The story of the Northern Maine Music Festival
By Kevin and Kate McCartney
Photographs by Robert Longlais
Readers who live in more highly populated areas are likely familiar with the scene: large stages awash with colored lights, grass fields covered with blankets and folding chairs, thousands of informally dressed patrons of the musical arts sporting colored wrist bands to show payment of admission, kiosks that sell ethnic food and CDs, with shuttle buses bringing people in from remote parking areas…
It is hard to conceive of such a festival in northern Maine. While we can boast of abundant and beautiful grassy fields, there simply are not enough local resources – neither money or sound equipment, nor adequate numbers of people to draw on for volunteers and audience – to create such an event here. The notable exception was the three Phish concerts held on the runway at the old Loring AFB, which were of enormous scale, but done with considerable money, experience and audience from outside this region.
To start a musical festival from scratch boggles the imagination: gates, parking, policing, ticket sales, advertising, insurance, and porta-potties must all be arranged and paid for before the booking of a single kazoo player. So what is a frustrated music festival lover in Aroostook County to do? What County people always do, of course – find a reasonable solution within modest means. It’s almost impossible to build a festival infrastructure from thin air? Not a problem. A local organization and physical structure with the capability to deal with thousands of people already exists: the Northern Maine Agricultural Fair, referred to by everyone simply as The Fair.
The Fair is a nine-day event, lasting from the last Friday in July to the second Saturday following. Located in Presque Isle, the Fair has been in operation for 154 consecutive years, since 1855. Older residents can still remember a time when The Fair was the one significant entertainment and social event of the year. That was a time when this agricultural fair served a community almost entirely supported directly or indirectly by farms. In those days, everybody went to The Fair.
Those days are gone. While the County is still very agriculturally oriented, small farms have largely consolidated. Major employers are now education, retail and food service industries, medical workers and government, not farming. Television and internet provide entertainment that competes with and is more culturally popular than livestock.
Subsequently, the Fair has also evolved away from its roots. The animal, flower and art competitions were once a major draw of The Fair, but most fair goers now attend for the rides, carnival games, horse races, truck and tractor pulls, and demolition derbies. These attract many people, but there are perhaps at least as many others who no longer go, or have never gone, to The Fair. The County’s population has also steadily declined for decades, further decreasing fair attendance. To survive in modern times, an agriculturally based Fair needs a broader appeal and fresh approach to people who would otherwise not be going to an event that have an agricultural theme.
Slowly but surely, change has been coming. The Fair is working to return to its historical roots. The livestock exhibits and 4-H areas have been updated, with more attention given to fresh wood shavings for the animals, and a petting zoo for children who have never seen a live goat. The Historical Pavilion has the largest assemblage of displays from historical societies to be found anywhere in the state. The antique tractors have developed into a fully formed exhibit in their own right; an “Agricultural Heritage Building” was built in 2008 to display them year-round, with local funds and hammers erecting an impressive new building in spite of economic hard times.
And music? In recent years, The Fair focused much of its limited entertainment funds into a single blowout concert event. These are very expensive and risky. A big name costs a great deal of money, and a fair that books a less than popular enough act or has the misfortune to schedule on a day of bad weather can face ruin. When Tanya Tucker was brought to The Fair in 2003, the total cost for the main and warm-up acts, sound, lights, advertising consumed a large portion of fair’s budget; board members sweated bullets worrying whether ticket sales would cover costs. They did, just barely. But that provided music for only one evening.
Northern Maine however has its own talented musicians of nearly every description. For these people, music is a labor of love and not a vocation. Opportunities for a little recognition and a stage to play on before friends and neighbors are few. The idea was suggested that the County’s own musicians could fill an entire nine-day music program at The Fair. Each night would feature a different genre of music: Country, Rock, Jazz, Traditional, Fiddle, Gospel, Bluegrass … and Classical and Karaoke as well! The board members gave a skeptical nod, just a few months before the 2005 Northern Maine Fair.
Organizing a music festival in four months is not for the weak of heart. The Fair had no infrastructure in place for such an event. For a starting question – where would it be? The giant old metal “commercial building” has once been an exhibition hall for business displays but in more recent years was used for storing equipment in the winter without a particular role during The Fair. In recent years, most of this building space was used during Fair week for paint-ball shoot-em-ups.
A portion of the commercial building could be used for a music stage area. This idea had already been developed the year before for karaoke programs. At the first opportunity to get into the building, after the RVs and boats had been removed from their winter storage, it was discovered that the commercial building was an acoustically terrible place for music. Every footstep in the building reverberated as if in a tin can.
Say this about northern Maine, and perhaps agricultural fairs in general: they don’t just talk about what should be done. Where the talkers talk, the doers do. The empty B-52 hangers at Loring still had hundreds of Styrofoam sound panels hanging from the ceilings, many in shreds. These were donated, removed, trucked to Presque Isle, repaired with cardboard and staple guns and hung on the walls of the new “Music Hall.” Wood panels were scavenged to create a wall that would separate the music from the area that was already contracted for paint-ball. Portions of a stage were contributed by the city, as were some folding chairs. It was a humble beginning, but a beginning is where things start.
