The historic town of Bangor, Maine, hosted the National Folk Festival from 2002-2004. Long the economic and cultural hub of eastern Maine, it enjoyed a century of dominance in the world lumber industry, but by the late 19th century, its once-bustling mills had closed and its riverfront had fallen out of use. Recognizing that the National could be the catalyst to propel its revitalization plans into a reality, Bangor applied to host the festival. A partnership with the NCTA was forged that would transform the cultural, economic, and physical landscape of the city.
Situated at the confluence of the Penobscot River and the Kenduskeag Stream, Bangor was established by European settlers in 1769 on land originally inhabited by the Penobscot people. Its nascent lumber industry developed a system whereby logs were floated downstream from the Maine North Woods and processed in Bangor’s sawmills before continuing downriver to shipbuilding centers on the Atlantic Coast. By the 1830s, it was home to more than 300 sawmills, earning the city the title “Lumber Capital of the World.” During the 19th century, as the nation expanded westward, Bangor’s lumber town prosperity fell victim to increased competition from other forest-rich regions. By the late 20th century, the town’s historic downtown was largely vacant. In imagining the revitalization of its downtown and waterfront areas at the turn of the millennium, Bangor emphasized the importance of celebrating the town’s unique history and cultural identity.
When the National began its three-year run in Bangor in 2002, there was skepticism that the small Maine community could succeed as the annual event’s host city. Bangor was one of the smallest communities to ever host the festival since its inception in 1934. But by the end of its residency, everyone was a believer. The festival was an unqualified success, its crowds more than tripling the population of Bangor each year. It also infused millions of dollars into the local economy and spurred waterfront redevelopment and downtown renewal that helped to establish Bangor as a travel destination. Following the National’s departure, Bangor launched the American Folk Festival in partnership with the NCTA, which continued to curate the artistic program. Debuting in 2005, the annual, three-day event highlighted regional cultural heritage alongside traditions from across the nation. Continuing the National’s legacy, it included a folklife area curated by the Maine Folklife Center, a festival marketplace, and a family area created in partnership with the Maine Discovery Museum. By its third year, the festival attracted 168,000 festivalgoers and generated 15 million impact dollars.
After 18 transformative years of fulfilling its promise to “bring the world to Bangor,” the final American Folk Festival was held in 2019. Though it is greatly missed, its legacy lives on in Bangor’s bustling downtown, its waterfront entertainment district, and in the yet-unimagined projects and events that will follow. The National Folk Festival and its successor, the American Folk Festival, contributed incalculably to Bangor’s cultural and economic vitality, but most importantly, instilled a small town with the courage to dream big.