June 25, 2018
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Commercial fairs helped Bangor rise from the ashes

Courtesy of Dick Shaw
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
The Bangor Motor Company, located on Main Street next to Davenport Park, was the site of the auto show of 1912.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Commercial shows sponsored by various merchant groups helped jump-start Bangor’s revival after the big fire of April 30, 1911. The Queen City of the East had been the area’s trade and transportation hub before the fire, and it just kept getting bigger afterwards thanks to the tireless activities of its merchants.

These shows or “fairs” began less than three weeks after the fire with the city’s first “style show,” sponsored by clothing merchants. Then automobile dealers and grocers held their own shows simultaneously during the first week in February, 1912. Thousands of people from out of town flocked to Bangor in the dead of winter. The railroads and the hotels offered reduced rates. By then, many commercial buildings and homes had been rebuilt.

“Bangor is overflowing with strangers. Every train into the city Wednesday and Thursday came in heavily laden … The hotel keepers have done nothing but turn guests away. Every room is taken long before night, and the corridors are filled with cots, but that fails to take care of the overflow of guests,” the Bangor Daily Commercial noted on Feb. 8, at the height of the excitement.

The week was being called a “winter carnival” as well as a fair. The downtown had been transformed into “a city of lights” thanks to the “thoughtfulness and generosity” of the Bangor Railway and Electric Co., which operated the electric trolleys as well as a burgeoning system of electricity for homeowners and businesses. The Bangor Daily News ran a large picture on Feb. 9 across the top of Page One showing the “Blaze of Electricity” on Main Street.

“The stringers of lights will run from the railroad station, up Exchange street, over Kenduskeag bridge, to City Hall [the old city hall at Hammond and Columbia streets where the food fair was held]; through Central to Harlow street and up Main Street to the Bangor Motor Company’s garage where the auto show takes place,” marveled the newspaper. Two thousand “lamps” were used, said W. L. Sawtelle, superintendent of the light department at the BR&E Co. — the future Bangor Hydro Electric Company.

The auto show was the third in as many years. Auto dealers promised the biggest event ever. Thirty manufacturers would have about 70 autos on display “from a light $450 runabout to a heavy $5,000 touring car.”

Makes included Nyberg, Winton, Elmore, Ford, Oldsmobile, Maxwell, Stoddard-Dayton, Oakland, Haynes, Buick, Velie, Lozier, Stearns, Stutz, EMF 30, Flanders 20, Knox, Cole, Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, Sampson, Hudson Thomas, Franklin, Jackson, Cutting, Metz and Palmer-Singer, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 31.

For the first time, commercial trucks would be on display. The three Sampson trucks, one of them “a huge three-ton affair,” could do the work of four two-horse teams at an expense of only $2.80 per day for gasoline and cylinder oil, said an advertisement in the Commercial.

The auto show performed a real service in the days before big car salesrooms and lots enabled customers to study different models with ease. Many visitors came to the show with cash in hand. Some asked for delivery in May when the roads were in better shape. Most people didn’t try to drive in the winter.

By the end of the show, sales totaled $207,640, announced the Commercial on Feb. 10. The most popular make turned out to be the Fords (no model mentioned, although Model T ads began appearing in the newspapers shortly afterwards) sold by the S. L. Crosby Co. Forty of these “popular priced cars” were purchased.

The Winter Carnival and Food Fair performed a valuable service to homemakers in the era before supermarkets, mandatory school home economics classes and television cooking shows. Among the exhibits were demonstrations of baking with flour and the uses of oleomargarine. Jell-O, lemon pie filling and other culinary innovations were shown. Displays of oranges and grapefruits from California and Florida were a wonder to behold, as was the variety of canned goods. The Bangor cigar makers’ union was on hand to show off one of the city’s best known products.

Vaudeville and concert hall acts were featured every night along with local orchestras. Perhaps the most talked about act of all was the appearance of Charles B. Pettes, a female impersonator and dancer/singer, who performed as “a Broadway girl,” a Grecian dancing girl and an Oriental dancer (“changing suddenly from blonde to brunette”) — apparently to music provided by Pullen’s 40-piece symphony orchestra. Pettes “possesses a voice which is much lighter in quality than many contralto singers,” reported the Commercial on Feb. 8.

Sponsored by the United Commercial Travelers, an organization of traveling salesmen and merchants, the food show was declared a great success, said the Commercial on Feb. 12. Less profit may have been made than last year, revealed one of the traveling salesmen, because the UCT had spent so much money on “higher-class” entertainment. The purpose of the show, however, was not limited to selling boxes of Jell-O or bags of flour. It was to let the world know that you could buy anything in Bangor. This was the Queen City of the East.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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