BANGOR – A portrait of Miss Mary E. Beal, founder of Beal College, greets people as they enter the old red-brick building. Her stern, no-nonsense face peers over the gold frame as if to warn students and visitors alike to learn from the building’s history and heed the lessons taught there.
Nestled against Interstate 395 off the Farm Road in Bangor, the place Beal College now calls home is a living testament to the evolution of the nation’s social welfare system. Once the city’s poor farm, then its hospital, a seemingly unending maze of stairwells and hallways ends on the third floor where wooden cells once confined the homeless, orphans, prisoners, elderly, retarded, alcoholics and the mentally ill.
The imposing 3 1/2-story structure sits atop a hill. Referred to as the Town-House in old city records, it was completed in the 1820s. Over the next 75 years, wings were added on the east, north, south and west sides of the building. Evidence of a morgue once was found in the basement. Most likely, there was a cemetery on the grounds. Some say ghosts roamed the halls.
Ann W. Rea, the Beal College librarian, along with some students, spent hours poring over old city records and reports to write the history of the building. In their research, conducted in the early 1990s, they found that the way the building had been utilized over the years reflected the evolution of American society’s attitudes toward work, illness, poverty and human worth.
“What we’re doing now at Beal is adding to the building’s legacy,” Rea said as she took a Bangor Daily News reporter and photographer on a tour. “Today, there’s one single, most important cure for poverty – that’s education.”
That was not the attitude in 1827 when Bangor residents voted to purchase the Samuel E. Dutton property to establish a poor farm, then called an almshouse. The farm covered 100 acres, extending from Main Street to the Penobscot River and included all of what is now Bangor Municipal Golf Course. Almshouse residents were expected to work to earn their keep and as much as 90 percent of the food consumed each year was raised on the premises.
The men and women who sought shelter at the almshouse included women and children abandoned by a husband or left destitute due to his death. A list of 47 inmates listed in the 1899-1900 report showed 35 spent the entire year at the farm, Rea discovered in her research. Ten were described as insane, nine were feeble, three were lame, one was blind, three were in poor health and 21 were in good health. Of the total number of inmates who passed through its doors that year, 56 were male, 45 were female and 25 were children.
The wooden cells where many of them slept still are on the third floor of the central brick building that is now Beal College. Rea opened the door to one of the cells, which resembled a wooden cage. Outside, cars rushed by, and a fall wind whipped at the plastic covering the windows. A wooden bed frame sat in one corner, its mattress removed years ago. The librarian shined her flashlight on the walls. Someone had meticulously carved “ARMS HOUS” into the whitewashed pine of one cell; hatch marks ticked off the days in another; and “God Help Me” was scratched into a third.
The first mention of the building’s use to house the insane appeared on an 1845 report of the Overseers of the Poor, the three-member board charged with supervising the farm. While it is unclear where in the almshouse those deemed insane were kept, an attic room was covered with inch-thick padding and mattress ticking. The padding was not removed until the 1980s when it was deemed a fire hazard.
As the nation edged toward civil war, societal attitudes toward the poor, the handicapped and the insane changed as well. Reformers such as Jane Addams and Hampden native Dorothea Dix worked for and won better conditions and new laws that would make almshouses obsolete.
Two decades after her death in 1880, Dix’s reform efforts bore fruit in her native state when the Bangor Mental Health Institute opened and many residents of the almshouse were transferred to the new facility, which still is in use today. That same year, the Bangor Business College opened in two rooms of the newly constructed YMCA on Hammond Street. It offered training in banking, finance, accounting, business arithmetic, penmanship, commercial law, shorthand and typewriting.
In 1892, Beal, a native of Norway, Maine, bought the Shorthand Department of the college after teaching classes for three years. Twelve years later, Miss Beal’s School of Shorthand and Typing broke away from the college. Classes were offered at various downtown locations for the next decade. Beal sold the school two years before her death in 1924, never dreaming it would one day occupy its current location.
In the 20th century, social theories changed, according to Rea. If people lived in their own homes, the thinking went, it would be easier to find work than if they were confined on the poor farm. They also could avoid being exposed to the diseases, laziness and immorality of other inmates. It was the Mother’s Aid Act of 1917, the precursor of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and TANF, that was the beginning of the end for America’s almshouses, including Bangor’s.
The creation of Social Security and other forms of public assistance brought a gradual end to the need for a poor farm as an institution. By the end of World War II, the population of the almshouse had shrunk to a group of chronically ill, mostly elderly patients, unable to work. As part of a national trend in which publicly supported almshouses became publicly supported nursing homes, the Bangor City Farm became the Bangor Chronic Disease Hospital in 1948.
There are few remnants of the hospital left today. It moved to the former Dow Air Force Base Hospital in 1970 and is now the Bangor Nursing Facility. Beal’s school was located at 9 Central St. for more than 30 years, despite the fact that it was bought and sold many times. In 1970, Beal College bought the old city hospital and used it as a dormitory until 1975 when the school moved its entire operation to the former almshouse. Today, the college is strictly a commuter school with only classrooms, a library, and offices still in use.
Faded pinups still grace the walls of one room that might have been used by a Beal student or hospital staff. Those are not the only remnants of the building’s long and colorful history, according to Rea.
“I have heard stories about ghosts in the building,” she admitted. “I’ve been alone here in the building and had a sense that something was not quite right. There’s a story about a malevolent or angry presence. Back when we had dorms here, one student said she felt a sense of warmth and love that she couldn’t explain.”
For safety reasons, few people ever see the sections of the building that once had the equivalent of the Bangor Area Shelter, BMHI, Hope House, the Good Samaritan Home for Unwed Mothers, Stillwater Health Care, Shaw House, a communal farm and sheltered workshop under one roof. Rea and the staff at Beal College, however, are acutely aware that had some of the students been born in the 19th century they might have been in the same building, but under very different conditions.
“When I was young, my dad used to joke about his family driving him to the poor house,” said Rea. “Now, I joke about how I made it there instead.”