Part 1 of a monthly series showing how Bangor has changed since voting to create an Urban Renewal Authority in 1958.

Maybe it was the racing ostriches at Bass Park.

Or the fabulous Dancing Waters, the 800-pound birthday cake, the 25,000 people craning their necks on Main Street to see the Paul Bunyan parade.

Or maybe it was the Packers-Giants exhibition game or the New Year’s Eve bonfire crackling with 13,000 Christmas trees.

In 1959, Bangor’s civic fathers and mothers dreamed up a 125th anniversary celebration of their city, and just about anybody who was there has a favorite memory.

Yet those flamboyant, kitschy, joyous events overshadowed significant changes under way those same months in Bangor a half-century ago.

Amid the anniversary fireworks were some little-celebrated milestones that would come to mark a gradual shift in direction for a city of approximately 30,000 people just beginning to get comfortable with TV dinners, Sputnik, interstates and pizza.

Within about 18 months, from mid-1958 to early 1960, the following occured:

— A $2 million shopping center — the city’s first — opened on sleepy Broadway, complete with the new discount retailer Zayre, old-timer W.T. Grant and a score of smaller stores.

— The city started pumping its fresh drinking water from Floods Pond in nearby Otis (but was still dumping 5 million gallons per day of raw sewage into the Kenduskeag Stream and Penobscot River).

— An “industrial spur” — later called Interstate 395 — opened, connecting Main Street to the still unfinished Interstate 95.

— The city bought 40 acres off Broadway for a Modernist building designed to be the largest high school in the state.

— Voters approved an Urban Renewal Authority to plan “modern” housing and shopping districts.

— The Air Force constructed a 530-unit housing complex named for an obscure Indiana senator named Homer Capehart; started spending $29 million on a 215-acre missile installation waiting to shoot down Soviet bombers; and completed a 13,460-foot-long runway at Dow Air Force Base, where construction crew members tossed coins into the cement for good luck.

And, at the end of 1959, the city manager was able to report a $220,000 surplus.

“I think Bangor always wants to see itself on the cutting edge of change and is proud that it sees itself that way,” said Marc Berlin, 57, a downtown bookstore owner who published a history of the city in 1999. Yet Bangor’s leaders have always feared their city would become part of what Berlin calls “marginalized, forgotten places.”

“And I think Bangor has tried hard its whole history to resist that. I think successfully — although, when you look at the circumstances, you’d say, ‘How has it resisted?’”

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One way to resist was to use the 125th anniversary of the old lumberport’s 1834 incorporation as a vehicle to promote Bangor, Maine, and its potential. That led to Paul Bunyan, the birthday cake, and a whole year of events in 1959.

“There were a lot of businesses that had been started. But they were all started by grandfathers probably more progressive than the grandsons were,” said Gordon W. Clapp, 76, who was chairman of the 125th anniversary steering committee and now lives in Dunn, N.C.

“There were exceptions to that rule, but generally speaking we were being held back,” Clapp said.

Some of the city’s leaders concluded that Bangor needed some marketing oomph, so the steering committee came up with about $150,000 — two-thirds from private donors, less than a third from the city. It spent that money on promotion and staff, but lined up a slew of sponsors to finance specific events, which ranged from community carol singing in mid-December 1958 to the burying of a time capsule on Dec. 31, 1959.

Gene Holter’s Wild Animal Show on Memorial Day weekend at Bass Park presented racing ostriches and camels as well as assorted zebras and llamas.

Organizers spent $7,000 to bring the Dancing Waters — fountainlike water jets keyed to music and colored lights — to the old Bangor Auditorium, a wooden building that was still standing in 1959 in the shadow of the 5,000-seat Bangor Auditorium, which had opened four years earlier.

The Sept. 5 National Football League exhibition game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants (the Giants won, 14-0) cost $20,000 per team, Clapp said, and organizers rented 15,000-seat bleachers at $1 per seat for the Garland Street Field.

Clapp remembers the Christmas tree bonfire on New Year’s Eve as something of a bust. “The way they did it, the trees never took. It was slow-burning.”

The list of events went on and on: a square dance festival; a Christmas lighting contest; the Down East Classic (college basketball) at the new Bangor Auditorium; a salute to the armed forces; and a paint-up, clean-up, fix-up campaign for Bangor businesses.

The annual pageant for choosing Miss Bangor allowed the winner to do double duty as Miss 125th Anniversary in 1959. And Louenna Kostenbauder, a 20-year-old Bangor High graduate who was attending the University of Maine, got the job.

