Oh, the stories Maine’s century-old buildings could tell if we only had a way to interview them. With the brick Bangor extended-stay hotel now known as Dutton House Inn, we almost do have a way, thanks to the annual report that the city’s mayor wrote back in 1910.
The first thing the mayor mentions is the “Report of the Overseers of the Poor,” which lists every single item at what was then the Bangor Poor Farm. The account of the city-owned home for the poor, disabled and mentally ill also gives the names, ages, birthplace and general health of each of its residents.
From 1827 until 1948, the Poor Farm at 629 Main St. housed what we today call homeless people. Residents were expected to raise their own crops and livestock, if they were healthy enough to do so. Many were not. Some were listed—by name—as “insane,” “feeble” or “lame,” terms no government document would use today. Some of the Poor Farm’s residents were locked up in what were essentially prison cells, several of which remain in the building today.
The mayor’s 1910 report is an interesting historic document in part because of the variety of places from people at the Poor Farm hailed. While a majority came from Bangor and surrounding communities, a large number came from Ireland; a handful came from Canada, Scotland or Wales and a few from Sweden or Norway.
Others are listed as simply being from “provinces,” which, in the opinion of Bangor historian Dick Shaw, likely meant they came from unincorporated territories in the woods.
“We can’t be sure, but that probably meant they came from somewhere out in the woods—not a real town,” Shaw said. “Could be Maine; could be Canada. The willywacks, basically.”
In 1948, the Poor Farm closed, as Social Security and other forms of public assistance lessened the need for such an institution. It later became the Bangor Chronic Disease Hospital, then Beal College and then the home of Manna Ministries. Earlier this year, a developer purchased it and renovated it as the Dutton House Inn, an extended-stay hotel.
The mayor’s 1910 report can be found along with other such windows into the past at the Fogler Library website. In a report from 1915, the City Undertaker (the coroner, as it would be called today) submitted the details and causes of every death in Bangor. Safe to say there were a lot more deaths from tuberculosis back then as well as from “exhaustion.” Two died from “La Grippe,” which today is known as influenza.
Beyond the grim details of poverty and death, the 19th-century reports include some lighter surprises. For example, did you know that in 1910 the city of Bangor employed a Superintendent of Clocks, someone in charge of making sure all the public clocks were running correctly? Or that, in 1894, the city officially recommended that people drink coffee because tea supposedly caused “nervous irritability” and “distressing neuralgia”?