WAYNE E. REILLY

Andrew Sockalexis won Bangor’s Thanksgiving race a century ago

Posted Nov. 26, 2011, at 3:37 p.m.
Andrew Sockalexis, Penobscot Indian running star, and two of his trophies at the height of his career.
Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission
Andrew Sockalexis, Penobscot Indian running star, and two of his trophies at the height of his career.

Thanksgiving Day was a social event a century ago in Bangor. People got out of the house to participate in some of the numerous entertainment activities. In 1911, you could see a live performance of the famous play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at the Bangor Opera House, or the latest movies at the Nickel and the Graphic theaters. You could roller skate and attend boxing matches at the Bangor Auditorium. At City Hall, you could dance to Pullen’s Orchestra courtesy of the Ladies Auxiliary of Congregation Beth Israel or you could attend the Hammond Street Church Fair.

Knowing what I know today, I would have attended the YMCA’s cross-country race, which featured a “Real Marathoner,” according to a Bangor Daily News headline. He was 19-year-old Andrew Sockalexis, the Penobscot Indian running sensation. Within a few short months the Indian Island native would be making international headlines. (Don’t confuse Andrew with his cousin Louis, the famous baseball player.)

Andrew Sockalexis had burst on the sports scene the previous April when he placed 17th in the Boston Marathon, a startling accomplishment for a virtual unknown. Area sports fans were excited. Someone wrote to the Bangor Daily News suggesting a race be organized for Memorial Day showcasing the unknown running phenomenon. Instead, Sockalexis appeared with his own cheering section for the Thanksgiving Day event.

“Sockalexis is picked as the winner if he runs with the form displayed in the Boston and Brockton Fair Marathons and, as many are anxious to see the Indian in action, the affair is of more importance than usual,” reported the Bangor Daily News Thanksgiving morning. At the well-known Brockton event, Sockalexis had placed third.

At 9:40 a.m., the eight runners lined up on Hammond Street. Sockalexis was wearing a black and orange stocking cap. His chief contender, “the only man to be feared by the red skin,” was Harold Barton, a Bangor High School football player, the newspaper said.

At the crack of the starting pistol, the group raced off down Hammond Street and through Franklin Street. Starting up Harlow Street, the runners were pretty well bunched together, but Sockalexis took the lead just after passing Prospect Street. Out Valley and Kenduskeag avenues to Griffin Road, the contest gradually became a one-man show. By the time the “red-hued flyer had passed the steep hill beyond Bull’s Eye bridge,” his gain was of such size that Barton was no longer a serious contestant. The gap widened as they sped down Ohio Street toward the finish.

“The Indian was running splendidly, but those accompanying the runners were waiting for Barton’s expected spurt,” noted the newspaper. “There was nothing doing in this line and sometime before Sockalexis turned into Court Street, it was evident that his was the victory.”

Massed in front of the YMCA building were a host of spectators, including a group of Sockalexis’ admirers. “Smilingly, the boy … smashed the tape.” He said he could have run many more miles. The newspaper noted, “His condition was excellent.” He had finished the race in 30 minutes and 17 seconds, two minutes in front of Harold Barton.

An automobile had accompanied the runners along the route. Besides YMCA officials and a reporter or two, it contained Francis Sockalexis, the runner’s father, and Thomas J. Daley, his coach. Francis was reputedly quite a runner in his day, and he is credited with having inspired his son.

The prizes included gym shoes and stockings, a pair of gloves, a box of chocolates and other trifles from local businesses. Sockalexis’ award was a sweater from Miller & Webster Clothing Company. Doubtlessly, the pride he felt at bringing home this triumph for his family and his people was his greatest reward.

The lead on the Bangor Daily Commercial’s story the next afternoon summed it up: “Speeding along the hard frozen road like a dusky phantom, Andrew Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Old Town won the YMCA marathon Thanksgiving forenoon, defeating Harold Barton, the nimble legged high school football player….”

The “dusky phantom,” was only getting warmed up. Andrew Sockalexis’ meteoric career would culminate within the next two years, garnering two second places in the Boston Marathon and a fourth place at the Olympics. Then he would be struck with tuberculosis — the Great White Plague — and spend the last few years of his life fighting that dread disease before dying in obscurity.

He would be virtually forgotten until modern times, like a phantom, never having had a chance to achieve his full potential as one of Maine’s greatest athletes. I have no doubt that Andrew Sockalexis would have eventually won the Boston event and become a medalist in the Olympics had his health remained.

For anyone wishing a more thorough account of Andrew Sockalexis’ life, I recommend Ed Rice’s well-researched book “Native Trailblazer: Andrew Sockalexis, Penobscot Indian who followed the Maine running path to glory and tragedy.”

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 can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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