Bangoreans revived ‘monster’ shoe factory

Posted May 16, 2010, at 6:26 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

The Bangor Chamber of Commerce was founded a century ago this spring. It immediately set the ambitious goal of resurrecting the old Parker & Peakes shoe factory, which had put hundreds of employees out of work when it closed its doors the year before.

Today, economic development is a complicated affair conducted by people who are knowledgeable in such arcane sciences as economics, job creation, government aid, public relations and the like. A century ago people’s minds were less burdened. Attracting a big shoe factory to Bangor was seen as only a matter of determination and pride that could be accomplished if everyone put his shoulder to the wheel. Hard work and local investment would lead to success.

The “monster building” that had housed Parker & Peakes was located on Hancock Street between Oak and French streets. It was Bangor’s biggest factory, and it was the biggest shoe mill in Maine “under one roof,” the Industrial Journal had said in 1901. Many of the immigrants who lived in the area doubtless worked there.

Shortly after the factory went into receivership, Frank H. Drummond, a wealthy Bangor businessman, purchased it. He had raised some of the capital needed to restart the factory, but not enough. In April 1910, Drummond joined his efforts with those of the new Chamber of Commerce. The plan was to use local money invested by local businessmen to create a locally owned company less vulnerable to the manipulation of out-of-state industrial forces with no interest in Bangor other than profit.

The plan, as announced in Bangor’s two daily newspapers on April 26, contained these points. “The sum of $100,000 must be subscribed before Saturday night, April 30, or the present opportunity to re-open the Parker & Peakes factory will be gone forever,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial. One thousand shares of stock would be sold for $100 each. The money would be collected in installments over six months. A dollar then was worth more than $20 today.

The new company would buy the factory from Drummond for $25,000. A manager, W.E. Rollins of Natick, Mass., who had successfully operated other shoe companies, already had been engaged. Both Drummond and Rollins also would be major investors. The new stockholders would select a board of directors, but their choices would be subject to approval by the Chamber of Commerce for the first year.

The Bangor Daily News added, “Unless the $100,000 is subscribed by Saturday night the factory will be dismantled as Mr. Drummond has already given an option on the machinery in case the money is not furnished by that time.”

As the days went by, the race to collect $100,000 turned into a soap opera. By April 29, the Chamber of Commerce was still short.

IS BANGOR TO LOSE THIS INDUSTRY, asked a hysterical headline in the Bangor Daily News. “Shoe Factory, Which Means So Much, Now Hangs in the Balance.” An unidentified businessman said, “If the factory doesn’t reopen, it will be the worst blow that Bangor has had in years, and, in my opinion, will put a quietus on efforts to build up the city and enliven business in the future. … If we let this big chance go by, there isn’t much chance for the future.” He envisioned a payroll of $2,000 to $4,000 (employing 500 to 600 workers) that would put cash in the pockets of every merchant in the city.

A BIG QUESTION DECIDED TODAY, said the newspaper the next morning. “Great Local Industry Depends on Subscriptions of the Next 12 Hours.” The story noted that Morse & Co., the city’s premier wood products business, had bought 10 shares of stock for $1,000. Everyone needed to pitch in the same way. “One good hearty pull together is going to land us an important industry. It would seem a sin to allow it to escape,” a Chamber of Commerce leader told the newspaper.

TIME LIMIT HAS BEEN EXTENDED, the Bangor Daily News announced Monday morning. “Few Days of Grace on Shoe Factory Proposition — Must Hustle, However.” Drummond, who already had made numerous concessions, had allowed the quest one more week. New buzzwords were being added to the Chamber’s battery of arguments: “It will be seen that the factory will be a distinctly home industry of semi-public character,” said the newspaper. In other words, no trusts, no holding companies, no monopolies, or capitalists otherwise from outside Bangor would be involved.

The next day, the newspaper revealed that practically $70,000 of stock had been sold in “this semi-public industry.” Canvassing committees were out in force looking for “capitalists who mean business,” huffed an editorial on May 5.

By Friday, the reopening was almost assured. Only $3,000 was left to raise. The next day, Saturday, was a bright day indeed. SHOE FACTORY IS NOW A CERTAINTY, proclaimed Bangor Daily News. “Only $700 Lacking …”

The paper provided a full list — 85 in all — of the subscribers so far. At the top was Drummond, having invested $25,000. Rollins was second with $15,000. The runners-up with $5,000 each included Dr. T.U. Coe, Edward H. Blake and John R. Graham. Among the smaller donors were A. Langdon Freese, the owner of the big department store, F.W. Cram, president of the Bangor & Aroostook Rail Road, W.E. Mansur, the well-known architect. Many of the city’s premier companies, including Louis Kirstein & Sons, the real estate developers, Wood & Ewer, the stove manufacturers, and both daily newspapers had jumped on board. There was room for small investors too. A block of $10,000 worth of stock had been purchased by a group of 100 “young men” organized as the Associated Shoe Manufacturers.

The Chamber of Commerce approved the new company’s board of directors on May 9, terminating its connection with the project. Drummond was named president. The Bangor Daily News cheered on May 17: “This new factory is distinctively a Bangor factory. A modern manufacturing concern that is not only financed with Bangor money, but which is to make shoes for Bangor people to buy and wear and advertise in the wearing. … From now on it is for us … to ‘root’ faithfully for Bangor shoes at all times.”

On July 8, the first machinery for the new Bangor Shoe Co., as it was named, started running. The “monster building” was producing again. But less than two years later the firm went into receivership once more. It took more than boosterism to keep a shoe factory going.

There would be more shoe factories to come as Bangor gradually produced (and then lost) a thriving shoe industry, employing 1,600 people by the 1950s. Forces far beyond the boundaries of the Queen City would dictate the fate of shoemaking here.

An illustrated 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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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