Last winter, in a building designed by famed Maine architect John Calvin Stevens, a group of dedicated residents of Dexter sat down to brainstorm about revitalizing their beloved town, with the primary proposed means being a summer festival enticing enough to have out-of-towners flocking to Dexter.

Earlier attempts at fundraising festivals in this former mill town smack in the middle of the state included a Western theme and the prosaic “Dexter Days.” They were fine, but didn’t draw the crowds: hundreds, not thousands. The Dexter Revitalization Committee agreed that food was always a good draw. Rockland has the Maine Lobster Festival (which starts today and is celebrating its 69th year). Dexter didn’t have any particular affiliation with any one food. But then again, neither did nearby Dover-Foxcroft, which started its Maine Whoopie Pie Festival in 2009 and by 2015 hosted 8,000, nearly double the town’s population. The group mulled until committee member Diane Parola stepped into the creative breach.

“I brought up the idea of red hot dogs,” Parola said.

There was resistance on the committee.

“Some people said, ‘I hate red hot dogs, I don’t want to do it.’ ”

But the group began to come around as Parola explained how the red hot dog holds a special place in Maine food culture. Only one company in Maine still makes them, W. A. Bean of Bangor, but people all across the country have fond memories of grilling these hot dogs – so lurid in color that ketchup looks sedate next to them – over campfires on summer nights in Maine.

And even if some people judge them disgusting, consensus is never easy. People have biases, often for the wrong reasons. The very man who had commissioned this John Calvin Stevens building, now home to Dexter’s only hotel, the Brewster Inn, was one of Dexter’s most famous residents, Ralph Owen Brewster, first a governor then a senator of Maine whose early political career took off with the support of the Ku Klux Klan. During his last days in power he worked alongside his pal Joseph McCarthy, the most famous anti-red politician in American history. That this plot to celebrate the red hot dog was hatched in his former home might be poetic justice.

A NARROW MISS

Dexter’s decision to go ahead and start planning the festival, which premieres Aug. 13, was a lucky one, timing-wise. Sean Smith, the director of marketing and sales for W. A. Bean, said he had just started talking with Bangor City Councilman Ben Sprague about “doing a red snapper thing in Bangor” when he got a call from Parola.

She, and Dexter, seemed a lot further along in their planning, so even though Bangor does have that claim to being home to the last manufacturer of red hot dogs within the state, Smith was happy to say yes to Dexter.

“It’s a really under-appreciated part of the state if you ask me,” Smith said. “To be honest with you, in Bangor we’ve already got enough going on.”

W. A. Bean is donating 200 pounds, some 2,000 of its Red Snappers to Dexter (and more if they are required). At least 150 of those dogs will be placed in front of the 10 participants in a red hot dog eating contest during the one-day festival. The others will be sold in a red hot dog-only food tent. The condiments will likely include chili as well as the standards. Over 35 vendors and crafters have already signed up for the festival, so red hot dogs won’t be the only food. Just don’t look for any other kind of hot dog on sale; that’s forbidden.

The festival will also feature a cooking contest, not entirely oriented around red hot dogs, which some festivalgoers may be grateful for. Contestants will compete for the best red dogs dish, also the best baked bean dish and pie made with Maine fruits.

Admission is free, but sales from all those donated hot dogs, along with corporate sponsorship, will go into a fund for town revitalization projects.

“We’re not trying to make a killing,” Parola said. “But we hope that the concept is going to bring people in.” They’re dreaming of a crowd of between 3,000 and 5,000.

HOT DOG HISTORIAN

One of those attending will be Mike Labbe, a Gardiner man who writes the blog Hot Dogs of Maine. Labbe was unaware that the festival was happening until a reporter reached out to him, but said he definitely plans on going.

While working on an as-yet-unpublished book, Labbe investigated the origins of the red hot dog. According to Sean Smith, W. A. Bean has been making the Red Snappers since 1918 (the company also makes and packages Rice’s red dogs). But Labbe said his research turned up an informational booklet put out in the early 1990s by Jordan’s Meats, formerly of Maine (sold to Tyson in 2005 and now a subsidiary of Kayem) that puts the origin of the red hot dogs even earlier, before the turn of the 20th century.

Charles and Richard Schonland, whose father was running a successful meat business in Massachusetts, started Schonland Brothers in 1891 on Fore Street in Portland. By 1895 they had moved to Union Street.

“It was the sons that moved to Portland that made theirs red,” Labbe said. “And they dyed them so that theirs would look different.” At least initially: “Everyone followed suit.” In 1935, Jordan’s Meats bought out the Schonlands and continued the red hot dog tradition.

While W. A. Bean does make a “colorless” (i.e., brown) version of its Red Snapper, Labbe remains true to his childhood preference.

“When I was a kid my dad always got me the red ones, and I was fascinated by them.”

What’s the difference, beyond the color?

“I do think they taste different,” Labbe said. “I don’t know. I think the red ones taste better.”

Some of this may have to do with childhood nostalgia. Janice Brown, another amateur historian who has written about hot dog history on her blog, Cow Hampshire, remembers eating red hot dogs on Saturday nights in the 1950s while she and her family watched television. Her dad worked at a meat company in Manchester and brought the dogs home with him.

“We ate them on paper plates and watched ‘The Lone Ranger’ on TV,” she said. “They tasted great. That is why people get these warm fuzzies about certain foods.”

At least two members of the revitalization committee have yet to find out about the distinct flavor of the red dogs for themselves. Parola has an allergy to red dye, so she’s off the hook. But Mark Stephens, who is the owner and proprietor of the Brewster Inn and a member of the revitalization committee? Not so much.

He was one of the less enthusiastic members when the red hot dog idea was broached. He’s never had one. As an Englishman, who settled in Dexter in 2007 and began restoring the inn, he prefers a “proper sausage sandwich, served with English bacon and tomato ketchup.”

Although he admits to having his doubts about the red hot dog concept, he has gotten on board. “I said, ‘Sod it, why not? Let’s go for it. If there’s a Black Fly Festival (in Milo in June), why not red hot dogs?’ ”

He even has two groups of guests, one from Florida and the other from New York, intending to attend the festival (and yes, do other sightseeing in the state, as well). He’s ready to dive in.

“I will eat a red hot dog at the festival,” Stephens said. “I will venture down there and find the best-looking red hot dog I can find. And it will excite me.”


Correction: This story was revised at 7:36 a.m., Aug. 3, 2016, to correctly identify Mike Labbe, who writes the blog Hot Dogs of Maine.