Bangor reformers targeted shocking conditions

Posted April 03, 2011, at 8:51 p.m.
University of Maine economics and sociology professor Robert J. Sprague wanted to beautify communities across Maine by planting trees and bushes and keeping streets clean.
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University of Maine economics and sociology professor Robert J. Sprague wanted to beautify communities across Maine by planting trees and bushes and keeping streets clean.

The Queen City of the East was flowering in reform efforts a century ago as the Progressive Era bloomed across America. Some groups, such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Anti-Tuberculosis Association, had specific agendas. Others, such as the Twentieth Century Club, an organization of young businessmen, picked their battles, from the enforcement of prostitution laws to advocacy of a law banning public drinking cups in schools.

Immigrants, loggers, juvenile delinquents and paupers all had their advocates, while public institutions such as the jail and the poorhouse were targeted.

Jane Addams, Jacob Riis and other nationally known reformers gave lectures in Bangor. Local leaders also emerged onto the crowded public stage. They included ministers and professors, club women and even an occasional politician. This column is about three such individuals whose advocacy received extensive coverage in the Bangor newspapers in 1910 and the beginning of 1911.

The Rev. Charles H. Cutler of the First Congregational Church called for an end to “inhuman” conditions at the Penobscot County Jail after walking through the institution. His Sunday sermon on the subject was published in part in Bangor’s two daily newspapers on Oct. 31, 1910. SHOCKING CONDITIONS IN THE BANGOR JAIL, said the headline in the Bangor Daily News. “Womanhood Degraded and Young Men Exposed to Evil Influence.” The jail was grossly overcrowded. Boys were put in cells with hardened criminals. Women’s quarters were too close to the men’s, and there was no female jail attendant.

Prisoners totaling 140 were crowded into a space built for 70. “In cells designed for two men, five were now sleeping, with barely room enough in the space eight feet square for five mattresses. Each cell, [Cutler] said, is lighted by one small, barred window in the corridor, is very poorly ventilated, and with scarcely any sanitary conveniences whatever.” (“Sanitary facilities” in the cells consisted of  “small pails,” according to another story about the findings of a state prison inspector published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 7. There was no mention of running water, which was still a luxury in many homes. )

Many of those incarcerated had been convicted only of drunkenness, by far the most common crime of the era, or no crime at all. Some were in jail because they could not pay bail or because they were being held as witnesses. It would take decades to sort out many of these issues.

Another crusading Bangor minister was the Rev. Alva Roy Scott of the Unitarian church. MAKE BANGOR the CLEANEST CITY!” he exhorted from the pulpit, according to the Bangor Daily News on March 27, 1911. That was the way to fight tuberculosis and other ills.

Scott’s target was Bangor’s “bad housing which tends to impair the physical or moral health of the tenant; where there is lack of water drainage or sewage; where the yards are … sodden, foul smelling; where old suds and dishwater stand in slimy pools; where there are ashes piled up, garbage and rubbish and decayed outbuildings.”

Like the Rev. Cutler, the Rev. Scott had done some sleuthing. “I am convinced by frequent tramps through all parts of the city that there is more unfit housing than most of us are aware … . Not far off is a street with a row of houses fairly well built, ashes and rubbish, old barrels and culch are in front crowding upon the sidewalk. Children are playing here and tracking indoors … .” Most of the inhabitants were immigrants.

Scott believed, “Every child brought up in an unfit tenement is a probable consumptive and a possible pauper or criminal.” He seemed more interested in the yards around these tenements than in their interiors, however.

One could almost call Robert J. Sprague, a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Maine, a professional reformer, so broad were his interests and so frequently were his opinions covered by the Bangor newspapers. In pieces in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 7, 1910, and the Commercial on March 2, 1911, he proposed a wide-ranging reform agenda for the state of Maine for the next 10 years leading up to the centennial of its statehood in 1920.

Beautification of country homes, school and church yards, railroad stations and town centers was high on his list, with the planting of trees and bushes a top priority. Not only would they improve the looks of the barren wastelands that characterized many communities, but they also would protect people from the clouds of  dust containing dried horse dung, TB germs and other noxious substances believed to reside in the dirt roads of the day.

Clearing the streets was another of Sprague’s priorities. “Grocers and other merchants often dump piles of boxes, barrels, paper and other waste beside their buildings, disfiguring the street and scattering rubbish. Cordwood is often piled along the village streets and old burned trees and debris is often allowed to lie around for months or years after a village fire,” said the professor.

Sprague also targeted “hideous” roadside advertising, idle prisoners, the lack of vocational education (“schools of enginry” where students could learn how to service the new gas-powered engines), dirt sidewalks, rutted roads, unhealthy drinking water that caused typhoid and more.

“The state has much to say about what the people will not drink, but does not make much provision for what it shall drink. For everyone that dies of alcoholism, 25 die of typhoid …,” noted Dr. Sprague. Such were conditions in Bangor and other cities back in the “good old days.”

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday.  An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com

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