Bangor's downtown ball drop has been a tradition in the city since 2004. The 2019/2020 ball drop is pictured here. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar / BDN

Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to eburnham@bangordailynews.com.

There are lots of cultural touchstones specific to Bangor. Stephen King, naturally, who made Bangor renowned worldwide for its killer clowns. Paul Bunyan, who we maintain — despite Minnesota’s protests — was born in the Queen City. Onion and meat subs, a.k.a. the Coffee Pot sandwich, our pungent and delicious take on the classic New England Italian.

And, of course, the Bangor ball drop, which sees Bangorians in various states of sobriety gather in West Market Square just before midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch people huck a beach ball covered in string lights off the roof of 26 Main St., the home of Irish pub Paddy Murphy’s.

When did such a DIY celebration of the New Year become a thing? Whose idea was it? And why a beach ball?

It all started in 2004, when Steve Smith, a trial lawyer now based in Augusta, was living and working out of 26 Main St. He and his wife, Milva, were relatively new to the city, and didn’t have any plans for New Year’s Eve. Smith watched a news clip about the Times Square ball drop in New York City, with its famous geodesic orb covered in millions of dollars of Waterford crystal.

“I thought to myself, ‘How could you tell at a distance?’” he said. “I then figured how to recreate the effect by taping Christmas tree lights to a cheap purple beach ball.”

Smith put up a few posters in the days before the holiday, thinking he might get a few downtown characters ambling by at the right time to see him toss his homemade creation off the roof of his building. Instead, around 200 people showed up. Downtown Bangor at the time was still several years away from the start of its revitalization.

Clockwise, from left: Former Bangor Mayor John Cashwell III (L) and former Gov. John Baldacci (R) heave a ball wrapped in holiday lights over the edge of 26 Main St. in Bangor at midnight on Jan. 1, 2006. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN; The ball drop marking Jan. 1, 2007, is shown in this file photo. Credit: Joshua Bright / BDN; A glowing beach ball is launched into a crowd gathered on Main Street to mark midnight on Jan. 1, 2010. Courtesy of Michael C. York

“When we lived downtown it was before the big revival people see nowadays. We would look out our windows at night over the main intersection and there wouldn’t be any lights — even streetlights,” Smith said.

In 2005, Smith invested a whopping $10 more and purchased a slightly bigger beach ball and a few more lights at Marden’s. He invited Gov. John Baldacci to do the ceremonial hucking of the ball. That time, around 1,000 people showed up to watch.

Buoyed by the unexpected popularity of the event, in 2006, the Downtown Bangor Partnership started the Downtown Countdown, a First Night-style event with entertainment in several venues across downtown. That event continues today, though it wasn’t held in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. The ball drop itself wasn’t held at all in 2020, in fact, though in 2021 it came back to a small but enthusiastic crowd. At its peak years in 2014 and 2015, the event drew more than 4,000 people downtown.

In 2011, Smith sold 26 Main St. to John Dobbs, who had opened Paddy Murphy’s in the building with his wife Rachel in 2007. Dobbs and pub staff took over ball drop operations that year, and have gradually increased the size of the beach ball and the amount of lights on it. Most years, Bangor’s city council chair — unofficially called the city’s mayor — helps toss the ball, along with Dobbs and other local dignitaries.

At left: People prepare to launch the lit-up inflatable beach ball off the roof of Paddy Murphy’s before midnight marking the transition to 2012. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN; at right: People watch as a ball covered with lights is dropped from the top of Paddy Murphy’s at midnight in Bangor on new year’s eve 2015. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Though the Smiths have since moved to central Maine, Steve Smith said he looks back on those first few ball drop years as some of the fondest in his life.

“Milva and I have always been very proud of the event and, although we live near Augusta now, have always looked back at our time in downtown Bangor as some of the fondest memories of our marriage,” Smith said.

This year will be the 18th year of the Bangor ball drop, accounting for the missed year in 2020. Despite downtown having grown dramatically in size and vitality over the past nearly two decades, the technology behind the ball drop has hardly changed. Neither has the law of gravity, as the actual “drop” takes about 0.8 seconds, with the ball dangling from its giant extension cord from the side of the building as the crowd cheers, before the ball-huckers reel it back to the roof.

Bangor doesn’t need Waterford crystals or Ryan Seacrest or lip-syncing pop stars in Times Square. All it really needs is a beach ball from Marden’s with some lights taped to it. Maybe some hot cocoa, or a nip of whiskey. Definitely some hardy fellow souls gathering in the center of town, ready to say goodbye to another year and welcome a new 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.