April 08, 2020

Many immigrants chose Maine a century ago

In September 1906, a young girl named Mantoria George disappeared near her home at 192 Hancock St. in Bangor. Her father, Maron George, a dry goods and peddlers supply dealer, spent a week checking reports his daughter had been seen in South Brewer and Old Town. A neighbor girl claimed to have seen the 13-year-old on the railroad tracks by the lumber docks with two men, one of whom had offered her a dress if she would go away with him.

The George family was part of the nation’s rapidly growing population of immigrants. Seventeen percent of Bangor’s population was foreign-born, according to the 1910 census, while another 23 percent had at least one foreign-born parent. Nearly half were English-speaking Canadians. But if you walked through downtown Bangor, you were apt to see a colorful array of Russians, Italians, Turks, Armenians, Scandinavians, French-Canadians, Germans and other groups speaking an exotic mix of tongues. Six Chinese laundries were listed in the city directory.

In an era when theories of ethnic superiority were popular, there were desirable and undesirable immigrants. The newspapers were not shy about expressing the prevailing stereotypes. Not surprisingly, the good immigrants were the ones who acted most like native Mainers. Maron George, a member of Bangor’s “Syrian colony,” was one of the respected immigrants. He had “lived in Bangor for 14 years and is a good citizen. When he came from his native country, he had very little, but by dint of saving the small sums which he earned he gradually became more comfortably off and was able eventually to buy his store. He is known and trusted in Bangor, and is one of the influential men in the Syrian colony in this city,” wrote a Bangor Daily Commercial reporter on Sept. 24, nearly a week after Mantoria’s disappearance.

The Bangor Daily News didn’t hesitate about identifying some of the undesirable immigrants in an intemperate editorial titled “The Persistent Peddler.” Peddlers were a plague across the landscape, bothering farmers, selling “mainly cheap and trashy” items. “The sum total of service which they perform for mankind is very slight,” sniffed the editorial writer on Aug. 24, 1905.

“Nine out of ten are not Americans. One half of them have no more than a smattering of the English language. The men have no intention of becoming citizens,” complained the writer. Mostly, he was referring to “Arabians” and Armenians. These two groups were “grasping” and often dishonest. On the other hand, Jewish peddlers, of which there were also many, were “honorable” and kept their word, no matter how poor; they were “square” and “responsible for their acts,” although some were “oversharp in driving bargains.” Many had already become citizens.

This tirade provoked a response from an “Arabian” businessman who had begun his career in America as a peddler and was now “a popular and successful merchant in a busy Down East town.” He wrote, “As a matter of fact the average peddler of Armenian or Arabian descent possesses as high ideals of right and wrong as does the average man or woman of any other race.”

Nearly a year later, on July 13, 1906, the Bangor Daily Commercial endorsed Scandinavian immigrants. Hundreds of Swedes had settled farms in several communities in Aroostook County several decades before, and many Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and Danes had settled in other parts of the state since then. “No class of immigrants in this country rank higher in intelligence, industry, thrift, public spirit and in all the elements of good citizenship than those who come from the Scandinavian peninsula,” according to the editorial.

It was the Italians, however, who provoked the greatest muddle of responses. Worshiped for their willingness to do hard, dirty work, ridiculed for their habits and appearance and condemned for their tendency to strike or riot if working and living conditions were not to their liking, their presence was a godsend to many communities. It was the Italian work forces recruited in New York and Boston that built many of the state’s railroads, paper mills, water systems and other major projects during this period.

A story in the Commercial on Aug. 6, 1906, however, warned that Italians were growing scarce. The Irish labor pool had dried up long ago. So had the Danes and Norwegians. “Neither love nor money will hire the Yankees to do the work,” the writer lamented. One Augusta contractor “believes that ultimately we will have to rely upon the Chinese and import large numbers for this work.”

And what became of Mantoria George, the Syrian girl mentioned at the top of this column? She was found in South Brewer a week after her disappearance. She said she had run off with a girl named McCrea who had $5 that they shared. They had stayed with some Italian men one night and then alone in some fields under the open sky and in a small shed, buying food with the money.

Mr. and Mrs. George wanted nothing more to do with Mantoria. They signed papers turning her over to the state industrial school for girls in Hallowell. Mantoria had run off before and lived with some Italians all night and she had been known to steal, said her father. “Mr. George says that under his religion when a girl leaves home under such circumstances, she may not be taken back again, but must be sent … to some orphanage to remain until she attains a certain age,” reported the Commercial on Sept. 25. Whatever Maron George’s religion might have been, he was acting like an American. Wild boys and girls could be institutionalized for running away in America. No one seemed to question Mantoria’s fate.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net. Historian Sara K. Martin contributed information to this column.

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