Pullen’s orchestra usually played, and Kate Fitzgerald was the caterer of choice.

One such brilliant affair at Society Hall was the dance party given by Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Stewart for Miss Marguerite Stewart on Dec. 28. “Scores of flags and ensigns of every nation blazed in many lines from the corners of the gallery to the chandeliers and along the sides of the hall. And with them were hundreds of electric lights of every color.”

Mr. Stewart had done the decorating himself. Perhaps the reporter revealed more than intended when she wrote, “Besides the bewildering array of flags and electric lights, more than 50 colored lanterns were strung about, each glowing from an electric lamp within.” Electric lights were still a status symbol and a generator of great awe in those faraway days.

By Jan. 4 the season was declared over for the young, although for adults it would continue onward bravely through the bleak winter ahead. “GAYEST HOLIDAYS BROUGHT TO CLOSE,” announced the Bangor Daily News. “Nothing Like Them Ever Known Before in Bangor For the ‘College Crowd.’”

The college and prep school youngsters were headed back to school. “It has been a constant dizzying succession of dinners, dances, teas and barge rides, and it will take the young people until the Easter recess, anyway, to get accustomed once more to the regular college grind,” the reporter surmised.

The Queen City was continuing to make its mark on the world beyond the mighty Penobscot. “Bangor is represented in all the principal colleges of the east and in a surprising number of fashionable secondary and finishing schools. And the town is certainly getting a most enviable reputation as a most hospitable place to spend the holidays,” wrote the enthusiastic reporter.

Thanks to Dick Shaw and to Gail Prior of Keystone Management Co. Inc. for information.

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