Bangor merchants a century ago made money by holding commercial fairs selling every manner of goods from automobiles to new-fangled electric appliances and stylish store-bought clothes. People traveled to the Queen City of the East from as far away as Aroostook County to these events in an effort to keep up with the Joneses.
The allure of the annual apple show, however, is harder to understand today in an era when the only place most people look for apples is at the supermarket. The farmers who grew the apples, however, probably made up much of the clientele of this early November event sponsored by the Bangor Chamber of Commerce in cooperation with University of Maine agricultural experts. Bangor rolled out the red carpet.
“Annual Fruit Show: City Hall, Biggest Display of Apples and Preserves Ever Shown in Maine,” said a large display ad in the Bangor Daily News early in November 1913. Back then, Maine apples — and that’s mainly what we are talking about here — packed artistically in barrels and boxes and on plates and set up on long tables at Bangor City Hall were a crowd pleaser. An orchestra played tunes like “When it’s Apple Blossom Time in Normandy,” and a “large assemblage” danced the night away on the final evening of the show.
Thousands of farmers cultivated small orchards in the area, perhaps a trolley or short train ride away from downtown Bangor. The annual fruit show offered a place for growers to learn new techniques and to see how their produce stacked up against other growers in contests sponsored by Bangor merchants.
At the same time, Queen City merchants were trying to attract their money. “Bangor is surrounded by rich farming territory and there is no better asset to the retail business center and no customer more welcome in the store than a farmer and his wife when at the end of the season they come to purchase supplies,” said a speaker at a Bangor Chamber of Commerce event later that month.
Local businesses from Freese’s Department Store to the Bangor Daily Commercial lined up to offer dozens of small monetary prizes for the best apple displays. It’s no surprise that the Bangor Railway and Electric Company, The Bangor & Aroostook and Maine Central railroads along with the Eastern Maine Steamship Company also sponsored prizes. They benefited financially from apple shipments headed for big east coast cities and Europe.
Today we’re lucky to see four or five varieties of apples when we go to the store, but back then there were an astonishing number of varieties available. Ben Davis, Gravensteins, Famuese, Hubbardston, Wagner, Fallwater, Milding, Hurlbut, Rhode Island Greening, Tompkins, King, Yellow, Bellflower, Northern Spy, Nodhead, Wine, McIntosh Red, Stark, Ribson Pippin, Wealthy, Crabapples and a host of other apple types were on display at the fruit show.
Of course, whether the average shopper in Bangor or some other big town got to see many of these on store shelves was another question entirely. As with other agricultural products, the big problem for Maine growers was marketing.
“We have a population in our cities of several hundred thousand people who like apples, who like good apples, and who would buy Maine apples if they could get them,” said John A. Roberts, commissioner of agriculture, in a report to the state pomological society in 1913. “The fact of the case is wherever you go into a city or a large village … we find apples from the states of Washington and Oregon in large quantities displayed in the windows, and taking the place of the fruit that we ought to be putting into the windows of the stores of this state.”
Roberts was pointing out one more example of how during the past few decades the nation had moved West, leaving Maine behind. Stores in the Queen City and other towns found it more profitable to stock western apples than Maine apples.
A few Maine growers had mastered the export business, however, and, in fact, Maine apples were selling in Boston and New York and even Europe. One such grower was Harry Littlefield of Brooks, who won the “sweepstakes prize” that year. He sold apples to all those places. He owned one of the largest orchards in Maine, “having over 3,000 trees.”
Littlefield claimed “Maine apples had a distinctive flavor that cannot be found in the apples of any other state,” said the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 10.
But part of Maine’s marketing problem was that many orchard owners did not take good care of their trees, said Commissioner Roberts, who had a Shakespearean flair when it came to emotional outpourings on the subject of troubled fruits and vegetables.
“A cursory view shows that many orchards are left unpruned, uncultivated and unfertilized — a quick prey to disease and insect pests,” said the commissioner. “Planted in hope, grown in increasing neglect, starving, scraggly, unkempt, a symbol of unthriftiness, many an apple tree stands today … doomed to an early and disgraceful end. And the armies of tent caterpillars and browntail moths are marching on, feeding, devouring, destroying! How long, oh! How long are orchard trees to suffer such neglect?”
A new apple packing and grading law, recently passed by the Legislature, marked the end of a long struggle to prevent the “misbranding and dishonesty in packing apples.” Who wanted to find wormholes in a box of “fancy apples”?
The impact of large variations in apple production caused by the weather was yet another problem. Cold weather cut the yield in half in 1913.
And war was on the horizon, posing another major problem for those apple growers who had been exporting their product to Europe.
“There is no question but that the European war has had a paralyzing effect on the foreign markets as well as our home markets,” reported W.H. Conant, president of the Maine State Pomological Society, in his 1914 report. “Germany in recent years has been a heavy buyer of Maine apples. This trade has been entirely cut off. England, however, has taken a large quantity of apples at a low price; this, with the increase in ocean freight charges.”
Bangor remained faithful to apple growers, however, and the apple growers chose the Queen City as the place to hold their annual conference in November 1914.
In his welcome address, Mayor J.G. Utterback said Maine was making more progress than any other state in commercial, industrial and agricultural lines. All that was needed was more cooperation “to make Maine stand where she should.”
The Bangor Chamber of Commerce had a slogan and Mayor Utterback repeated it proudly for the assembled orchardists: “Boom Maine by eating Maine apples.” With enough booming and cooperation, many people believed, the Pine Tree State could stop the slide that had begun in the production of agricultural products, and put an end to the flood of farm boys who were abandoning the state’s farms for better opportunities in the cities and out west.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the BDN every other Monday. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to George Ricker and Renae Moran for pointing out historical sources on the history of Maine apples. Wayne Reilly’s new book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold.