People mill about at what was then known as Maplewood Park -- today as Bass Park -- in this undated early 20th century BDN photo. Credit: BDN file photo

It’s hard to imagine that the 80-acre swath of city-owned land in Bangor known as Bass Park used to be an entertainment mecca for all of eastern and northern Maine.

One hundred years ago, people came from all over the state, not just to enjoy the Bangor State Fair and horse racing, but also to take in baseball games, enjoy live music, or crowd in to hear a speech from a visiting dignitary like Theodore Roosevelt.

Today, aside from summertime harness racing at Hollywood Casino Raceway and its associated off-track betting parlor, and the fair held each year in late July, the sprawling facility is little more than a parking lot.

And with the recent news that the city intends to tear down the agricultural barns located in back of the raceway grandstand, which used to hold livestock and 4-H animal exhibits during the fair, Bass Park will now have another empty lot on the property.

But in an earlier era, Bass Park was the sort of place where you’d put on a spiffy outfit and spend the day, whether it was for the fair, a ball game or to gawk at newfangled inventions like the automobile or the airplane.

“It really used to be a big deal,” Bangor historian Dick Shaw said. “People would come from all over the state, not just for the fair but for all sorts of different entertainment. My father used to take the train from Milo to Union Station in Bangor, and then walk to Bass Park and spend the whole day there. It was a different time.”

Clockwise from left: A 1918 image of harness racing at Bass Park in Bangor, when it was known in the late 18th and early 20th centuries as Maplewood Park; A marching band is pictured in this historic 1921 image; A 1915 image of the Bangor State Fair; In this 1908 photo, fans gather in the grandstand and on the track. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Shaw

Before it was known as Bass Park, it was known as Maplewood Park, named for a hotel that once stood roughly where the Residence Inn now stands, by the Cross Insurance Center. By the 1870s, it was owned and operated by Joseph Parker Bass, the publisher of the Bangor Daily Commercial, who cofounded the Bangor State Fair in 1883. The fair was an expansion of the existing Bangor Horticultural Fair, which was started in 1849. Bass added a midway and other entertainment to what was once strictly an agricultural fair, dramatically increasing attendance.

Bass also built and opened the race track in 1883. Over the years, the racetrack also hosted car races, baseball games and polo matches, and each year played host to a traveling circus and a chariot race held by the Anah Shriners. Concerts and lectures were hosted in the original Bangor Auditorium, built in 1897, across the street from where the Cross Insurance Center now stands.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at Bass Park, and in 1909, the first airplane to ever take off in Bangor took off from the park. From the late 1890s through 1933, the Maine Music Festival, a classical music and opera festival, was held there.

Joseph Bass died in 1919, and bequeathed all 80 acres of the park to the city, though the city would not get around to taking full possession of the property until 1933, at which point it was renamed from Maplewood Park to Bass Park, in honor of its founder.

In the ensuing decades, the city has often struggled to put the park to good use, even as it has built two civic centers on park property — the Bangor Auditorium in 1955, which was replaced by the Cross Insurance Center in 2013.

A few notable events have occurred in more recent decades, like the Trans-Atlantic Balloon Race, which saw 10 international teams of balloonists take off from Bass Park in September 1992, or visits from presidential candidates like John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Some events, like the Paul Bunyan Festival Days in the mid-1990s, or the SnoCross snowmobile racing events between 2014 and 2017, were short-lived and didn’t draw the attendance organizers hoped for.

Clockwise from left: Miyah Hall, 14, stands with her Serama chicken Tikii sit on her shoulder in the Old MacDonald’s Farm barn as part of 4-H showing during the annual Bangor State Fair at Bass Park in Bangor in 2017; People ride the ferris wheel during the fair; Spectators watch as horses make their way around the track during a harness race at the Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway; Marjorie Hardy, 14, of Farmington scrubs her cow, Della, in preparation for the 4-H Dairy Show outside the dairy barn on Saturday, July 30, 2005. Credit: Ashley L. Conti and Erin Fredrichs / BDN

Harness racing continues, but with a greatly decreased audience, with betting revenues dropping from $70 million in 2002 to less than $30 million in 2016. The Bangor State Fair’s attendance has also dwindled, from approximately 63,000 in 2010 to around 40,000 in 2018,   and with the emphasis being placed on carnival rides, games and fair food, and less on agriculture, live music, or the arts and crafts shows that used to happen inside the auditorium.

And with the demolition of the livestock barns soon to get underway, the fair is at risk of losing its last connection to its roots as an agricultural fair, unless local 4-H clubs can come up with their own solution.

It may be that Bass Park, a facility created in a completely different era from the one Bangor exists in now, is a relic from another time. Or it may be that no one has come up with the right way to revitalize it.

“I think the city feels a responsibility to the property, but no one has really found a way to rethink it,” Shaw said. “It’s seen better days. It’s a huge tract of land. It’s not easy to do.”

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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.