As I mentioned in my last blog I am frequently delighted and even astounded at the material we have in the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History. As promised, I am going to tell you about one item I discovered recently that relates to the history of student experience at the University of Maine.
In an undated letter, Mrs. Charles Berdau from Colorado wrote:
I am sending this old story of my father’s feeling that it would be of interest to those of you at the University keeping records of the schools history and past. Dad did not finish his studies there—as the summer of his freshman year he contacted polio. Please see that this story gets into the “right hands” up there.
This is a summary of the story she sent. In the fall of 1923 when Leon P. Brooks of Brownfield, Maine attended the University, the Maine athletic mascot was a real black bear. Leon was also a member of the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity and although the care of the bear was handled by a senior, Leon volunteered to look after the bear because he would receive free tickets and free train rides to all the Maine football games in the state. Leon and the three hundred pound bear would lead a parade down through the Main streets of the town where the game was held with the band following. They would ride on the train so Leon had to take the bear to one end of the baggage car. The bear was controlled by a twelve foot, large cable chain. Leon would put the chain through a rubber hose and wrap that around the bear’s neck and then wrap it around himself, so they were locked together. Once on board the train, Leon would unlock himself from the chain and hook it around one of the steam pipes so he could go and join the other students.
Leon and the bear rode the train to Lewiston, changing in Waterville. Once in Lewiston, the band with Leon and the bear paraded through the streets. As Leon says, “This bear loved music and the minute the band started playing, he would start prancing. The people went crazy watching him dance and strut.”
After the game some University of Maine students let Leon and the bear ride in their Model T to the train station. They next rode the train from Lewiston to Brunswick where, at one o’clock in the morning Leon was told by the conductor that a bear could not ride on the train. Eventually they worked out a deal that allowed the bear to ride with the students in their car. After arriving in Bangor at 3 a.m. Leon found a cab that would bring him and the bear to Orono. They went back to their fraternity house.
I knew that there had been a real bear mascot in the past, but I had never thought about how the bear might be cared for—certainly not that a student was put in charge of him! Leon, in spite of his bout with polio lived to be 80 years old. He died in 1982.