What happened to Labor Day — the monster parades and brass bands, the worker pride, the bombastic speeches about the “honor and dignity” of laboring men and women? Here’s a glimpse of what used to go on in Bangor.
On Labor Day, 1912, between 800 and 1,000 workingmen representing different labor unions marched through the Queen City accompanied by floats, bands and elected dignitaries courting their votes. Twenty-five thousand cheering spectators lined the streets, one of the city’s newspapers estimated. Even the governor of Maine turned out, offering kind words for the trade union movement.
The parade began at Broadway and State Street. After making innumerable loops and detours it ended up at what people were now calling Post Office Square (formerly East Market Square until the city decided to build a new post office there after the big fire of a year ago).
The bricklayers, masons and plasterers union, 125 men strong, marched in double file wearing matching white suits and caps and carrying canes tipped with the “symbolic trowel and hammer” over their shoulders. Their float displayed a partially constructed brick building and a model of a long-armed crane so realistic that smoke poured from a furnace under the hoisting engine. The blue cloth around the edge of the float was embroidered with the proud words “We build cities.”
Twenty-five men from the Orono Pulp and Paper Company, all wearing “unique paper caps,” 70 Bangor cigarmakers with badges and a red union banner, and 40 iron moulders wearing blue shirts with white letters — I.M.U. – 101 — under a banner of blue marched along.
Particularly striking were the members of the local typographers union. “The printers wore dark coats and white duck trousers, straight-brimmed straw hats of a single style, and carried slender canes all of a type,” reported the Bangor Daily News the next morning. White boutonnieres in their lapels over light green badges finished their outfits. A small, horned boy dressed all in red carrying a pitchfork played the role of a printer’s devil. A banner said “Bangor Daily News: Largest Circulation in Maine. Eight Hours.” Eight hours referred to the length of the work day the printers had negotiated with their bosses. That was back when many workers still worked a six-day, 60-hour week.
Old Town carpenters, Augusta bricklayers, Hallowell quarrymen, Augusta loom-fixers, Millinocket paper makers and firemen from several communities were there. The only women in the procession were “twenty young ladies dressed in white with purple sashes” on the float belonging to the Augusta boot and shoe workers union, noted a newspaper reporter.
Bands playing Sousa marches kept the procession moving at a military pace. At Chapin Park, the men fell out to listen to an address by Gov. Frederick W. Plaisted. He delivered a ringing endorsement of labor unions.
He said, “I believe in organized labor. I believe in the trades union because it is striving for the uplift of mankind. It aims to get for all workingmen a fair living wage; it wants good homes for the people, good schools for the children, the making of better, more loyal citizens for the State.”
He urged labor and capital to mend their differences and unite for the common good. This was back when strikes sometimes ended in murder and mayhem, producing some of the bloodiest spectacles in American history. Bomb-throwing anarchists and other radicals were believed by some to be trying to take over the movement. Some industrialists hired armed thugs during strikes to motivate workers to get back on the job.
Athletic events were held in the afternoon. Andrew Sockalexis, the Olympic runner from Indian Island, won the five-mile race at Maplewood Park (Bass Park today), while another Penobscot Indian, Sylvester Francis, described as Sockalexis’ protege, won a longer race between Winterport and the park.
The Bangor Tarratines defeated the Millinocket Red Sox at Maplewood’s baseball diamond. Many other athletic events were held including firefighting competitions — a hand tub contest and a hose reel competition involving teams from as far away as Lubec and Brunswick.
Excursion trains from all over Maine offered reduced rates and special schedules to people who wanted to come to Bangor. The newspapers announced the city’s numerous illegal saloons had been ordered closed for the day, although undoubtedly a thirsty fellow could still find a drink with a little effort. Several vaudeville houses and movie theaters were available to the bored or weary.
Bangor was indeed a magnet then. Today most people use their freedom — their access to automobiles and mass transportation — to escape the city, not come here. Lakeside camps, power boats and ATVs are available to those with modest incomes — incomes that would have seemed like a fortune to workers a century ago.
As for the honor and dignity of workingmen and women and their labor unions, we’ll have to rely on the ghost voices of the past, Gov. Plaisted and others, to tell us about that.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.