When Cohen Middle School teacher’s Ron Bilancia’s first group of 2009-2010 7th grade Maine Studies students chose the “Brady Gang” — notorious bank robbers gunned down in Bangor on Columbus Day in 1937 — as the school’s MCHP topic for the year, they were hooked by the Gang’s exploits and dramatic ending. But all along, Ron knew there was more to the historical narrative. Just as important was the life of the man who tipped off the FBI, and the vibrant Bangor business he ran for many years.
That would be Everett S. “Shep” Hurd and Dakin Sporting Goods, respectively. Throughout the year, Ron’s students have learned about Shep and the store — the retailer from which the Brady Gang attempted to place an order for illegal sub-machine guns — in a variety of ways. But on Wednesday, April 14, his current two Maine Studies classes (the school works on a quarterly system) got a special treat — a visit from two of Shep’s grandchildren.
Working from a list of questions prepared by the students, Sarah “Sally” MacFawn, the elder sister, took the lead on the presentation, while her younger sister, Martha Beiser, jumped in at various intervals. They began by relating the facts of their grandfather’s life from his early days in Liberty, Maine, to his high school years at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, to his experience at the University of Maine in Orono, where he graduated with an Engineering degree in 1917.
A fraternity member, he earned his lifelong nickname from taking care of the frat’s resident farm animals — “shep-Hurding” them, in other words. This was the answer to one of the many questions posed by the students. The students also learned that Shep played tennis, had a great sense of humor, liked all sorts of outdoor activities, and was a great tenor who helped start the University’s Glee Club.
After a brief stint working for Chicago Bridge and Iron, where he invented an electrical welding machine, Shep and his wife, Marguerite, returned to Maine in the early 1920s. It was then he bought Dakin Sporting Goods, which would eventually play a central role in one of the most important criminal justice cases in the early part of the 20th century.
But there was far more to Dakin than that. Its history is the history of entrepreneurship in Maine in the years leading up to World War II. Dakin was not just the place to go for any type of sporting and outdoor equipment, it was the go-to place for sport uniform embroidery, trophy engraving, fly-tying, and even bowling ball-hole drilling. Every specialty had its specialist, and the employees stayed for years and years because Shep was good to them. Every summer, he had a day-long, family-friendly company picnic at his home in Searsport featuring lobster, steak, and lots of camraderie.
Recognizing the value of reaching beyond the local community to grow the business, Shep did two savvy things early on: institute a mail-order business, and branch out from retail to sell wholesale to other stores (such as a little shop in Freeport that went by the name of “L.L. Bean.”) Sally and Martha recalled how they grew up working — and playing — in their grandfather’s busy store.
One story that especially delighted the students (and the other adults in the room!) described a large spiral steel chute that descended through all five floors of the building. Built for transporting mail order items from floor to floor, and on down into the basement where they would be packed, the sisters and their friends got a kick out of using the mechanism as a giant playground slide. They would grab a sheet of cardboard, head to the fifth floor, and jump on. It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening now, so learning about these moments are invaluable for evoking a bygone era.
By way of wrapping up the presentation, Sally and Martha provided a brief rundown of the days leading up to the Brady Gang apprehension, the event itself, and how its aftermath impacted Shep. Sally and Martha told the class that:
- The Bangor Police didn’t believe Shep when he first went to them with the suspicion that these strange out-of-towners trying to buy illegal weapons were serious criminals.
While he didn’t know they were part of the Brady Gang — whose leader, Al Brady, was Public Enemy #1 since the 1934 killing of John Dillinger — Shep immediately suspected dastardly activity. So after twice trying unsuccessfully to convince local law enforcement, Shep went straight to the feds. Based on his description, the FBI wasted no time in heading to Bangor.
- Shep had direct involvement in the FBI sting. A fake order for the illegal guns was facilitated and a “pick-up” date for the weapons arranged. The regular clerks were replaced with “G” men that day — except for Shep and the clerk that originally spoke with the Gang members.
How did he feel about being in the middle of this trap? asked a student. “Oh, he was nervous,” said the sisters. Nevertheless, he kept his cool through the whole process. On the morning of the planned capture, he simply told his wife to stay away from the store that day. (She came down anyway, and he had to quickly whisk her away.) During the firefight, he took photos and even film of the dramatic proceedings.
- Immediately after, Shep was a local, regional, and national hero. He was asked to give talks in major cities.
Sally and Martha recalled a “gallery of photos” that hung in Dakin’s for years after; customers could purchase them for 10 cents each. One student wanted to know if Shep was modest about his experience. Definitely, said Sally. While he would describe the incident when asked to, he never bragged, and rarely spoke about it in any depth with his family.
Throughout the talk, the students seemed to understand that Shep’s life was far more than the story of one short-lived, albeit made-for-the-cinema, incident. Some of their most charming and thoughtful questions were about his day-to-day existence. “Where did he and his wife like to go out at night?” (They didn’t go out much because they worked so hard.) “What was his favorite song?” (He could often be heard singing “Alice Blue Gown” from the 1919 Broadway musical Irene.) “Whereabouts in Searsport did he live?” (On the main drag in one of those big, beautiful Victorians.)
While the excitement of sting operations and downtown shoot-outs is undeniable, sometimes it’s what goes on behind and beyond the scenes — and the people involved — that matters most.