Now Louenna Avery, 70, of West Haven, Vt., she remembers being asked to serve a few hours each week that summer as a tourist guide inside a three-tiered 24-foot-tall wooden birthday cake that was set up in West Market Square downtown.

“It was like a little travel office, I guess,” she said. “It was hideous.” Avery and others were supposed to hand out tourism literature from a window. But when it rained, the cake leaked.

Bakers at Dow Air Force Base created a real cake, weighing about 800 pounds, which was served during the climax of the anniversary, the city’s Feb. 12 birthday.

But the real star of the anniversary turned out to be made of fiberglass and steel.

Rick Bronson, 61, said the anniversary committee sometimes met in the living room of his parents, Richard and Connie Bronson, although the younger Bronson, now a Bangor city councilor, would be banished to his room during the discussions.

The younger Bronson suspects his mother saw a 1958 Disney animated short film on Paul Bunyan and suggested to the committee the idea of a statue claiming Bunyan for Bangor.

Designer J. Normand Martin, 82, who wound up birthing the 31-foot Bunyan who stands today in Bass Park, concurs that Connie Bronson, now 87 and living in Orono, came up with the idea. “The committee wanted to leave something behind,” Martin said. So he started shaping the idea into clay.

“In a week, I had sculpted a model that was presented to the committee, and they liked it,” said Martin, who still lives in Bangor. The actual work was crafted in New York, and assembled in Bass Park.

Martin said the final location was chosen so that a person pointing a 35-mm camera could get the full Bunyan in view without backing off the sidewalk onto busy Main Street. “It was never intended to be a work of art. It was to draw attention to Bangor,” he said.

Not surprisingly, it was 34 degrees on Jan. 29, 1959, when the Paul Bunyan statue was unveiled.

The police chief estimated 25,000 people, including hundreds of schoolchildren dismissed from classes, watched the Paul Bunyan parade in downtown. Red-and-white Bunyan caps were the fashion statement of the day, and even Normand Martin grew a Bunyan beard.

“You do things in a big way in Bangor,” Gov. Clinton A. Clauson told the crowd.

—ä—

The city manager in Bangor during these years did things in a big way, too.

Joseph R. Coupal Jr. was a leader in his profession and served as city manager from 1954 to 1966.

Bangor’s city councils during these years tended to be a balancing act among the city’s powerful constituencies, with councilors from Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, the big wholesalers and the locally owned banks. But Coupal was savvy enough to maintain a strong agenda.

Coupal, who died in 2001, made sure he could keep an eye on the city’s Urban Renewal Authority, which voters approved in June 1958 and was housed in the old City Hall on Hammond Street.

He also had a list of assignments ready for the city’s young industrial development director, Peter D’Errico, when he was hired in 1959.

“Find the best locations. Meet their needs,” was Coupal’s order to D’Errico as the city weighed ideas for moving wholesalers from the old river-oriented downtown to the new rail- and truck-oriented industrial parks, said D’Errico, now 77.

A 15,000-square-foot plant for potato chip maker King Cole Food Inc. was one of D’Errico’s first prizes.

Despite such gains, the city by the early 1960s seemed held back by dilapidated housing and businesses, declining property values (at least downtown), and, of course, never enough parking. Coupal and the Urban Renewal Authority would try to change that.

In December 1959, the authority won an $80,000 federal planning grant to begin work on what would become the Stillwater Park housing project between Mount Hope and Stillwater avenues. Eventually, it would acquire 200 parcels, tear down most of the old houses, and construct, mostly from scratch, an entirely new neigh-borhood.

Within three years, the city would try to provide more parking by spending $2.5 million to narrow Kenduskeag Stream from 250 feet to 80 feet at the point where it flows past Exchange and Broad streets downtown.

And within five years, the city would find out that Dow Air Force Base was targeted for closure in 1968.

“Nobody believed we would ever lose that base,” said D’Errico, who is a Bangor councilor today. “It came as a complete shock and surprise in 1964.”

But Bangor’s leaders would decide to take over the base and develop a host of projects, including a city-owned airport, on portions of some 2,000 acres.

Yet another massive project, an “urban renewal” of the downtown retail district, would eventually tear down 150 buildings and offer the parcels for new projects, many of which would need years, even decades, to materialize.

“Preservation of things is still very, very new” for Bangor, said Berlin, who moved to the city in the 1970s. “And I think, still, there is a sense that, if we can do it better new, why would we save the old?

“One of the strengths and weaknesses of Bangor [is that] it really feels it wants to be … modern,” he said. “The good thing about that is it’s avoided the marginalization. The bad thing is it’s lost some things along the way.”

tmccord@bangordailynews.net

990-8124

Next: The Shocks of 1964