Millinocket business owners are worried that the mistakes of one business could ruin the town’s chances at economic revitalization to become something more than a former mill town.
Since the story of a Millinocket insurance agency posting a racist sign on its door on Juneteenth has spread across the country, other business owners in the small downtown have been hit with threats, poor reviews and insults for something they didn’t do. As a result, many are frustrated and want people to know one business’s actions don’t reflect Millinocket as a whole.
As the clock ticked closer to lunchtime in Millinocket on Thursday most of Leah Malcolm’s Appalachian Cafe tables were full. But Malcolm said she’s worried that tourists may start avoiding Millinocket and her cafe altogether after the story about her next-door neighbors posting a racist sign.
The sign for the Appalachian Cafe, in Millinocket, June 23, 2022; Patrons sit at tables and eat. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN
“It has been frustrating,” she said in between bouncing from table to table refilling coffee mugs along the way.
On Monday, an employee from the Harry E Reed Insurance Agency on Penobscot Avenue taped a sign to the insurance agency’s door that said, “Juneteenth ~it’s whatever… We’re closed. Enjoy your fried chicken and collard greens.”
After the Bangor Daily News reported on the initial backlash the business faced from locals and community leaders alike, the story has spread throughout the United States. Since then, Malcolm and others said they’ve been the targets of mistaken identity.
Malcolm said she received so many messages on Facebook and over the phone from people thinking her restaurant was the Harry E Reed Insurance Agency that she felt like she had to put a statement on her Facebook page clarifying her business supports and recognizes Juneteenth.
She isn’t just worried about the impact on her own business, though. She worries that others in the budding downtown will be hit if tourists catch wind of the misinformation swirling throughout the country about what exactly happened in the small Maine town.
Just down the sidewalk, the Millinocket Insurance Agency, one of the three insurance agencies on the small block of Penobscot Avenue, has received dozens of phone calls threatening owners Robert, Frank and Lori Speed and calling them racist.
But those angry callers have the wrong Millinocket insurance agency.
“It was all morning. We were just swamped with calls,” Robert Speed said. “I don’t think there were any calls that came in Wednesday morning that weren’t hostile, insulting or hang-ups.”
Lori Speed said she tried to clarify with one angry caller that her insurance agency wasn’t the one that had put up the sign. She said the woman on the other end of the line didn’t care.
“I don’t care, you’re in Maine and you’re all racist and you’re all this and all that,” Lori Speed said the woman told her.
Similarly, Rebecca Deschaine’s insurance agency, which is located on the other side of the Reed agency, has gotten harassing messages and threats. Some have gone so far as to threaten Deschaine’s 6-year-old daughter, she said.
“They’ve said things I’m not repeating, mostly because just the thought of it makes my skin crawl,” Deschaine said.
The Speed family has been a fixture in downtown Millinocket for more than 100 years, Robert Speed said. His grandfather operated a pharmacy, general store and the first version of what is now the Millinocket Insurance Agency.
Now, they worry that the case of mistaken identity and the mistake of their business neighbor could have long-term effects on their business.
“I pray we don’t keep getting these phone calls,” Robert Speed said.
Like Malcolm, the Speeds aren’t just worried about just their reputations but those of others, too, Lori Speed said.
“We were a mill town that was half-dead, and we’re trying to live on tourism and get businesses in here,” she said. “If people think we’re racist or not welcoming of people, that’s going to stop.”
“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “It’s embarrassing that our town is being looked at this way. It is also very disheartening that people around here are saying ‘do better Millinocket.’”
Steve Golieb, chair of the Millinocket Town Council, shares the concerns of local business owners. Golieb said he’s worried that the sign, regardless of the intention behind it, has created a perception that Millinocket is a racist community.
“This has forced us to all take a step back and not only be uncomfortable and amazed at the level of ignorance that we have experienced from someone in our community, but it also has opened us up to trying to find a way forward,” he said.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Melanie Hansen-Higgins, an employee of the Harry E Reed Insurance Agency, took responsibility for posting the sign on the business’s door Monday.
“I would like to publicly apologize for any misunderstanding and hurt that has arisen out of my usual, snarky office closure signs and content,” Hansen-Higgins said in a Facebook post.
Hansen’s apology continued, stating that she doesn’t consider herself a racist person.
In the wake of the widespread coverage of the sign, Progressive, Allstate and Farmers insurance companies have all canceled their contracts with the Harry E Reed Agency, paralyzing the business.
The BDN attempted to speak with someone from the agency, but the request went unanswered. Just before 1 p.m. Tuesday a man stood outside the insurance agency, acting as a buffer between people trying to get in and the employees inside..
He said he didn’t work for the company but saw the stories about what happened and wanted to help them.
An East Millinocket police car pulled into a parking spot in front of the agency and sat there for several minutes before driving the rest of the length of Penobscot Avenue.
Eventually, the office closed early.
Golieb said that he’s hoping this can be a teaching moment but that the town will be working to move forward.
“We need to show what it means to accept what has happened and to find a healthy way forward,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what that is. I think that’s a personal choice for most people. But I would hope that we can be an example of what it means to learn from an experience like this.”