The Great Bangor Fire of 1911 wiped out much of the business district, but rebuilding it brought prosperity to a poor French-Canadian family.
Ovide Morin was born in 1862 in St. Epphane, Quebec. Times were hard. Children went barefoot in the winter, and families ate off tables made of three boards nailed to a wall.
In Quebec, it was typical to work an entire month for $5.00, and sometimes employers wouldn’t come up with the money.
Morin was 76 years old in 1938 when he told his story to Robert Grady, a writer for the Works Progress Administration. He was living in Old Town, Maine, also known as ‘French Island’ because everyone who lived there was French Canadian.
As a teenager, Ovide Morin sometimes worked for farmers, picking potatoes. He told Grady,
One man offered me 25 cents a day if I would work for him. We worked from four oclock in the morning until six o’clock at night, and then the farmer put us down cellar storing the potatoes until twelve o’clock at night. I told him I’d work for 25 cents a day, but I wouldn’t do two day’s work in one.
He quit working for the farmer. But he couldn’t do much better than 25 cents a day.
After five years of working for 25 cents a day he didn’t have a cent to his name. When he turned 19 he told his father he was going to Maine to earn a dollar a day. The whole family moved to Maine.
He worked on the river, in sawmills, and as a carpenter and a brick and stonemason.
One day he was working on the new brick Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s, doing rough work. The boss came around and said,
‘Morin, your father was a good brick mason. I haven’t got enough masons. Can’t you lay bricks?’
‘I told him I built lots of chimneys and I probably could if he wanted me to.’
‘All right,’ he says, ‘come over here and start on this corner.’
‘I can’t do that,’ I says, ‘I can lay bricks along the wall, but I can’t work on that corner.’
‘Gwan,’ he says, ‘I got it all marked out for you. Go over there and lay those bricks.’
“Well, I built it up five feet and I stood, back and looked at it and it was just as straight as a die. After that I called myself a bricklayer.
In 1911, The Bangor fire wiped out most of the city’s business section. New buildings had to be rebuilt with fireproof materials. Morin and his father had work for five years.
The Bangor Fire
The fire had started in a hayshed on April 30, 1911 and spread rapidly through the wooden buildings, whipped by strong winds. Flames could be seen 25 miles away.
It destroyed 267 buildings, left 75 families homeless, caused $3,188,081.90 in damage and destroyed 100 businesses.
For the next five years, Morin and his father helped rebuild the Bangor business district. The new section included 48 buildings, all brick but one, and three new parks. It was a showcase of Renaissance Revival architecture, and several prominent architects and architectural firms contributed designs for the buildings. The Bangor Fire of 1911 Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.
What Made O.G. Morin
Twenty-two years later, O.G. Morin was a prosperous wholesale and fruit business. Three of Ovide Morin’s sons ran it, dealing in fruit, candy, ice cream and cigars. The family also owned much of the real estate in Old Town, including the brick block our of which they ran their business.
“They are among the wealthy men of the town,” Grady wrote. “They are all very pleasant to meet.”
“What really made O. G. Morin was the Bangor Fire,” Morin told Grady. “We had work there for five years. That fire pretty near wiped out the business section and they wouldn’t let them build with anything that wasn’t fireproof.”
Ovide Morin said he made a good change when he moved to Old Town.
If I stayed in St. Epphane my boys would have had to start just where I did. I’m glad they didn’t have to go through with that. If they had stayed on the [Farm?] they would never have any money and no clothes to wear. It was plenty of hard work and nothing for it. Now they can dress well and they can live in a good house.