Deputies return to dry out Bangor

Posted May 17, 2009, at 4:47 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Sentinels were back on watch outside of Bangor saloons a century ago this week. Rusty bolts in barroom doors had been oiled. “[T]he symphony of the crowbar and the axe will again be heard,” predicted the Bangor Daily News on May 5, 1909. Sturgis Commission deputies were back in town and getting ready to splinter doors and smash windows in places where they expected liquor was present. Yet another effort to make the Queen City conform to the state’s prohibition law was about to begin.

The state liquor agents, or Sturgis men as they were called, had departed at the end of December. A new sheriff was taking office. The new Legislature was considering changing the law, including abolishing the commission. The Sturgis men had decided to lighten up a bit.

Opinions had differed over how successful their efforts had been in the 16 months since they had invaded Bangor for the first time. There were definitely fewer saloons — perhaps only a few dozen — but much of the business had been driven underground into musty cellars and barricaded backrooms. Kitchen barkeeps and pocket peddlers kept the town wet from back alleys. Many people ordered their liquor supply through the mail.

When the state liquor detectives had departed, all hell had broken loose. “When the Sturgis deputies were here the saloons had watchers and sold liquor behind locked doors. Since the first of January the deputies have been gone and the saloons are running wide open. Let all the Christian and temperance people organize and have the prohibitory law enforced,” urged Ensign Arthur Armstrong of The Salvation Army as reported in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 22.

The absence of the Sturgis men, however, wasn’t the only problem. Judges showed a clear reluctance to prosecute their cases to the full extent of the law. “NOTHING DOING IN LIQUOR LINE: No Jail Sentences, No Trials, and Not a Single Dealer Personally in Court,” was how the Bangor Daily News summed up the nonaction involving 75 liquor cases at the February supreme court term in Penobscot County.

Bangor was getting a going-over everywhere — from the floor of the Legislature to the Pacific Ocean. The headlines in the BDN were getting embarrassing. One state senator charged on Feb. 20 after the Sturgis men left that the number of saloons in Bangor had ballooned to 300. A representative of the Anti-Saloon League complained on March 11 that local law enforcement officers were not making “even a pretense” of enforcing prohibition.

PROHIBITION FAILS, declared a headline in the anti-prohibition Bangor Daily Commercial on March 18, citing a speech by a Maine native who had become president of the Senate in the state of Washington. The honorable A.S. Ruth had based his opinion on a two-week visit to Bangor and Aroostook County.

The formation of the Voters League, a progressive group of Bangor businessmen, ministers and other professionals, sought to pressure officialdom into doing something. Besides publicizing the flowing oceans of booze, they recommended radical enforcement measures.

They advocated serving injunctions against the owners of buildings that housed saloons. They pressured the City Council to withhold innkeeper and victualer licenses from proprietors with court convictions. Their research established that about two-thirds of licensees had “court records of continuous violations of laws upon which the granting of their licenses are conditioned … .”

For example, when John Parlee applied for a renewal of his boardinghouse license on Water Street, Police Chief John Bowen testified grimly, “You can get victuals and drink and women at Mr. Parlee’s place.” Municipal officers tabled the application along with several others, reported the BDN on May 4 after the Voters League protest.

Few people actually approved of the return of the Sturgis men. Their strong-arm tactics had generated ill will. They merely had driven the liquor trade underground. They were interfering with the cozy way Bangor’s power brokers liked to enforce the law. The county had to foot the bill.

Nobody dreamed for a moment that the Sturgis operatives had “the moral courage to raid any gilded bar or to make energetic search in any hotel or clubroom, which has secured that happy condition which is called ‘a pull,’” said a Bangor Daily News editorial on May 8. “Nobody of social or moneyed consequence will be disturbed, and no owners of buildings will be molested … .”

Five Sturgis deputies had been busy the day before. “The wireless” had gone to work immediately. “The news spread as fast as telephones could jingle and trusted messengers could be dispatched from door to door.” Lookouts stood on street corners and on buildings. Only trusted customers were allowed in. “[I]t seems the consensus of opinion that another Sturgis war — with bad beer at 20 cents a bottle, poison for whiskey and all the rest of it — is about to begin.”

The notorious Globe Hotel got the first call with no results. That night, however, they smashed down the door at Jeremiah Cratty’s place on Franklin Street, seizing some draft ale. Maurice Gallagher’s domain on Central Street brought “only disappointment,” said the BDN, but at the Riverside House a man was locked up “who had something on him, sure enough.”

During this time local cops stepped in and conducted their own raids occasionally. The BDN on May 24, for example, reported Bangor police found beer in “a cleverly constructed hide” under a trapdoor to the cellar under a bed at Jennie Millett’s house on Harlow Street. A hose came up through the floor into the bedroom. But this was the Sturgis Commission’s show, not the Bangor Police Department’s or the Penobscot County Sheriff Department’s. Whether the state detectives could tame Bangor remained to be seen.

A collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net

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