Some family valuables survived Bangor’s Great Fire in funeral director’s hearse

Posted May 06, 2011, at 2:49 p.m.

April 30 marked the 100th anniversary of the Great Bangor Fire of 1911 and, thanks to a lot of research by BDN staff and others, readers had the opportunity, through a special section devoted to the fire and stories published in our paper on that anniversary date, to learn more about the history of that event and how it shaped the Bangor of today.

And while many stories have been written about the Bangor fire, I am privileged to tell you one that has not been publicly told: how local funeral director Ralph B. White was able to save some special family pieces before his business and the family home at 48 Center St. went up in flames.

The story, of course, has been told and retold many times through the years, and the tale I now relate is as remembered by his grandchildren: my husband and his grandfather’s namesake, Ralph White, and my sister-in-law Judy White Boothby.

Ralph and Judy’s father, John White, was born in July 1907, and was not quite 4 years old at the time of the fire.

The White family home and business were located at the very top of Center Street hill.

The funeral business was in the basement.

The White family lived on the first floor, and tenants lived on the second floor.

According to family lore, the day the fire broke out, the Whites did not anticipate the fire coming their way and were quite unprepared to evacuate.

But when winds began fanning the flames and sending the fire across Kenduskeag Stream, the Whites realized the fire was spreading and made frenzied attempts to remove items from the house.

Grandfather White, obviously a quick-thinking and wise man, decided they’d try to save what they could by filling up the horse-drawn hearse.

We do not know why, but the room that got cleaned out, to the best of their ability, was the dining room.

Saved were many linens, silverware, dishes and more, three dining room chairs (enough, perhaps for the three-member family) and the indentured servitude papers of a White forefather, Thomas Sherry, who came to this country with that certificate in hand in 1823 from England.

As the flames crept closer and they had gathered what they could, Grandmother White, wearing her favorite hat and carrying young John in her arms, began running away from the fire, up Center Street.

As she ran, someone called out to her: “Lady! Your hat is on fire!”

Burning ashes from the fire had settled on her favorite chapeau, so there was nothing she could do but pull it off, throw it to the ground, and keep on running.

In the meantime, Grandfather White grabbed the reins and drove the horse and hearse out Valley Avenue, where he left the hearse and returned to town with the horse.

Grandfather White knew what he was doing by leaving the family treasures in the hearse: It stayed on Valley Avenue for one week. Untouched.

Ralph and Judy believe their grandfather knew well how superstitious people were about death and hearses in those days, and that they would neither approach it nor open it to find out what was inside.

A man of relatively small stature and quiet demeanor, Grandfather White had never encountered a problem while driving the horse-drawn hearse anywhere in the Queen City, even in its roughest neighborhoods.

So the items remained safe in the hearse until they were retrieved.

The Whites stayed with friends in the Little City area until their home and business was rebuilt, in the same location at the top of Center Street.

Judy recalls her father telling her there was so much scrap lumber and other materials all over the city after the fire that youngsters invented toys and games to use it up.

For example, she said, the family had, for many years, a pair of stilts made from remains of the fire that were passed on to one of her children, but “boys being boys,” she said, those stilts no longer exist.

Grandfather White later took on a partner, and the funeral business became White and Hayes, which has long been associated with disposing of the remains of members of the notorious Brady Gang, who met a fateful end in a 1937 shootout with the FBI on Central Street in Bangor.

The items in the hearse have been dispersed throughout the family and are still in use.

You can view one of the chairs that the hearse protected (and which still graces our dining room table) at the “Fire!” exhibit curated by Bangor historian Dick Shaw and now open at 73 Central St.

Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; javerill@bangordailynews.com; 990-8288.

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