Bangor’s famed liquor empire faced an uncertain future a century ago as the nation marched toward prohibition. For more than 60 years, the Queen City of the East had defied Maine’s first-in-the-nation prohibition law. A new governor in 1917 pledged to pull the plug, letting those liquor profits drain down the sink.
Liquor sales had helped fill county coffers, making possible the construction of impressive public buildings like city hall and other improvements.
The Bangor Plan lubricated the wheels of the liquor money-making machine. Saloon keepers were rounded up each year and required to pay “fines” as the price of doing business. Some paid real fines if they violated local regulations like the Sunday ban on sales. These fines, of course, were well below the profits they could expect when they went back into business, while the city looked the other way.
Local building owners, bar keeps, hotel and boarding house proprietors, and others all made money off the folks attracted by the city’s nightlife. Now the winds of public opinion were shifting, threatening to upset the profitable trade that had given the city a national reputation.
Many states were already considering (or had passed) prohibition laws of one sort or another in advance of the looming amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would go into effect in 1920. Opponents often turned to Maine as an example of a state where prohibition hadn’t worked and to Bangor, which was probably the most notorious example of that failure.
When Nebraska was considering going from local option to prohibition, leaders asked prominent Bangoreans like Terence B. Towle, a lawyer, what he thought. He didn’t think much of prohibition. Local option was a much better way to keep a lid on things.
For the past 30 years, “there has never been a time but when saloons were always wide open in our city,” Towle wrote in a letter to the Nebraska Prosperity League published in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 6, 1916. “You can find today in the city of Bangor 50 well regulated, well stocked, and well conducted open saloons.”
That apparently didn’t include the so-called “kitchen barrooms” and other backroom booze oases tucked away in the city’s darkest corners.
“It is true that once in awhile there will be a spasm of so-called enforcement and during those periods instead of having draft ale and beer, the stock consists of bottled ale and beer, and little pretense made of closing up; but this only lasts for a few months,” Towle explained.
One of these enforcement spasms seemed to be gaining steam even as Towle wrote his letter. It would turn into a tsunami before things settled down. The immediate stimulus was the election of Gov. Carl Milliken, a Republican from Aroostook County, who vowed to enforce the state’s prohibition law and clean out the sheriffs and county attorneys who weren’t doing their jobs.
Events leading up to Milliken’s inauguration made it clear that Bangor’s saloon keepers had plenty to fear. Here are a few examples of what was happening from the Bangor newspapers:
The usual anti-saloon lobbying groups including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Christian Civic League and the Grange issued blistering war cries.
The local Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter took particular affront over a recent debate in Bangor’s city government over whether men temporarily “insane” from liquor should be kept in jail, sent to the city farm, or committed to the insane hospital.
“[W]e protest against the disgraceful policy of our city officials which permits the many rum shops of this city to go on poisoning men in this fashion,” the women declared. It was time to close the bars instead of arguing what to do with the “unfortunate wrecks” who drank in them.
Signs of greater enforcement efforts in Bangor were noticeable. A group of saloon keepers referred to as the “Lucky Fourteen” was gradually being rounded up by the police and sentenced to jail. These were men who had managed to evade jail terms despite multiple infractions of the law.
They included the infamous Pope McKinnon, owner of the Globe Hotel on French Street and a local theater entrepreneur. Another member of the group, Dave Legassy, had the effrontery to appear as himself — a bartender behind the bar in his saloon in Millinocket — in a movie called “The Iron Hand,” made the previous summer.
Federal liquor inspectors also were taking a look at Bangor in December 1916. Before they could import and sell liquor, dealers were required to buy a license or stamp from the federal government.
Many in Bangor had evaded this law because the record of these stamps kept in New Hampshire could be used by the occasional zealous county attorney or temperance vigilante as evidence they were running rum shops. A federal raid in Bangor to catch who was operating without the stamps was much less likely.
Several guilty parties were brought into court and forced to pay the tax. Ironically, the federal government had no interest in the legality of selling liquor in Maine as long as the stamp was purchased.
The crackdown extended to drugstores selling Jamaica ginger, a patent medicine said to have an alcohol content of 95 percent. “[I]t may mean that every corner grocery store in Maine that has that familiar medicine on its shelves will either have to have a United States liquor license or go to jail,” the Bangor Daily Commercial speculated on Dec. 27.
Nor was the city’s poor farm exempt from regulation. Mayor John Woodman had announced that the poor farm would not be exempt from prohibition once the new administration took over in Augusta on Jan. 1, 1917.
“The physicians who attend the inmates state that the latter need a little drop of comfort now and then and that those who have always had it should be given a moderate amount,” the Bangor Daily News reported on Dec. 28, 1916. “Furthermore they state they will prescribe it when they deem it to be for the best interests of the patients regardless of any state enforcement.”
There were other signs of stepped up enforcement in the works. One rumor had it that prohibition enthusiasts were making a survey of the Devil’s Half Acre and similar run down sections of the city “which have almost been altogether given up to the wine merchants of the lower order of society” in preparation for a campaign against the building owners who rented space for these dives.
Meanwhile, county officials were howling. If the saloons shut down and the Bangor Plan collapsed, disaster would result.
“NO RUM MONEY, HEAVIER TAXES,” a headline warned in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 13. “COUNTY TAXES WILL TOWER TO THE SKIES,” another warned a week later. It continued, “Expenses Climbing Higher, and Rum War Means Little Coming In and a Lot Going Out.”
The pieces of the puzzle fell into place in December 1916 and early January 1917 like scenes from a Shakespearean tragedy transformed into a burlesque show.
SHERIFF PROMISES DUSTY TIMES, a headline announced in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 18, 1916. Penobscot County Sheriff T. Herbert White issued a proclamation that he intended to enforce the liquor law “against saloons, hotels, clubs, drug stores and in fact all places where liquor is sold, drunk or given away.” Under the circumstances, the newspaper said it was “about what was expected.”
On New Year’s Eve, the newspaper proclaimed a wake was held in Bangor for “Mr. J. Barleycorn.” Saloons were closing up before midnight and auctioning off their stock. One big hotel advertised “Broadway goods at Bowery prices.” All the big liquor dealers said they were “quitting cold,” while some of the small places in dark corners on back streets declared they would try to weather the coming storm of enforcement.
White, who up until now had done little to enforce the prohibition law, announced the appointment of his liquor squad the next day, and raids began immediately at Union Station, where a shipment or two of mail-order liquor could usually be found sitting on the platform.
The newspaper nicknamed this new group of enforcers “the Boozileers,” and it announced, “Sheriff’s Boozileers Raid Demon’s Trenches, Capture Alcohol, Whiskey, Ale.” Some of these Boozileers were actually ex-bartenders instead of loyal Democrats, a few of the party faithful complained.
On Jan. 4, 1917, Carl Milliken of Island Falls was inaugurated the new governor of Maine. A separate story confirmed his liquor stance in no uncertain words.
The headline said, MILLIKEN LASHES THE LIQUOR LEGION: Wants the Law’s Teeth Sharpened for “Affluent, Ostensibly respectable Outlaws” — Urges Jail Sentences and Asks That Governor Be Empowered to Remove Delinquent Sheriffs and County Attorneys.”
In 1918, White, the Penobscot County sheriff, was removed from his public office by the unanimous vote of Milliken and his executive council. Some of the details of Bangor’s illegal liquor business were aired during the hearings for everyone to hear. A few months later, an amendment to the Constitution for nationwide prohibition was introduced in the U.S. Senate.
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.