There will be a number of things longtime attendees of the Bangor State Fair won’t see when the gates open on the venerable summer event this Thursday, aside from midway rides and games and food stands offering classic fair treats.
Agricultural exhibitions, for one, won’t happen this year after the city tore down the animal barns over the spring. Traditional fair events like pie-eating contests and craft shows aren’t on the docket, and neither is entertainment from acts like timber sports athletes, BMX bike riders, skateboarders and dog agility groups that have performed in the past 10 years.
The fair itself this year is just four days long — less than half its traditional length of nine days — and the only live entertainment during the fair’s run will come from tractor pulls, a demolition derby and five local bands.
What’s clear is that the Bangor State Fair isn’t returning at its traditional scale. And going forward, its organizers haven’t decided what its future will look like.
After two pandemic years that reduced the Cross Insurance Center’s staff from 30 full-time employees to just three, the organization that now organizes the Bangor fair is rebuilding everything, from staffing levels to the lineup of events it offers, said Chris McGrail, the arena’s director.
That includes the fair, which has seen lagging attendance over the past decade — even before the pandemic halt in 2020 — and a condensed event in 2021 at which only midway rides and games were set up.
“We’re still in the rebuilding phase. We’re trying to establish what works and what doesn’t,” McGrail said. “The fair was successful last year with the condensed version, so we’re starting with that and slowly adding things back in. This is an opportunity for us to reimagine what the fair can be.”
Whether that will include the return of agricultural exhibits from local 4-H clubs remains to be seen, though McGrail said last month that his organization would work with those groups to see how they could bring back livestock displays to future fairs.
Regardless, it seems unlikely that the fair of the past — an event that at its peak in the mid-20th century could attract more than 100,000 people — will ever truly return. Mike Dyer, who ran the Bangor State Fair for more than 30 years between 1988 and 2019 and is now retired, said that each year, it’s gotten harder and harder to carry out.
“The fair is a unique thing that really requires year-round attention and planning in order to pull off,” Dyer said. “And in previous decades, we’d have a big group of people who all knew how to do it, and we had a lot of community investment in terms of volunteers and vendors. And we just don’t have that anymore. Things just aren’t the way they used to be.”
In the first half of the 20th century, when Bangor still had passenger rail service, people would take the train from points north to attend the fair. And even into the 1980s and ’90s, while the agricultural element was certainly part of it, the bigger attractions for most fair-goers were the rides, the food and the seemingly endless amounts of entertainment, shopping and spectacle. You could ride the Ferris wheel, see a sideshow, eat something delicious, take part in a contest, and buy everything from clothing to kitchen appliances to a hot tub, all in one day.
“Back then, it was a chance to see people you hadn’t seen all year,” Dyer said. “That’s just not something people need anymore, with social media. There are so many other things to do. Something like the fair just can’t compete.”
Bangor — and New England in general — also doesn’t have the same sort of state fair tradition that states out west have. Where Maine fairs tend to be homegrown affairs that are commensurate in size with the level of community support, states such as Texas, Minnesota and Iowa feature fairs that are massive, multi-million dollar extravaganzas driven by an agricultural industry that dwarfs Maine’s.
“It’s a totally different kind of experience out there. What they are able to do is unbelievable. But we also haven’t had that kind of large-scale farming that you see in the Midwest or Texas for probably 100 years. It’s just not the same,” Dyer said.
While Maine fairs like the ones in Fryeburg, Skowhegan and Blue Hill continue to draw good crowds and enjoy community support, the Bangor State Fair is at a crossroads. McGrail, who grew up in Skowhegan and has lived in the Bangor area since 2007, knows how important traditions like fairs, which stretch back more than a century throughout Maine, are.
“It’s a big part of Bangor in the summer. We definitely respect the history and the tradition,” McGrail said. “I think the question is, how can we build it back up and make it better? What does the future hold? That’s what we’re trying to figure out. And it’s going to take some time.”