It has been a great run. This statement has at times been overused, however, in the case of the American Folk Festival I believe it is more than appropriate. When the seed was planted more than 20 years ago, we were looking at a waterfront that still had the “used” look of an abandoned railroad yard, the downtown had a number of empty storefronts and I believe pride in our city was suffering. That’s why our city officials, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and a group of volunteers decided to submit an application for Bangor to be the selected location for the three-year run of the National Folk Festival. It was an ambitious attempt to be the smallest city to ever host this sought after event.
Well, we all know what happened — hundreds of performers have come to Bangor and entertained hundreds of thousands in an audience from all over the United States (and even the world).
The first year was especially challenging. Imagine recruiting more than 600 hundred people to volunteer for something they didn’t even understand. Imagine the site work planning for five stages, food court setup and vendor sales for the very first time.
When the Penobscot Stage arrived on site the legs were four feet too long! The Bangor city engineer at the time, Jim Ring, just dug a four-foot hole and set the support in. The night before the festival, a group went to Frank’s Bake Shop and picked up donated empty scallop buckets, to then proceed to drill holes and paint for the bucket brigade. These stories can go on and on, filled with great nostalgia and surprise at how quickly 20 years have passed.
The success of the festival has always been deeply dependent on the dedication of hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, the generosity of major donors, many who stepped up to the plate when they didn’t even know what the National Folk Festival was (“Are Peter, Paul and Mary coming?” was often asked that first year). A special shout out of gratitude and credit also goes to the Bangor City Council, as they were on board and strongly supported this bold idea of bringing the festival to town along with numerous city departments that were called in to provide their services. Credit and thanks goes to this group as well.
Fortunately, the very first year that the group formed included Heather McCarthy. McCarthy was there before year one and her dedication and tireless work ethic and, maybe most importantly, her love of the festival was a driving force in its success.
Bangor is a changed city from 20 years ago, and I believe much of the change was motivated by the success of the festival.
Next time you eat downtown, have a pizza from a food truck on the waterfront, go to a waterfront concert, or simply take a walk along the river walk, remember the great times we have all spent during those three days at the end of summer.
John Rohman of Bangor was the first chairman of the board of directors for the folk festival. He served on the Bangor City Council for many years, including when the festival first came to Bangor and a year as mayor. He is a past chairman of the Maine Arts Commission.