Which goes faster — an aeroplane or an auto? How about an ostrich or a horse? Such weighty issues having to do with speeding creatures and gasoline engines were fascinating to the folks who attended the Eastern Maine State Fair in Bangor a century ago.
They came by the thousands in late August 1913 to see whether a Curtis biplane or a Stutz runabout would win a race around the fairground’s horse track. A bevy of ostriches from Tampa, Fla., were on hand, and they just might race a race horse, believed a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial. Their antics were always unpredictable.
Meanwhile, of course, horse races were a daily event. That’s why the fairground existed in the first place.
Founded in a farm field in 1883, Maplewood Park (renamed Bass Park years later after Bangor Daily Commercial publisher Joseph P. Bass, who owned the property and was one of the men who founded the park) was built to host an agricultural fair and trotting races.
By 1913 it was still a pretty low-technology affair. There were only three rides — a merry-go-round, a 50-foot-high Ferris wheel and a new attraction called the ocean-wave (known as a pirate ship ride today, according to Wikipedia). The only music was produced by the merry-go-round and by the Bangor Band, which gave rousing afternoon concerts, said the Commercial.
Plenty of noise resounded on the midway, however, because of the “flannel mouthed barkers,” as they were referred to by the Bangor Daily News. The cluster of tents displayed big, colorful canvas signs advertising exotic freak shows, “hoop-la” games, dancing girls and refreshments, including Uno beer. King Wee Wee, a midget, was attracting a lot of attention in the press.
An acrobatic show, the Flying Dordens, performed on a superstructure erected in front of the grandstand. But agricultural exhibits, arts and craft displays and horse racing still were major attractions. It would be a long time before the midway and its grating noises came to dominate the fair for most attendees.
Up to 10,000 people a day flooded into the park by excursion train and buckboards. So many people came by automobile that a special column was devoted to listing their names and addresses in the Bangor Daily Commercial.
An area where families could pitch their tents and park their teams existed in the field at the rear of the agricultural pavilion. Meanwhile, an army of policemen patrolled the grounds looking for pickpockets, pocket peddlers, gambling games and immoral shows, which would hardly merit a glance by today’s standards.
Aeroplane flights were gradually replacing balloon jumping at fairs, although they still existed side by side in 1913. Daily balloon flights alternated with aeroplane exhibitions.
Frank J. Terrill, the daredevil aviator, and his Curtis biplane had signed up to make two flights a day before moving on to fairs in Presque Isle and Cherryfield. Terrill would be dead by next year, the victim of an air crash at a county fair in South Carolina. Such was the fate of many early aeronauts, the gladiators of their day, who defied the odds to thrill fairgoers.
Terrill was referred to in the newspapers as “the fair aviator,” as if his position was a regular job at Bangor fairs going way back. In fact, Bangoreans had witnessed the first successful aeroplane flight over the city just the year before. The famous Harry Atwood had been hired by Queen City merchants to show the world the city had recovered from the terrible fire of 1911.
Seeing one of the fragile double-winged birds buzzing over Maplewood Park would remain an exciting novelty for most people for years to come.
AVIATOR TERRILL MADE A WONDERFUL FLIGHT, declared the Bangor Daily Commercial on Wednesday, Aug. 27. The Bangor Daily News noted Terrill, whose flight lasted 14 minutes, “soared about in every direction in his machine reaching an altitude of more than 3,500 feet and cutting wide circles around the park.”
Later in the afternoon, “birdman” Terrill took off again. This time his flight turned into a race against a Stutz auto driven by L.P. Swett, a local car dealer known for his feats riding bicycles in the 1890s and autos in the next decade. It was the first such race ever seen in Bangor, declared the papers.
The Stutz could go between 60 and 70 mph, but the plane could reach speeds of 75 mph or more 300 feet above the track, it was said in one of the papers. Swett had the advantage on curves, but his race car was no match for Terrill on the straightaway.
The Bangor Daily News declared the plane the winner in the two-mile contest, but the Commercial’s reporter was more ambiguous in his assessment, perhaps realizing the futility of picking a victor in such a strange race.
The next day, the spectacle was repeated. This time Terrill was competing against a Reo driven by Charles D. Snow, one of Swett’s employees. “Again the aeroplane won,” declared the Bangor Daily News.
An imagined match involving a racing ostrich, meanwhile, never materialized. The rumor of such a race had probably taken wing because of the events that occurred the last time Ford’s Ostrich Farm of Tampa, Fla., had visited the Bangor fair in 1907.
An appearance by Fleetfoot, a racing ostrich, at that time had ended in disaster. The ostrich had been matched up against a race horse, but before reaching the finish line the disgruntled bird had thrown his rider, spraining his shoulder, according to Clark P. Thompson, the historian of Bass Park. Afterwards the troublesome ostrich was hooked to a four-wheel sulky to tow around the track.
The ostriches that arrived at the fair in 1913 were also from the Ford farm in Tampa. They were kept in a large enclosure and demonstrations were confined to “the riding of the big birds by a boy” who circled the area “at a tremendous rate of speed, although not as fast as the bird would go if out in the open where he could get his stride,” according to a report in the Commercial. Educational lectures about the lives of ostriches rounded out the entertainment.
The result of all this racing about was educational as well as entertaining. Many of the rural folks who came to the fair from as far away as Aroostook County had never seen an aeroplane fly, and some had never seen an automobile. Doubtlessly, only a few knew what an ostrich was, and the idea one might race their old horse back on the farm was a wonder to think about.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new illustrated collection of his columns, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.