Cotton reigned briefly in Bangor

Posted May 23, 2009, at 5:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

King Cotton reigned in Bangor ever so briefly a century ago this week. As their lumbering economy declined, Bangoreans were looking for new places to invest. For a short time, a proposal to build a cotton mill up river in Old Town seized the public imagination. One result was the Bangor Cotton Exposition, which was in-tended both to “boom” the idea of the mill as well as to promote the wares of Bangor merchants — especially cotton goods. The cotton mania that resulted gives us a glimpse today into the economic hopes and fears of the Queen City and surrounding communities as they entered the twentieth century.

C.C. Garland, a local entrepreneur, was seeking investment capital to build a cotton mill in Old Town. The production of cotton goods had been the most valuable manufacturing endeavor in Maine, although recently pulp and paper and timber products had outpaced it. Old Town already had two woolen mills. The addition of a cotton mill would be one more step in the diversification of the region’s economy. Shrewd Bangor businessmen knew the Queen City would benefit from any new nearby factories, whether in Millinocket or Old Town.

Garland organized a tour for potential investors to see some cotton mills in Lewiston where 8,000 workers made cloth, clothing and other goods, said the Bangor Daily News on April 4, 1909. The 60 businessmen who traveled by train “saw the process from raw cotton to the finished products — bed spreads in elaborate designs, table-cloths, pretty ginghams, seersuckers, shirtings, etc., in vast variety.”

Meetings were held in Bangor that winter and spring explaining the mill idea and the financial proposal behind it. Garland’s plan was to build a mill with 50,000 spindles employing 600 or more hands, said the Bangor Daily Commercial on April 22 after one such meeting. Garland said he hoped to raise $300,000 of the neces-sary $1 million capitalization from Bangor businessmen.

The mill would benefit shareholders as well as Bangor merchants. Garland noted that in one year 38,000 round-trip tickets on the Maine Central Railroad had been sold between Old Town and Bangor, while the trolley company had collected 1.5 million fares in the same period. That was clear evidence that Bangor was Old Town’s “natural marketplace,” he said. All those cotton workers would be coming to Bangor to shop.

What became known as the Big Cotton Exposition or the Cotton Mill Show was announced in the newspapers on May 1. For three days at the end of the month, Bangor merchants would display their wares — especially cotton products — in decorated booths at City Hall, then at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets. But at the center of the show would be a demonstration of cotton mill machinery including a loom powered by electricity. Placed in the center of the city hall auditorium, it would draw attention to the cotton mill proposal.

The extravaganza ran between May 24 and May 26. The decorations in the auditorium consisted of a display of foreign flags, hundreds of colorful Japanese lanterns and incandescent lamps. A large electric sign attached to the proscenium arch flashed the word welcome. The stage was fringed with palms hiding the presence of the musical groups. Plenty of music was provided by the best resident singers employed by Bangor’s growing number of vaudeville and movie houses. The Bangor Band and a string quartet played too.

The great loom, which had been shipped all the way from Boston, attracted a large crowd whenever it was running. All around it in elaborately decorated booths were some of the best products Bangor had to offer. The Bangor Window and Sign Cleaning Company displayed “an interesting demonstration of vacuum cleaners,” while Utterback Bros. exhibited horse blankets, harnesses and carriage fittings made in Bangor.

The grocers J.H. Snow & Company were giving away hundreds of free loaves of Tip Top bread. Smith & West showed off “everything electrical” including the latest in chandeliers and table lights, electric cooking utensils and electric fans. Herrick enamel-lined refrigerators of solid oak were on display by Hodgkins and Fiske Company, while W.C. Bryant was showing off a $1,500 diamond ring as well as much other valuable jewelry. J. Waterman Clothing Company had a line of $15 suits on view, while J.F. Parkhurst & Son Company, the city’s trunk manufacturer, showed a line of wardrobe trunks. Bangor merchants were also running big sales in their stores. People from all over eastern Maine were attracted to Bangor by cut rate train tickets.

The purpose of all these heroic efforts seemed to get lost as the three-day event progressed. The merchant’s displays were getting more attention than the proposed cotton mill. The Bangor Daily News provided a reminder of what the exposition was all about in an editorial on May 25. “Owing to the decadence of the lumber trade, the withdrawal of terminal facilities for the Bangor & Aroostook railroad [to Hermon], the collapse of the [Parker & Peakes] shoe factory and several other unexpected and unfortunate circumstances, Bangor must rely largely upon its suburban towns and cities for its industrial population,” said the editorial writer. The Eastern Manufacturing Company’s plant in South Brewer, the biggest employer in the area, was an example. A cotton mill in Old Town might be another.

“The gradual fading of the lumber industry does not mean stagnation or death. At worst it is no more than a period of transition from the old ways to newer and far better ways,” guessed the writer. We know today that truer words were never spoken. A cotton mill in Old Town, however, was not to be part of the plan.

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 can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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