BANGOR, Maine — The three seventh-grade students had no idea who Al Brady was. They had never heard of his gang. And they certainly knew nothing of his death in downtown Bangor in October 1937.
When the students in Ron Bilancia’s social studies classes at the William S. Cohen School found out about the details, however, they were sold on the prospect of studying one of the most dramatic moments in Bangor’s history.
“I think we were kind of excited about the project because it kind of had to do with crime,” seventh-grader Maria Vanadia said recently while sitting in the Cohen school library with classmates John Emery and Georgia Moir. “It was something more interesting than your typical class. It was something new and interesting.”
Vanadia is one of 120 seventh-graders at the Cohen school and hundreds more students in other Bangor schools — and even more from seven other communities around the state — who participated this year in the Maine Community Heritage Project.
A partnership of the Maine Historical Society and Maine State Library, the project provides opportunities for communities to explore, gather and share their local history. The research done by students and community members eventually leads to building a website on the Maine Memory Network, the Maine Historical Society’s statewide digital museum.
The work of Bangor students and others in the Queen City will be unveiled in a community event at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 2, at Bangor High School. The event is open to the public.
“It’s going to be really cool to see the whole project itself and to see what the website looks like,” Emery said. “We’ve never made a website before so it’s going to be neat to see. I can’t wait to see how many hits we get.”
Biddeford, Blue Hill, Cumberland-North Yarmouth, Guilford, Hallowell, Lincoln and Scarborough were the seven other communities that participated this year, the second year of the project.
The Maine Community Heritage Project was launched with a three-year, $850,000 federal National Leadership Grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Each community team receives up to $7,500 to support the individual projects.
Bangor’s project has been headed up by Bangor High School Librarian Debe Averill. The team is made up of representatives from three city schools, the Bangor Public Library and the Bangor Museum and Center for History.
Each of Bangor’s participating schools and organizations are working on a different aspect of the city’s history and heritage.
Schoolchildren at the James F. Doughty School focused on Bangor in the 1940s. Bangor High students researched the 1911 fire. The Bangor Public Library’s project was the early Bangor railroads, and the Bangor Museum and Center for History’s focus was Bangor and the Civil War.
Bilancia’s students — different groups have worked in different areas during the four quarters of the school year — worked Friday afternoons on their Brady Gang project as part of the Maine studies component of the social studies curriculum.
In their research they used actual newspapers from the time of the Brady Gang events and also met some special guests.
They had a chance to meet the granddaughters of Everett S. “Shep” Hurd, the Bangor sporting goods shop owner credited with helping the FBI thwart the gang.
Vanadia and Moir said they worked on a narrative about Shep Hurd, while Emery helped research the background of the Brady Gang.
Local historian Dick Shaw also spoke to the classes about the Brady Gang.
Other community members, such as Bill Cook of the Bangor Public Library, Dana Lippett of the Bangor Museum and History Center, Shaw and Bangor resident Carolyn Ziffer visited Bilancia’s classroom to talk about the Brady Gang, life in the 1930s, how to do research, and how to handle primary-source documents.
“You have to make sure the information is adequate and right-on,” Moir said of the importance of good research. “Otherwise people will get mixed up when they read it, and they won’t know the real story.”
Cohen school librarian Priscilla Soucie helped the students upload information to the website.
Bilancia said that at the Cohen school, the limited time for the project and sheer number of students involved allowed for only a surface reading of the era. Bilancia, however, has been pleased with that approach.
“The beauty of it here has been that students have had a real variety of tasks and experiences,” he said. “We’ve been able to broaden the focus from the Brady Gang to life in the 1930s and other things in and around the Great Depression era.”