‘Monster building’ was Bangor shoe industry mainstay

Posted March 22, 2009, at 10:49 p.m.

“It is not often that any community is so much in the industrial debt of any one firm, as Bangor is to Parker & Peakes,” observed the Industrial Journal, a Bangor business publication, in its Jan. 25, 1901, issue. “The huge five-story building at the corner of Oak and Hancock streets is a veritable human bee hive where hundreds of busy hands, scores of whirring wheels and tireless machines are daily turning. … This manufactory entitles Bangor to the distinction of having the largest shoe industry under one roof in the state of Maine.”

George W. Parker started making shoes in Dedham during the Civil War. Henry Peakes joined him. As the business expanded it was moved to Brewer and then to Bangor in 1873. From the spot where the old Tarratine Club is located on Park Street, it moved again five years later to Exchange Street, installing “one of the first water motors used in the country” for power. In 1887, as business continued to expand, the company was moved to its final location, “the old Mansion House property” at Oak and Hancock.

With large additions in 1892 and 1897, Parker & Peakes became what one reporter called a “monster building,” filling Hancock between Oak and French streets. By 1901, 500 workers were turning out 4,000 pairs of shoes a day. They were medium-grade, low-priced shoes for which there was a large demand mainly in the West and South from Buffalo to Kansas City to Atlanta. Business after 30 years was still expanding. A Boston office had been opened. Profits were such that electric lights would soon be installed.

Hundreds of Bangoreans, many of them probably recent immigrants, benefited. Workers even got fringe benefits, such as they were back then. The Shoemaker’s Mutual Benefit Association had been organized in 1898. Each year a ball was held to raise money for a sick fund. Workers competed in such unique enterprises as a leather-cutting contest among four young men and a shoe-lacing contest among four young women. By 1901, the association had paid out $800 in sick benefits and had a balance of $750.

Turn the clock ahead to Feb. 9, 1909, to this shocking bit of news. “RECEIVERS NAMED: Parker & Peakes Now In the Hands of Liquidators,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial. The plant was purchased a short time later by prominent Bangor businessman Frank H. Drummond, who already owned the Bangor Box Co., which was located on the premises. Drummond, who was considered a leading authority on timberlands and the spool wood business, had invested heavily in valuable Bangor and Brewer real estate. His plan was to get the shoe factory up and running as soon as possible.

A year and a half later, the Bangor Shoe Co. was in operation at the old address, said the Commercial on July 8, 1910. It would be making “a good, sound, substantial shoe for working men, machinists, carpenters, farmers and other laborers” as well as “a neat, dressy shoe” for young men. Bangor investors had put up nearly all of the $100,000 capital. The company operated at a loss until its own receivership was reported in the Bangor Daily News on March 19, 1913.

Bangor was changing. If a shoe factory wouldn’t work in this drafty old monument to the Industrial Revolution something else undoubtedly would, and that might be an “Automobile Headquarters,” as described in the Industrial Journal on July 19, 1917, a few months after the death of Frank Drummond. S.L. Crosby Co. planned to convert “the monster building” into a Ford Sales and Service Station, which would not only service Fords, but manufacture them as well.

A huge elevator would be installed capable of carrying “the largest automobile made.” The business would have a “department for the building of bodies,” specializing in the construction of Ford trucks and tractors. This was back in the days when many people paid to have their cars serviced and stored for the winter, so part of the upper floors was devoted to storage space.

The S.L. Crosby Co. was so successful that a decade later it was able to construct a new building, said the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 2, 1928. Once again the old Parker & Peakes building was orphaned. The Bangor Chamber of Commerce issued a brochure advertising the availability of a “great factory building … to be had on very favorable terms.”

Bangor was still promoting itself as a manufacturing center. Its list of products had shrunk considerably, however, and it was necessary to give its neighbor across the Penobscot River a mention to fully pad its resume. The promotional circular said, “Bangor, and its neighbor city, Brewer, have more than one hundred diversified industries, among them being pulp, paper, wood products, wood tools, machinery, snow-plows, stoves, furnaces, building material, portable houses and camps, bricks, cigars, candy, fish, meat and agricultural packs, clothing, mattresses, sportsman’s equipment, taxidermy and furs.”

Shoes were not mentioned, but the shoe industry still had an important future in the Queen City. The number of people employed making shoes in Bangor rose from 217 in 1910 to more than 1,600 in the 1950s, according to Abigail Ewing Zelz and Marilyn Zoidis in “Woodsmen and Whigs: Historic Images of Bangor, Maine.” These later shoemakers would fight the last battle against the foreign imports that finally put an end to Bangor’s shoemaking days. At least one more shoe business occupied the “monster building” before it became just a memory.

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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