City history mixes fact, fiction

Posted Feb. 23, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:06 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The tale of the naming of this community is a colorful one about a drunken minister, singing his favorite ditty, who mistakenly gave the name of the song “Bangor” when asked by a clerk what the town’s name was to be.

In the story, this village was to be called Sunbury.

Instead, the clerk penned in Bangor, and John Hancock, the then governor of Massachusetts, signed the historic town incorporation document into law on Feb. 25, 1791.

A framed copy of the 218-year-old document hangs in Bangor City Hall, and city councilors recognized the formation of the town with a proclamation Monday night.

The popular tale is engaging, but is it truthful?

“Every myth has a kernel of truth,” historian Dick Shaw of Bangor said Monday.

There was, in fact, a pastor in the Plantation of Condeskeag, named after the Condeskeag [now Kenduskeag] Stream, that was tasked with escorting the incorporation papers to Massachusetts to get them signed, and this pastor — Seth Noble — did love music, in particular the Welsh hymn “Bangor,” Shaw said.

Noble arrived in the area in 1786 with his wife and three kids after the Revolutionary War. “The government gave him a track of 300 acres of land in what is now Eddington,” the 1882 “History of Penobscot County, Maine,” states.

The next year, “On March 27, 1787, the people of Sunbury (as Mr. Noble had now taught them to call the place) were so pleased with their preacher that, in a meeting of village purposes, they voted to build a meeting house … at Condeskeag.”

But the meeting house was never built, and “after the first year, the ministerial enthusiasm in the community evidently had abated,” according to the book.

The book states that locals lost their respect for Noble because, “His conversation was light … He had acquired army habits, and would take a dram with almost any one who invited him; would laugh and tell improper anecdotes. The quantity of liquors bought by him of [Major] Robert Treat would astonish a temperance man.”

Dram is the colloquial word for a “shot” or “snifter” of drink. Treat ran the only store in the plantation at the time.

The book states locals “delegated that revered gentleman to proceed to the General Court at Boston, and procure an act of incorporation,” and mentions Noble’s fondness of music, particularly the hymn “Bangor.”

The song “so haunted his imagination, and was often breathed through his lips, that he felt it to be more euphonious and a more fitting name for the town than Sunbury,” the book states, adding later, “He therefore substituted it.”

In that reference, there is neither mention of alcohol or drunkenness nor of Noble mistakenly giving the wrong name.

However, the Penobscot County history book, which was published 91 years after John Hancock signed the town of Bangor’s incorporation papers, has contradictions in its pages that create another hole in the popular story.

A letter penned by Andrew Webster, the clerk of Sunbury, to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on May 18, 1790 — a year before Noble’s trip to Boston — is a plea to lawmakers to allow residents to incorporate under the name Bangor.

“We labor under many disadvantages for want of being incorporated with town privileges, therefore humbly pray your honours would be pleased to take our difficult circumstances into your wise consideration, and incorporate it into a town by the name of Bangor,” the book states. “We have no justice of the peace for 30 miles this side of the river — No Grand Jury, and some people not of the best morals.

“P.S. the inhabitants of said Plantation, at Sunbury legal meetings for two years past, have unanimously voted to incorporate, without which can have no benefit of our school or ministerial lands,” the letter states.

It was 43 years after the town incorporated that the city of Bangor was formed.

“An act to incorporate the city of Bangor … was enacted Feb. 12, 1834, and was accepted by the town on the 24th of the same month by a vote of 526 yeas to 118 nays,” the history book states.

Bangor’s long history — both the facts and the fiction — is what makes this community such a wonderful place to visit and to call home, Candy Guerrette, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.

When people ask about the name, “We tell them about the minister going to Boston and how it was supposed to be named Sunbury, but because he was singing the song, named it Bangor,” she said. “I’ve never heard another story about how it got named.”

nricker@bangordailynews.net

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