UMaine's live black bear mascot, Bananas the Bear in an undated photo from the early 20th century; to the right is a more recent version of the costumed mascot. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

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For more than 100 years, the University of Maine’s mascot has been Bananas T. Bear, a proud ursine whose sole purpose in life is to cheer on UMaine sports teams. He’s undergone a number of makeovers throughout the decades, but for as long as anyone alive can remember, the mascot has been a bear.

Before Bananas’ official debut in 1914, however, UMaine almost decided on a different mascot — one just as symbolic of Maine but perhaps less ferocious in demeanor.

Can you imagine the University of Maine Moose? Because that’s nearly what happened in 1913.

First though, came the black bear — or, if you believe a semi-apocryphal story from UMaine fraternity Beta Theta Pi, first came an elephant smuggled onto campus by a student in 1903. Other UMaine lore states that the elephant mascot was actually a tin sign stolen from a Bangor business that was shaped like an elephant and painted blue. Either way: definitely not a bear, and definitely not an actual animal.

According to UMaine lore, the first mascot was a baby bear dubbed Jeff by Orman Fernandez, the Old Town chief of police to whom the cub was given. Reportedly, the cub was found somewhere near Katahdin and “gifted” to Fernandez, who collected wild animals and later loaned his bear to the university. The bear made his debut at a UMaine vs. Colby football game in November 1912, according to a Bangor Daily News article from the time.

The next year, however, UMaine was prepared to try a different mascot out — this time, one decidedly less furry and with far less sharp teeth, but just as iconic. A moose, found as a baby without its mother somewhere in the woods of Washington County, was trotted out in September 1913, and was named Napoleon. In the BDN article announcing his debut, he was referred to as a “lusty young bull moose” expected to lead UMaine to “another glorious championship.”

That 1913 article is the only known reference to poor Napoleon, however, who apparently was quickly abandoned in favor of the return of Jeff the following year, who by then was a fully grown black bear. During his year off, however, Jeff was taken to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he became a fixture on the city’s famed boardwalk and caused a minor uproar when he reportedly ripped a poster of President Woodrow Wilson off a telephone pole.

At some point between 1914 and 1915, Jeff was renamed Bananas, due to the fact that the crowd at UMaine football games went “bananas” when he took the field. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a history that some might be a little uncomfortable with, given society’s drastically changed expectations on how animals — especially wild animals — should be treated. A hundred years ago, few would have batted an eye at a baby bear being plucked from the wild to perform tricks for a screaming crowd, and otherwise be left chained up and alone. Today, it would be illegal.

Bananas T. Bear, pictured in 1916, in this University of Maine file photo. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

Throughout the 1920s, multiple live bears served as Bananas. In 1920 and 1921, Bananas II starred in several low-budget movies, including the lost 1921 silent film “The Rider of the King Log.” By 1925, Bananas the Fifth was living permanently on campus, and by 1927, UMaine was onto Bananas the Eighth. There’s no record of the various Bananas ever attacking anyone, though there are several reported instances of the bear escaping from its enclosure and roaming around Orono until being recaptured.

According to Beta Theta Pi, which has been the longtime caretaker of the Bananas legacy, initially the fraternity brothers would house the bear in an abandoned pump house near the Stillwater River, tossing a few bales of hay in the building with Bananas and locking the door each winter so the bear could hibernate. Bananas’ longtime trainer, Beta Theta Pi brother George Stackpole, would put the bear on a trolley and take it into town to celebrate football wins — or to lament losses, with both the humans and the bear drinking to forget a losing game.

By the 1930s, Bananas’ house had moved to a farm in Old Town, where it stayed for decades. The bear — typically a cub or young bear that was easier to control — would be handled by a succession of UMaine students, who would bring the animal on a chain to football games and other events. In the 1950s and ’60s, the bear was given various sobriquets, including Connie, Sally and Cindy.

The new costume for Bananas T. Bear, the mascot for the University of Maine Black Bears, was unveiled for the first time during Saturday’s football game at Morse Field in Orono. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

In 1966, however, UMaine’s days of allowing a wild animal to be used as its sports mascot ended, when the state legislature outlawed the usage of live animals as mascots. In 1969, UMaine debuted its first costumed mascot — a papier-mache head and bear paws, worn over a simple pair of pants and sweater, made by Drapeau’s Costume Shop in Lewiston. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Bananas was part of the UMaine cheerleading team.

The costume has undergone several redesigns over the decades, including most recently in 2015. Today, Bananas is a beloved symbol of UMaine, portrayed by various students in order to pump up crowds at hockey and football games. It’s a lot nicer — and safer — to have it be a human bear, rather than a real one.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.