WAYNE E. REILLY

Straw hats, ice wagons — long gone signs of spring

Wagons carrying tanks of water sprinkled the streets of Bangor to keep down the dust.
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Wagons carrying tanks of water sprinkled the streets of Bangor to keep down the dust.
Posted May 27, 2012, at 9:33 p.m.

Springtime in Bangor a century ago was a glory to behold. Robin sightings and lilac blossoms still dominated no doubt. The brief balmy season ahead, however, was foretold by other signs we’ve all but forgotten. Men in straw hats were among the earliest.

“Although the first venturesome individuals have already made their appearance on Bangor streets in straw hats, the majority of men hereabouts are waiting for the advent of warmer weather before coming out in the new creations which are being shown this year by the local hat dealers,” the Bangor Daily Commercial announced on May 14, 1912.

“Broadly speaking there is not a great deal of difference in the smart straw hat of 1912 from the summer headgear worn last year. They are all inclined to be broad of brim and low of crown and the sailor styles — ‘bloaters,’ they are called in England — predominate.” The correct term was “boater,” but perhaps someone was being humorous. Everyone knew a “bloater” was a large mackerel or herring lightly smoked and salted.

With their straw hats firmly planted on their heads, the wealthier young men or their chauffeurs were getting their automobiles out of storage. As soon as the streets were clear of ice, snow and mud, automobiles were sputtering and backfiring and scaring horses after a winter in the barn. A decade before, hardly any autos had bumped and groaned along the streets of the city. But by 1912, the number of “machines” was increasing dramatically, although horses still dominated.

The manager of the city’s largest garage, the Bangor Motor Company, which sold Pierce Arrows and Cadillacs, said its sales had increased 30 percent since last year, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 4. In the same story, the S. L. Crosby Company was able to tell the newspaper the names of more than 30 people from the Bangor area who had recently purchased Ford touring cars and runabouts. The problem was not selling cars; it was getting them from the factory fast enough to meet the demand.

The rapid increase in autos caused problems. The police felt obliged to launch “a crusade against reckless driving,” announced the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 3, even though they had no police car to chase the offenders.

From all the traffic — the rapidly growing number of automobiles as well as the horsey kind — emanated another serious springtime problem: the “dust nuisance,” as the Commercial described it in a story on May 3. The dirt roads that crisscrossed the city produced clouds of dust in dry weather. The dust, which coated buildings and pedestrians alike, caused great fear in this era when tuberculosis was known as “The White Plague.” Many complaints were phoned in to City Hall that spring. Officials didn’t get around to awarding street sprinkling contracts until May 20.

The return of the ice wagon, one of the many commercial vehicles raising dust, was another sure sign of spring.

“Although there are customers who take ice the year round and most of the local ice companies run from two to four teams all winter, the business then is small compared to what it will be from now on,” said the Commercial on May 4. By the first of May, “the weather gets so warm that food will not keep in most people’s refrigerators without the ice box being filled.”

A cake of ice weighing about 30 pounds was sufficient, said the reporter. This ice — “between 25,000 and 30,000 tons … every season” was cut from the Penobscot River and the Kenduskeag Stream by several local companies including the Bangor Ice Co., Citizens’ Ice Co. and Getchell Bros. Some people had their ice boxes filled every morning, while others got by on two or three blocks a week.

Perhaps the most remarkable sign of spring a century ago was the large army of rootless men moving across the landscape on the railroads. For many of these hoboes, the destination was Bangor, Maine, and every year they created a big hubbub when they arrived.

“CAMPAIGN AGAINST HOBOES IS NOW ON,” blared a headline in the Bangor Daily News on April 22. “There are too many hoboes in the city and we are going to try to make their stay here unpleasant,” announced Police Chief Frank Davis. A man could be arrested for vagrancy simply for hanging around without enough cash in his pocket.

The complaints were legion, however, when these “knights of the road” started knocking at the back doors of some of the finer homes seeking a handout. Occasionally, they stole food or other items. That spring one of them, a certain William Allen of Lynn, Mass., was sentenced to 90 days for stealing an umbrella that was sitting near the front door of Dr. J. F. Starrett’s house on State Street. Others, like John Gallagher of Halifax, were given 60 days for begging food.

Chief Davis was especially incensed that hoboes were taking up residence at the YMCA’s men’s shelter on Washington Street, apparently one of the city’s tramp magnets.

“It solves the problem of life without work for many of them,” Davis told a Commercial reporter.

The mission was intended for woodsmen back from the logging camps and the river drives who had gone broke before finding another job, but it was said the hoboes were crowding them out. How anyone could tell the difference between a hobo and a penniless woodsman is never explained, although the police seemed to have it all figured out.

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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