They may have gathered in Bangor’s historic West Market Square or in a sunlight parlor in one of the city’s stately homes; perhaps they may have been enjoying a game of cards, a popular way to pass the time in 1864.
Wherever the location, whatever the reason for them to come together, 22 men of influence decided in early 1864 that Bangor’s rich history, which begins with its earliest residents, the Native Americans, was worth preserving. And so they formed the Bangor Historical Society.
Led by Judge John Godfrey, one of Bangor’s earliest judges of probate, the names of the Bangor Historical Society’s founders’ reads like a list of the city’s current streets and namesake city blocks. Pickering, Dale, Stetson, Wheelwright, Harlow and others. Over time the list of directors and members would grow to include notable names like Hannibal Hamlin, Vice President of the United States during Abraham Lincoln’s first term and countless Bangor mayors. They were the Bangorians who had the foresight to recognize the important role the Queen City and her people would play in Maine’s history—a position Bangor continues to hold today—and to create an institution to honor it.
The organization first collected items by requesting donations from residents. Members would accept items at the City’s Custom House building along the Kenduskeag Stream. A significant number of objects were collected in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including Indian artifacts, the printing press of Bangor’s first newspaper publisher and the journals of surveyor Park Holland. The Society was successful in its mission and was flourishing.
Then disaster struck.
The Great Fire of 1911 swept through Downtown Bangor, destroying the majority of the city, leaving ash and rubble smoldering in its wake. The Bangor Historical Society’s collection, which was then housed at the Bangor Public Library, was among the victims of the devastation. All of the objects were lost and the Society would start anew.
As items amassed once again, the Society outgrew its space in the rebuilt library and moved into the Thomas A. Hill House, where it resides today.
Today, the BHS collection includes more than 100,000 objects, photographs and works of art.
After the Great Fire, the BHS saw significant donation increases in Civil War related items. The Bangor Museum and History Center now owns one of the nation’s largest collections of Civil War artifacts. A centerpiece of the organization’s collection came in the 1960s when it obtained the sword carried during the Battle of Gettysburg by Maine’s own Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The sword remains in the collection today.
The Thomas A. Hill House itself is an important piece of the Historical Society’s collection. Designed by Richard Upjohn, one of the first professional architects, the Hill House was constructed in 1835 and is the first structure built by Upjohn in Bangor. Interestingly, the house was also home to Samuel Dale, one of the Bangor Historical Society’s founders and a Mayor of Bangor. BHS staff and volunteers, past and present, report that Dale, whose tenure as Mayor was met with scandal, has not yet left the historic home and he, along with his wife, are known to “visit” on occasion. The Hill House and its reported “haunting” was featured on an episode of the U.S. television series, Haunted History.
In 1999, the Museum received its largest donation to date. The Quipus Society, a local women’s group gave its collection of more than 1,000 garments, hats, shoes, handbags and other accessories. These “properties” span more than a century of fashion history in the Greater Bangor Region and have been part of numerous exhibits and displays.
In its more than 150 years, the Bangor Historical Society has never strayed far from its original mission. The founders sought to gather items and artifacts that would tell the story of a city originally inhabited by the Penobscot Indians and that saw the first reported European visitor, Esteban Gomez, in 1524.
They wanted to share the facts and folklore of the place French Explorer Samuel de Champlain would find in 1605 and deem the actual location of the mythical city known as “Norumbega”.
The BHS continues that mission today as it works to preserve, protect and share the important stories of the region and its people.
Programming has changed and expanded during the last century and a half. An organization that originally collected items for preservation and held lectures for members has since hosted numerous exhibits showcasing items in the collection, including one focused on The Great Fire of 1911. Occasional lectures have flourished into a monthly series attended by Bangor residents of all ages and an active partnership with local schools is bringing Bangor history into classrooms.
Walking tours are a popular spring and summer activity taking attendees up close with the sights and stories that are the foundation of Eastern Maine’s largest city. Tour takers can learn more about Mt. Hope Cemetery—the nation’s second oldest garden cemetery and the final resting place of many of Bangor’s notable citizens—including Hannibal Hamlin, Samuel Dale and gangster Al Brady, the federal government’s “Public Enemy Number 1” who was shot and killed in 1937 by agents on Bangor’s Central Street in Maine’s bloodiest shoot-out.
There are also tours highlighting Bangor’s slightly scandalous past (the popular “Devil’s Half Acre” ), downtown walking tours telling the story of various parts of Bangor’s history and “ghostly” tours highlighting the sights where past residents reportedly still frequent.
The Bangor Historical Society has experienced change in its 150+ year history–two name changes, a devastating fire, multiple moves and more. Today, the Bangor Historical Society plans to continue celebrating its past, but is also looking forward to a bright future. There will be new memories made for future Bangor residents to celebrate in another 150 years, something that isn’t new for the BHS. Celebrating Bangor and its people is its timeless mission and the vision of those men who gathered in 1864.