For sound, our local “Fireman Fred” had a basic system that he used for karaoke and patriotic events. Décor was provided by Patti Crooks, the manager of the Aroostook Centre Mall. A few sponsors were recruited, and a program was put together for each evening. It wasn’t much, but advertising that year was for the Northern Maine Agricultural Fair and Music Festival!
The first four days of the festival – Friday to Monday – were worrisome. The Saturday Jazz Night had more people on the stage than in the audience. The Midway’s carousel was positioned just outside the Music Hall entrance and was a noisy competitor to the live music inside. Then Tuesday’s Gospel Night packed them in. 250 people! Fair board members stopped by and marveled a little, as they knew many of these people, and had not seen them on the fairgrounds in YEARS. The next night, Bluegrass, performed to a similarly packed house, and the highly appreciative audience didn’t want the musicians to leave the stage. Encores lasted almost an hour.
The last day of The Fair was dedicated to classical music. The Caribou Choral Society performed, followed by the Northern Maine Chamber Orchestra, whose director had come up from Bangor for the event. The final orchestral piece was “1812 Overture”, which was performed at the same time as the paint-ball finals competition. Paint balls, being shot from the side of the building that was not insulated for sound, competed with the violins and trumpets for loudest sound. And won.
Such was the first year of the Northern Maine Music Festival. It was perhaps a mixed bag of successes and lessons learned, but there was no question that local music programs had earned a place in the Fair program.
The next year, on the day before The Fair was to begin, disaster unexpectedly loomed when the Midway rides did not arrive. The rides had been impounded as they were trucked across the state line because of some unpaid fines. For many years the rides were considered the primary draw for The Fair. The Fair’s major income besides sponsors was the admission fee to the fairgrounds, and the lack of rides would greatly reduce “The Gate.” The fair board took a collective deep breath and decided to not reduce admission, and to advertise what The Fair offered beyond rides: livestock, history, horses, and music. The Fair lost money that year, but people did come to The Fair in significant enough numbers, even though there were few rides.
If the absence of the rides had happened five or ten years earlier, The Fair would have been very hard pressed attract people, as rides were a major draw. The nonappearance of the rides was seen as a lesson in the value of a diversity of entertainments. The history and music events had shown themselves able to bring in an to be inexpensive
The third year of the music festival, 2007, was a year when everything seemed to come together. There was perfect weather for eight of the nine days. Unfortunately, on the ninth day a mini tornado tore through the area. Seventy mile-per-hour winds came through the fairgrounds on the second Friday afternoon of The Fair, destroying tents and equipment. The Fair was shut down for the day, with only the music playing on. It was Friday night after all – the big battle of the high school rock bands in the Forum and classic rock in the music hall. A little wind wasn’t going to stop these kids.
As of this writing, the fourth festival has recently finished. Each year something more has been added to the Music Hall. The paint-ball side of the building is now the popular Ladies Pavilion. More volunteers, organizers and sponsors have come forward, along with changes to the program. Classical music has not returned, though it may again someday. This year was the first Latin Night, with bossa nova, samba and mambo tunes. The first Celtic Night, featuring the terrific Scheidler family, played to an appreciative audience.
The run away success for the 2008 music festival was the “Wednesday Evening Fiddlers.” This group of fiddle players of all ages is based in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick. They delighted the festival attendees with lively traditional music and some foot-flying step dancing. The audience for Fiddle Night this year was over 400 people and completely filled the music hall. That this number was but a fraction of the audience watching the monster trucks in front of the grandstands at the same time puts things into a larger perspective, but few of those 400 would likely have been on the fairgrounds otherwise.
This year, Sunday featured a first time ¡Fiesta! for The County’s migrant workers under a rented tent. The location, behind the forestry building, seemed to work well both as place for fairgoers in search of shade and as a site for a second music program. There may now be enough volunteers and sponsors for a festival with two stages each night. Maybe some local person has ideas for a light show.
Despite rainy weather through most of The Fair, the 2008 gate receipts were the best of recent record. The music festival’s contribution to this is modest, but the efforts to broaden The Fair’s base is obviously bringing new people in and bringing them back.
The Music Festival remains a work in progress. The ambition is to someday have one of Maine’s significant music festivals, here in northern Maine. While still struggling, of course, it also gets a little better every year.
There is talk of a Disco Night for 2009.
Kevin McCartney is Professor of Geology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and Director at the Northern Maine Museum of Science. He is now Vice-President of the Northern Maine Fair Association. Kate is proprietor of the Old Iron Inn B&B, in Caribou. They have written a series of articles in Echoes on the can-do abilities of the Aroostook County community.
Bob Longlais teaches the Loring Job Corps Center.