LET BANGOR EXPRESS ITS GRATITUDE IN CASH! That was the message the Bangor Daily News had for Bangor residents in a headline on July 3, 1916. The city’s two National Guard units, comprised of about 200 men, had left to defend the Mexican border a few days ago, and city officials were still trying to decide how to support the wives and children who had depended on their husband’s wages.
Mayor John Woodman had visited the boys in both Company G and the Machine Gun Company. before they left and praised them for the financial sacrifice they were making.
“Why there isn’t one member of the company who isn’t earning a great deal more than $15 a month — which is what the government allows us,” he said.
Some of the dependents, which also included some elderly and handicapped relatives, were lapsing into penury. City officials were under pressure to do something quickly.
Not just any method would do. What was needed was “systematic relief in convenient form … free from the delays and humiliations of organized charity,” the story said. Holding dances and other types of charity fundraisers hadn’t raised much money so far. It was time to get serious.
Before deciding on a solution, city fathers needed to find out how many dependents actually couldn’t support themselves. The city sent out “charity workers” to make a headcount.
Just three days later, a lengthy story appeared in the Bangor Daily Commercial describing how one soldier’s wife had been insulted and humiliated by one of these charity workers. Like many of the wives, she was accustomed “to living to standards of the average workingman’s family. That their husbands and sons have gone to the Mexican border in answer to the President’s call does not seem to the soldiers’ dependents a reason for moving to cheaper rents.”
Noting that the house had hardwood floors, the investigator immediately suggested the woman find a cheaper place to live.
Later she added, “Of course, you will not expect anything from the city for your baby. She is not a year old yet and doesn’t wear out shoes or clothes … I know a fine way to make babies’ dresses very cheaply. In fact by this plan you can make six dresses for 45 cents … You can do much of your own sewing yourself.”
The wife was so distressed by the interview that she turned down an offer of clothing even though she needed it. And instead of sending her wash to a commercial laundry that day as she was used to doing, she did it herself.
Forty-two soldiers’ families were determined to need public aid. City officials estimated the cost would be between $500 and $1,000 per week.
A “mass meeting” was called to discuss how the money would be found, the BDN announced on July 12. Only about 150 people turned out, including “15 women, who formed a little group in the south-east corner” of the meeting room at City Hall.
The men in charge appeared torn between asking the City Council to make a new appropriation and soliciting “a popular subscription” from wealthy residents. A third option would be to combine the two methods by soliciting the money from businessmen who would loan it to the city with interest.
Then the “feminine contingent” made some pointed comments. Miss Mary Crosby wanted to know the number of employers who were paying the wages of absent militia. Mayor Woodman did not answer her.
All across the nation, some employers had promised to guarantee the wages of any men who joined the Mexican border expedition with their National Guard units. Some employers were now backing away from this pledge, the Bangor Daily Commercial noted in an editorial on Aug. 1 without naming any local employers.
“It does seem as though the city of Bangor could take care of 42 families without resorting to popular subscription,” said Mrs. James D. Mulvany. “We are getting to be regular paupers.”
The “P” word had finally been spoken. Starvation was preferable to being called a pauper to some people.
Meanwhile, a plea for money had come from the troopers themselves. The soldiers hadn’t been paid by the government yet. Everybody was broke, said Capt. Arthur Ashworth of the Machine Gun Company in an exchange of telegrams between Texas and Bangor published in the BDN on July 18.
So Charles Gordon and Capt. Harry Smith, Bangor men “keenly interested in the welfare of the Bangor troops,” raised $400, sending it to be equally divided between the machine gun men and the men in Company G. The money would be used to buy “little comforts and luxuries.”
At about the same time, the Red Cross announced a “donation day” in the hopes of creating “comfort bags” filled with pencils, writing paper, thread, needles, buttons, pipes, tobacco, playing cards and other items for the soldiers. The bags were distributed to soldiers in Laredo on Aug. 2, according to a letter home from James Somers, a member of the Machine Gun Company.
Part of the same BDN story summing up these events was the announcement that five patriotic men, Taber Bailey, Arthur Chapin, I. K. Stetson, James Cassidy and Thomas Savage, had offered to loan the city $500 apiece for one year at 3 percent interest. Another 15 of the city’s men with big bank accounts would soon step forward to make the same offer.
More than money was needed, however. The “P” word reared its ugly head again. The soldiers expected that their wives would be treated like respectable citizens, not paupers. A letter published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on the same day made that clear.
Arthur Fish, a cook in Company G, angrily denounced Mayor Woodman and other city officials for not doing enough. The married men of Company G. were “downhearted.” Woodman was “unfair.”
At the time of the Bangor fire in 1911, he said, $50,000 was raised for homeless people. “They did not have to take a pauper’s slip as my wife did to get something to eat,” he said.
He predicted, “you people of Bangor will get yours for He is a just God and will punish in His own good time.”
Fish included a pathetic passage from a letter he had received from his wife. She wrote, “I went to City Hall for an order and they sent me to the pauper department. What do you think of that, and five dollars a week and you got [paid] twenty-six. And they took you away, the only support I had, and I am a pauper.”
The next day, July 19, the BDN declared in a headline: RELIEF PROBLEM SOLVED. Twenty men had pledged loans of $500 so the City Council would have some extra money without raising taxes at least for the moment.
“Technically the city has no borrowing capacity and so the proceeding is illegal,” said the newspaper. “There is no question, however, but that the citizens will be repaid and both boards tendered them a hearty resolve of thanks.”
They expected the Legislature to reimburse them.
City fathers also had found a way to bypass the pauper problem. They had created a “Department of Aid for Soldiers’ Families and Dependents” to be administered by a special committee of city councilors. No longer would soldiers’ dependents “be forced the humiliation of being paid from the charity fund and of going to the overseers of the poor.”
A steady stream of aid applicants began appearing before the new department. Mayor Woodman made it clear, however, that there was no way the amount of money available would match soldiers’ earnings from their previous jobs, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 24.
Wives also had discovered there was a way to get their husbands sent home if they applied for a hardship discharge citing financial or health problems. The first soldier to actually return from Texas under such a discharge was W. A. Bennett, a Bangor letter carrier who belonged to the Machine Gun Company.
“Mr. Bennett has a family dependent on him who rejoiced to see him again,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 18.
Meanwhile, Capt. David Gould of Company G sent a letter of thanks to the two men who had raised $400 for Bangor’s two Guard companies. Published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 31, it is notable for its description of the miserable conditions the men were living in while guarding the border.
The drinking water was disgusting, Gould wrote. “Our only H2O is the muddy, dirty alkali water from the Rio Grande.” The land was a wasted desert. “If Mexico wants this place we ought to let them have it, and even pay them for taking it.” Conditions were taking their toll on the men. Lt. Bryant had “broke down under pressure” and been sent to the base hospital.
The “P” issue also raised its ugly head again.
“The married men of G CO. are much pleased to learn that their little families are to be treated properly, not like paupers,” wrote Capt. Gould.
By Aug. 2, 38 families composed of 113 individuals had been placed on the city’s relief list. By Sept. 13, it was reported that the fund had already spent $3,703.35, leaving $6,344.81 at the First National Bank.
Bangor was the only city in New England appropriating money for soldiers’ family relief, the Bangor Daily Commercial reported on Aug. 9, quoting Mayor Woodman. In many places such as Boston, the work was being done by “volunteer societies, who are constantly up against it for funds.” The criticism aimed at him and other Bangor officials by soldiers on the Mexican border who thought other cities were treating their dependents better had been “due to a misunderstanding,” he said.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest 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 email@example.com.