by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff
Newspapers are repositories of history, recording it as it happens. Much of that history is about state, national and world events, on topics that focus on the workings of government, and social and cultural issues.
But a significant amount of that history is local in nature, chronicling the comings and goings of ordinary people who might not otherwise leave a paper trail, except for birth, marriage and death dates.
And that’s one reason “Hidden History of Bangor; From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era” by Wayne E. Reilly of Hampden is such fun to read.
“I’ve been writing the column for 10 years this October so in that sense it took a decade to put this book (and my first book collection in 2009) together for The History Press. The mechanical part of the process of compiling the book took only a few months. The hardest part was choosing the best columns to include, subdividing them by subject matter into chapters, and assembling photographs. Dick Shaw, Bangor’s historic photo expert, as well as Bill Cook and Elizabeth Stevens at the Bangor Public Library, and Dana Lippitt at the Bangor Museum and History Center have been immensely helpful,” Reilly said.
Reilly, a freelance columnist for the Bangor Daily News who worked as a reporter and editor for 28 years at that same paper, trolled through vintage issues of the NEWS and the Bangor Daily Commercial on microfilm as the source material for the 45 columns that comprise his book. The columns, arranged in seven sections in the book, cover advances in technology, the movie theaters of the era, tragedies, the fire of 1911, what made Bangor laugh, the war on liquor and reformers who strove to make life better for the disadvantaged.
From the very first page of Reilly’s book, the reader is transported backward in time to the early 1900s in Bangor, when the city and its residents saw the advent of inventions, such as electric lights, airplanes and automobiles, inventions that transformed the lives of everyone.
Reilly’s writing style reflects his background as a journalist — concise and well-paced — but laced with a humorous take on the material he has mined from the newspapers of the early 1900s.
The section, “The Great Fire of 1911,” is one of my favorites in the book because the seven stories in it function as a narrative of the fire and its immediate and long-term aftermath. He places the fire in context, commenting that other towns in Maine suffered similar fires that leveled businesses and homes. And he writes about the “shack stores” that Bangor businessmen, whose stores were destroyed by the fire, erected almost as soon as the ashes cooled in order to carry on commerce.
Other topics in the book include Aunt Hatt (a lady with a shady reputation), the first automobile in Bangor, the flight of the first airplane over the city, a gas explosion in downtown and the escape of the mayor’s pet pig, and so much more that makes for enjoyable reading.
The book is amply illustrated by another of Bangor’s hidden treasures, the photo archives owned by Bangor historian, Richard R. Shaw, who worked for many years as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News. Photos I found of particular interest are those of ordinary people seated amid the few sticks of furniture they were able to save from the fire of 1911, an employment agency for lumbermen, city residents aboard a trolley, interior and exterior shots of the Bijou Theater, an automobile show and the terminal of the Eastern Steamship Company on the Penobscot.
“Hidden History of Bangor” is a must-read for those who love local history or want to starting learning about about it.
“As for my newspaper column, I continue to receive personal email from people all over the country thanks to the Internet. Frequently, I hear from senior citizens who were somehow connected to the events I write about. Sometimes I even hear from descendants of the relatively unknown people who populate the columns,” Reilly said.
Reilly also is the author of “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” “The Diaries of Sarah Jane and Emma Ann Foster: A Year in Maine During the Civil War” and “Sarah Jane Foster: Teacher of the Freedmen.”
For information about “Hidden History of Bangor” or to obtain copies, inquire at local bookstores and libraries, or go to historypress.net.