Erwin Kreuz, a genial, unassuming 49-year-old Bavarian brewery worker, was quite pleased to be making his first trip overseas from his native Germany, when he boarded a World Airways flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco in early October 1977.
His arrival in the City by the Bay was delayed, however, by an unplanned two-week layover in Bangor, during which he thought he had landed in San Francisco — a mixup that ended up changing Kreuz’s life, making national headlines, and becoming a part of local Bangor lore.
Kreuz’s plane, a charter flight that made regular trips between Germany and San Francisco, had stopped to refuel at Bangor International Airport. After the plane landed, a flight attendant woke Kreuz from a nap and apparently wished him a pleasant visit to San Francisco — because she was getting off her shift and wouldn’t see him again, not because he’d actually reached the California city.
Kreuz, however, assumed he’d arrived at his intended destination and got off the plane and went through customs.
Despite there being no Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz or Haight-Ashbury district, Kreuz spent four days wandering the Bangor region, assuming he was in San Francisco — or, at least, a suburb of it. The prevalence of Chinese restaurants in Bangor — which San Francisco is famous for — made him think that perhaps he just hadn’t found the city center yet. The fact that Kreuz hardly spoke English only made things more confusing.
Eventually, Kreuz asked a cab driver, in his limited English, to take him to the San Francisco city center. The cab driver informed him that San Francisco was 3,000 miles away, and that he was in Bangor, Maine.
Luckily, the cab driver knew someone who spoke German — Gertrude Romine, who with her husband ran a German restaurant in Old Town. He drove Kreuz to the restaurant, and Romine explained to the hapless traveler where he was.
A Bangor Daily News reporter was contacted, and after the story ran in the paper, Kreuz became a local celebrity, practically overnight.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Kreuz was given the red carpet treatment. He was given the key to the city by the Bangor City Council, he was named an honorary member of the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Old Town Rotary Club, and he had a meeting with Gov. James Longley. He met Andre the Seal, the famed harbor seal adopted by the Rockport harbormaster, who gave Kreuz a kiss. Kreuz celebrated his 50th birthday while he was in Bangor, and by his own request, he had his birthday party at a local McDonald’s.
He reportedly received three marriage proposals, and a couple in the Aroostook County town of St. Francis gave Kreuz an acre of land overlooking the St. John River, in the hopes that he’d return to Maine to live. Kreuz reportedly paid taxes on the land until at least 1984.
The story made its way into the national spotlight when Kreuz was featured in Time Magazine, and in a segment on “The Today Show” on NBC, with Tom Brokaw lauding Bangor’s generosity of spirit in how the city treated the wayward German. German news magazines Der Spiegel and Stern reported on it in his home country of West Germany.
“I think people really bought into the fun of it, and they didn’t make fun of him. They really embraced him,” said Bangor historian Richard Shaw. “I think it says a lot about Mainers. He took to us, and we took to him.”
Magnus Stark, a photographer and marketing director for the Penobscot Theatre Company, became fascinated by the Kreuz story several years ago, and has researched it to try to find out more about Kreuz himself — what his life in Germany was like, and what ended up happening to him after his last trip to Maine in 1979.
Stark said Kreuz grew up in what became East Germany, and escaped into West Germany after World War II. He was an accomplished beer brewer, and also made and sold cheese. He had a kind of happy-go-lucky attitude, Stark says, that served him well as he was squired about on his unintentional Maine vacation.
“I totally feel for this guy, because I remember when I first moved to Bangor, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I kind of had to go with it,” said Stark, a native of Norway (the country, not the Maine town) who moved to Bangor in 2012. “It actually reminds me of how I felt when I first moved to the states in ‘79.”
When people in San Francisco got wind of Kreuz’s story, the San Francisco Examiner flew him out to the city for another round of celebrity treatment. He met the mayor, George Moscone, was given a tour of Chinatown, and was the guest of honor at a rodeo at the Cow Palace. When he finally boarded a flight to return to Germany, he wore a sign reading “Please let me off in Frankfurt.”
The following year, in October 1978, Kreuz was invited back to Bangor for a few more weeks as the guest of honor for the grand opening of the Bangor Mall, cutting the ribbon on the brand-new shopping complex. Upon returning to Germany, however, Kreuz’s luck started to run out.
He’d taken many extra weeks of vacation time in order to visit the U.S., something his employer did not approve of. Kreuz also reportedly wanted to be compensated for the public appearances the brewery had him do to capitalize on its employee’s fame. And when Kreuz reportedly told a newspaper that he actually preferred to drink a competing brewery’s beer, that was the last straw. He was fired that winter.
Kreuz returned to Bangor a third time, in March 1979, to look for work. The opportunities available, however, were not so great.
“When he came back the third time, he kind of thought he’d be getting a job in Bangor,” Stark said. “And when he goes to the mall to see what’s available, the only job they offered him was as a janitor. I think, to Erwin, he was kind of like, ‘I’m a brewmaster, I’m a cheesemonger and I make good money doing it.’ It wasn’t what he wanted. And so he went back to Germany.”
According to the BDN, Kreuz was not bitter about his situation, and was instead grateful for his experiences in Maine. Very little is known about Kreuz’s life after he returned to Germany for the last time. Stark, in all his research, hasn’t even been able to find out if he’s alive or dead, though if Kreuz is still alive he’d be 93 years old. He did not have any children, apparently, and Stark hasn’t been able to find any other family members.
Ironically, if Kreuz’s memorable journeys had happened more recently, he undoubtedly could have found a more gratifying job at one of Maine’s more than 150 craft breweries, rather than as a janitor at the Bangor Mall.
“Think of all the employment to come his way later, with all of Maine’s microbreweries,” Shaw said. “He supposedly quipped during a meeting with the governor that he kept his youthful looks by consuming 23 glasses of beer a day.”