Bangoreans had a great respect for the athletic abilities of Native Americans a century ago. The exploits of the Carlisle Indian School football team in Pennsylvania and its great star Jim Thorpe were legendary, having defeated the best college teams in the nation.
The accomplishments of professional baseball player Louis Sockalexis and his cousin, Olympic runner Andrew Socklaxeis, both Penobscot Indians from Old Town, were well known to Bangor sports fans.
So when a group of “husky Indians” from Indian Island descended on Maplewood (later Bass) Park on Thanksgiving Day 1913, to play football against what we can presume were an equally husky group of Bangor boys, hundreds of people turned out to see who would win. The Indians were reportedly “snappy and tricky” and “equipped with Carlisle formations and plays and coached to the minute, having practiced every day for some weeks,” warned the Bangor Daily News.
That morning a team representing the Bangor Athletic Association had easily outclassed a Brewer team 20 to 0. In the afternoon, a second team calling itself the Bangor Kokomos appeared on the Maplewood gridiron to face the Penobscots. The results were anything but certain as the report published in the Bangor Daily News the next morning demonstrated.
The invasion of a large group of “husky Indians” into the mostly white precinct of the Queen City of the East undoubtedly was watched nervously. Could local boys with names like Sweeney, McManus, Ford and Spellman uphold the honor of the Queen City of the East against Neptunes, Sapiels, Sappiers and Suseps?
Keep in mind, this was back in the days when serious injuries and death were not uncommon during football games. Fans sometimes ran out onto the field to help out their favorite team in what occasionally amounted to violent free-for-alls.
“Five Hundred people went down to Maplewood park Thanksgiving afternoon and saw the Kokomos defeat the Indians of Old Town reservation by a score of two to nothing in a fast game that was one of the best played this season in this city,” wrote the sports reporter in his summary of the game.
He continued, “The points made by the Bangor eleven were the results of a safety in the second period. Hickson, a Bangor high player, who was right guard for the Kokomos, punted over the Indian goal line and an Old Town man was downed back of the posts.
“In the same period, the visitors advanced the ball to Bangor’s six yard line but the end of the session robbed them of a touchdown that seemed a certainty.
“The sensational part of the game came in the last period when the Indians obtained the ball 12 yards from Bangor’s goal line. On fourth down, Sappier tried to drop kick for a goal, but the pass was poor and he could not get the ball away. Two other times, an Indian tried a drop kick for goal within the 20-yard line but failed, the crowd that surged on the field making the try difficult.”
The precise role of crowd interference in the Indian defeat is impossible to tell for sure today. Later in the story, the reporter mentioned it again: “Twice … the Indians tried for goal only to fail. The crowd surged about, a contrast to the first of the game when the field was kept clear and this, without any doubt, hindered the play.”
Other players were singled out for special mention. “Burly T. Ranco” broke through the Bangor lines and “smashed up more than one play.” And “Joe Neptune, the New England league player, contributed the long run of the game. Taking the leather he cleverly drew in the defense and skirted his left end for a 40-yard dash down the field while the bevy of pretty Indian girls in the judge’s stand shrieked in approval.”
Those players receiving press commendations for Bangor, included Mazerall, who “bowled over runner after runner,” and Rand, “the best gainer for the victors.”
Overall everyone was impressed. “The game was a clean one
throughout, the Indians making a most favorable impression, so favorable that it is hoped that the eleven will make a Bangor game one of their future contests,” reported the newspaper writer. “The Kokomos were equally satisfactory in their work. Both teams played football all the time, there being a lack of arguments and rough work.”
The game had proven to be a big holiday attraction back in an era when Thanksgiving was a social event, unlike today when people tend to spend the day with family and friends at home. Besides two football games, a cross country race sponsored by the YMCA and shooting matches, a “dancing matinee” was held at the Central ballroom to the tunes of O’Hara’s orchestra.
Several restaurants, including the dining room at the Bangor House, the city’s finest hotel, served turkey dinners while orchestras played in the background. The latest movies and vaudeville shows were featured at the city’s growing number of theaters.
The poor were not forgotten. The newspapers ran elaborate stories listing the names of those who had made donations to groups like the Bangor Children’s Home, St. Vincent’s Orphanage and the Good Samaritan Home.
But the largest headline was reserved for the football game between the Indians and the Kokomos, during which a group of Bangor boys narrowly established once again the white man’s physical dominance over his red brothers up the river, even if it took some help from the crowd.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in this newspaper every other Monday. His new book, “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.