Bangor In Focus

Bass Park

Harness racing has been a staple at Bass Park since 1883.
The centerpiece of recreation and entertainment in Bangor since the late 1800s, when it was known as Maplewood Park, Bass Park has almost seen it all: harness racing for more than 100 years, baseball, polo, circuses, soccer, fairs, demolition derbies, rodeos, tractor pulls, horse shows, motorcycle racing and even the world's only trans-Atlantic balloon race.

In its prime as Maplewood Park, Bass Park was the place to be. Patrons flocked to the harness races, to the annual fair and to baseball games. In 1890, Bass brought Nelson, a world-class stallion, to the racetrack. Nelson raced one mile on the half-mile track in 2:15.5 -- a world record for a half-mile track at the time. In 1909, the park was the site of the first airplane flight in the Queen City when a plane shipped by train and then assembled took off and landed at the racetrack's infield.

More recently, the park was part of aviation history on Sept. 16, 1992, when 10 balloonists took off from the racetrack's infield in the world's only trans-Atlantic balloon race. The American team set an endurance record for the time when they landed in Ben Slimane, Morocco, after 144 hours and 16 minutes.

The Bangor State Fair, held every late-July through early-August, is the park's biggest draw and one of Maine's largest agricultural fairs.

Joseph Parker Bass bequeathed the park to the city of Bangor upon his death on March 28, 1919. The city took control of the park in 1933, when the Maine Music Festival's lease with Bass's estate expired. To accept the park, the city had to agree to rename the park in Bass's honor and operate the park for "public" and "semi-public" uses.

Born in Randolph, Vt., in 1835, Bass moved to Bangor in 1863. He represented the city in the Maine Legislature in 1875 after serving a term as mayor. In 1879, he bought the Bangor Daily Commercial and became its editor.

Accounts of Bass's life paint him as a shrewd businessman who never failed to speak his conscience.

"He roused the slothful and prodded the stupid, while he admired the clever, even if he was careful not to spoil them with praise," a colleague said upon Bass's death.

Joined by F.O. Beal and Ezra L. Sterns, Bass helped organize the Eastern Maine Fair in fall of 1883 at Maplewood. Bangor Raceway opened at the park that same year and has been in business ever since. In 1886, Bass convinced the New England Fair to stop at the park. The venture was successful, bringing in $30,000. A short while later, Bass became the sole owner of the park, which had been named Maplewood because of the maple trees at its main entrance at Cattell Street and the nearby Maplewood Hotel.

President Roosevelt tours Bass Park in 1902 during the Eastern Maine Fair.

Fairs at Maplewood emphasized agriculture, especially livestock. Agriculture still plays a major role at the Bangor State Fair, held every late July, early August, although a majority of attention is now on the midway, entertainment and crafts. Each year, children and adolescents present livestock in the fair's 4-H shows. Horse pulling takes place behind the raceway's grandstand.

While the Bangor State Fair may be the main attraction at Bass Park, Bangor Raceway remains the focal point. The shrinking Maine harness racing industry has made the raceway one of a dying breed in the state. Within the last 15 years, Lewiston Raceway has closed, leaving Bangor and Scarborough as the only "full-time" tracks in Maine. But a dearth of horses has forced Bangor to shorten its season to 26 days. There are no longer enough horses to fill even four nights of racing, which was the norm as late as the 1980s. In fact, lately the raceway has ended its season before the start of the state fair.

To maintain and attract fans, the managers of Bangor Raceway have given Sunday races a touch of the past.

Since taking control of Bass Park, Bangor residents and their city councilors have debated the best way to maintain the park and promote it. A special committee in the mid-1980s concluded that the city should not operate the park in hopes of earning a profit but operate the park for the public good by providing recreation and entertainment. When the city chose to build a new Bangor Auditorium at the park in the early 1950s, opponents of the arena argued the new auditorium would violate the terms of the Bass will. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that building the auditorium was well within the terms of the Bass will because the new arena was to replace the old one, which was no longer viable.

Through the years, the city has found itself having to invest more money than expected to maintain the park in its current state. In April 1949, arson destroyed the 2,000-seat, two-tiered wooden grandstand, costing the city about $100,000. The city soon replaced the grandstand, which had stood since about 1898, with a 3,000-seat concrete grandstand. In the early 1990s, the City Council voted to turn the park's harness racing operations over to private investors to cut the city's losses. The investors, led by Fred Nichols, have made modest renovations to the grandstand, adding more betting windows and increasing the size of the concession areas.

In 1997, the Bangor Blue Ox, an independent minor league baseball team, sought help from the city to build a baseball stadium at Bass Park. The 2-year-old team had played its games at Mahaney Diamond at the University of Maine in Orono. The proposed $4 million stadium would have brought baseball back to the park, where in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century games were played on a diamond in the infield of the racetrack. One architect's plans would have removed the racetrack in favor of the stadium. Another, more likeable plan, had the stadium being built between the back of the racetrack's grandstand and Interstate 395. Although a majority of city councilors voted in favor of partially financing the project, those in favor failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote. The Blue Ox then left the city.

1995-2012, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.

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