Bangor boosters, or “boomers,” as they were known a century ago, turned out in force at City Hall for the Chamber of Commerce’s first “suggestion night,” a time set aside to collect ideas for promoting the city’s economic development.
Bangor had rebounded after the Great Fire of 1911, but city fathers still wanted to find ways to attract new business. Like many frontier towns, Bangor had grown like Topsy in its early decades without much thought or planning. But now that it was no longer “the lumber capital of the world,” the city’s boosters searched for new ways to expand the economy.
Some of the proposals made that March night in 1914 seem merely quaint today. But just as today, there were two ways to go. Bangoreans could “boom” their current businesses and industries or try to attract new ones.
“If we put forth the same effort toward getting new industries that we expend in getting our personal share of existing business, the increased general prosperity would more than repay us for the new and broader view,” said real estate developer B. M. Kirstein, the meeting chairman, as reported in the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 27.
What would these new industries be?
R.S. Philbrook, a visitor from Grand Rapids, Mich., said that Grand Rapids’ population had swelled from 8,000 to 150,000 while he lived there “because its businessmen have civic pride and take an interest in booming things.”
One of Grand Rapids’ large industries was the manufacture of refrigerators (or ice boxes) lined with slate from Maine quarries.
“With the slate right here and nearby wood so plentiful, why can’t Bangor manufacture refrigerators just as easy as Grand Rapids can?” Philbrook asked.
Frank C. Bugbee, a Bangor cigar maker, offered a different perspective. Why not encourage industries that were already operating in Bangor?
Bangor manufactured more “high grade cigars” than any other community in Maine, the Board of Trade had claimed a few years back. The number of cigar manufacturers had doubled in the last decade. The list in the 1914 Bangor city directory included Benjamin F. Adams at 31 Mercantile Square, W.S. Adams at 50 Columbia St., Bangor Cigar Manufacturing Co. at 26 State St., Central Cigar Co. at 44 French St., Daley & Abbott at 24 Central St., Knaide Bros. at 71 Division St., James J. O’Leary at 22 Water St., Julius Schwing at 77½ Exchange St., and I. Yesner at 128 Hancock St. (who made cigarettes).
According to Bugbee, Bangor cigar companies employed “68 cigar makers, 39 of whom are married, and between 40 and 50 others — strippers and the like.”
The cigar maker said, “Four million cigars were made last year and the very comfortable sum of $60,000 was paid in salaries. And this $60,000, every cent of it was spent right here in town.”
Here was an industry already established, said Bugbee, “yet many merchants made big window displays of out-of-town cigars, regardless of the fact that every one of these cigars that is sold is just so much of an inroad into a local industry.”
“Wouldn’t it be a splendid plan for Bangor merchants and Bangor smokers to boom Bangor-made cigars?” asked Bugbee.
Modern readers may remember that cigar smoking was once a common pastime. Cigars were sold by the box or dispensed from machines, including illegal slot machines, in numerous stores. They were passed around at civic dinners and meetings. The chamber meeting room that night no doubt was foggy with cigar smoke.
John P. Frawley, a pharmacist who undoubtedly stocked plenty of cigars, urged the formation of a committee to arrange for the display, at specified intervals, of Bangor-made cigars. This form of advertising was already conducted for other Bangor products at the annual Food Fair sponsored by the city’s traveling salesmen.
A few other ideas were expressed that night for stimulating Bangor’s economy.
E.T. Emerson, New England Telephone Co. district manager, proposed that numerous signboards be placed on roads and intersections within a 40-mile radius of Bangor indicating where the city was located. This was an advertising technique used by the famed Poland Spring House, he said. Back then before the interstate, in the days when the dirt country roads offered few directional indicators and maps were hard to read, travelers often got lost.
Speakers drifted away from the topic of economic development as the night went on to characteristics of the city that irritated them. Daniel Webster, superintendent of the American Express Co., complained Bangor streets were in poor condition compared with those in Portland and Augusta.
He also noted another favorite complaint about the Queen City of the East — the crowds of woodsmen and others who lounged about (near the employment agencies) on lower Exchange Street. Many women felt uncomfortable walking there.
Mayor John Utterback made a few brief final comments. He said it was time to give the Fire Department more authority to enforce fire safety standards in the city’s theaters and other public buildings. It was also time to enforce the curfew law because so many “small children” were going to the movies at night.
The audience finally applauded when he raised a favorite subject — baseball. Utterback urged the formation of a new league with local towns. When the electric trolley started running over the new Bangor-Brewer bridge in the near future, it would be easier to get to games in south Brewer, he noted.
Meanwhile, the economic development conundrum — whether to start a new industry such as refrigerators or boom an old one such as cigars — was never solved that night, and it would never be solved on any other night. Perhaps the answer was to do both.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the 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.