As the doughnut drops, a new year begins

"Giant Do-Nut Drop" the newest of Maryland's wacky New Year's traditions.

He was working later than he'd hoped to one New Year's Eve, and when his boss finally let him go at 11:30 p.m., Pieter Bickford bolted from the office, ready to have some fun.

Then something struck him: In his hometown of Hagerstown, there was nowhere special to go to ring in 2013.

"I found myself thinking, 'New York drops the ball in Times Square. In Lebanon, Pa., they lower a piece of bologna. Why don't we have anything?'" he recalls.

On Wednesday night, the town of 39,000 in Washington County serves up an answer for the second straight year. More than 5,000 people are expected to count down in the town square as a giant papier-mache doughnut is lowered four stories into a waiting coffee cup, marking the onset of 2015.

The event — a nod to Krumpe's Do-Nut Shop, a local institution — is the city's reply to a question more communities have been addressing in recent decades: What unusual object will your town drop from a height to mark the new year, to the cheers of hundreds or even thousands?

"It's a chance for communities to express themselves creatively and have some good clean fun," said Ed Grainger, a firefighter who has orchestrated the lowering of an 8-foot canvasback duck in Havre de Grace every New Year's Eve since 2007. "And for us, it's a way for families to get out and celebrate without having to worry about a lot of nonsense going on. I get excited about this every year."

With its second annual "Giant Do-Nut Drop," Hagerstown joins Havre de Grace, Easton and Princess Anne as Maryland communities that greet the new year by dropping oddball items of local significance.

In Easton, officials drop a 6-foot papier-mache crab. In Princess Anne, it's a stuffed-and-mounted muskrat complete with top hat, bow tie and cape.

The crab descends by way of a homemade mechanical device. The muskrat, formally known as Marshall P. Muskrat, comes down via zip line from the top of a firefighters' ladder.

The events are part of a silly-but-serious trend that has spread across the country, from the 6-foot queen conch shell the locals lower at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, Fla., to the 80-pound decorated cheese wedge dropped from a ladder truck at a creamery in Plymouth, Wis.

"I don't know what it is about lowering things, but when the crab comes down, people go crazy," said Carolyn Jaffe of Easton, an organizer of the crustacean drop, now in its 10th year.

The "drops" have become familiar fare for media outlets on a holiday typically devoid of much other news. "Giant Moon Pie Taking Shape for Celebration," read a 2012 headline in the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register. And CNN will cover tonight's crab drop as part of its annual broadcast, "New Year's Eve Live with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin."

The show's producers generally seek out at least one quirky, out-of-the-way celebration to spotlight, and this year they chose the Eastern Shore town, to the surprise of local residents.

Veteran CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman, who once worked in Salisbury, will anchor the feed.

"Beirut, London, New York and Easton, Md. We're up there where we belong, and honored to be included," Jaffe said.

Sometimes a drop doesn't happen at midnight. The Easton crab drop will take place twice, once at 9 p.m. ("Midnight in the Mid-Atlantic") for the early-to-bed set, then at midnight Eastern time.

The event is part of First Night Talbot, an alcohol-free street festival sponsored by Jaffe's organization, Talbot Partnership, that is taking place in Easton for the 21st New Year's Eve.

The Giant Do-Nut Drop will take place at 7 p.m., as it did last year, to encourage family attendance.

"When my kids were too young to stay up until midnight, we celebrated the moment five hours early. We told them: 'It's New Year's Eve in Europe!' It's the same idea," said Bickford, the editor-in-chief of What'sNXT, the marketing company behind the drop.

The "object drop" tradition got its start, of course, with the lowering of the giant ball in New York's Times Square. It first happened on New Year's Eve in 1907, when officials lowered a 700-pound sphere — it was made of iron and wood and festooned with 100 incandescent lights —from the top of a flagpole to the roof of The New York Times building, where it completed an electrical circuit that lit a sign reading "1908."

Today's ball, made by Waterford Crystal, weighs nearly 12,000 pounds, is illuminated by LED lamps, and takes a minute to descend a 141-foot flagpole atop the same building, now known as One Times Square. More than a million people watch from below and millions more on television and the Internet.

The earliest imitators appear to have also been balls. Macon, Ga.; Kokomo, Ind.; Marquette, Mich.; and Tulsa, Okla., have all long since developed illuminated spheroid traditions; so has Twin Falls, Idaho.

More recently, Strasburg, Pa., has taken to dropping ping-pong balls; Cornwall, Pa., a cannonball; and Panama City, Fla., an illuminated, 800-pound beach ball.

In recent years, the tradition has branched out to embrace the sweet (a giant Peeps in Bethlehem, Pa.) and sour (a pickle in Mount Olive, N.C.), the animal (fake cows, hogs, pelicans and carp), the near-vegetable (olives, a potato) and the mineral (a lump of coal that turns into a diamond ), the big-city (Atlanta's giant peach) and small-town (Show Low, Ariz., with its deuce of clubs).

Some come with controversy. Organizers of a drop in Brasstown, N.C., yielded to complaints from animal-rights activists this week, agreeing to lower a stuffed possum — or a pot of possum stew — rather than the traditional live animal, according to the Associated Press.

For reasons unknown, Pennsylvania appears to have more "drop" traditions than any other state. One website lists nearly 50, including wrench, lollipop and french fry affairs.

Each item evokes something about local life. The wood-and-plastic-foam duck is just right for Havre de Grace, with the town's history of world-class decoy carving, and the muskrat — a real, if deceased, version acquired through the state Department of Natural Resources — is apt for Princess Anne, where trappers and hunters have tracked the wetland rodent for generations.

New Year's Eve being what it is, locals inject their veneration with humor. The crab descends alongside something called "The Parade of Sea Creatures and Fish Hats," in which Eastonians march around in aquatically themed attire.

In Havre de Grace, about 1,000 people blow duck calls as the faux fowl comes down.

"Some people have those cheap duck calls you can get at the dollar store. Some have the real thing. When they [sound] them together, it's music," said Grainger, who has covered the duck with orange lights this year to commemorate the Orioles' division-championship season.

But no community better reflects the symbiosis between object and people than Hagerstown.

After his New Year's revelation a few years ago, Bickford posted a question on his Facebook page: If Hagerstown were to "drop" something at midnight, what should it be?

Some suggested a guy rappelling down a building. Others mentioned a sun, in honor of the city's Class A baseball team of that name.

But an overwhelming favorite quickly emerged — a Krumpe's doughnut — and the excitement hasn't died down yet.

Krumpe's traces its roots to 1932, when a hardworking German immigrant, Rudolph Krumpe, opened a doughnut shop in town. By 1950, he and his kids ran Krumpe's Do-Nut Shop, which made fresh, fluffy doughnuts in a garage late at night.

They were mainly for sale to local stores. But the treats smelled so good that residents lined up late at night, banging on the doors to request a few.

Krumpe's — now run by Rudolph's grandsons, Rudy and Fred, and Rudy's son, Max— still operates out of a garage in an alley. The lines are still around the block. Local residents see the place as a bastion of local values: great quality, no fuss and a feeling of familial warmth.

Last year, a Bickford friend made the doughnut out of chicken wire and papier-mache. Bickford advertised the event over social media. They expected maybe 700 people.

More than 3,000 showed up. The countdown was so loud, Fred Krumpe said, there was a firetruck 50 feet behind him, and he couldn't hear the siren going. His shop gave away 1,000 doughnuts in 10 minutes.

City leaders will close down the public square tonight. Krumpe's will hand out 500 dozen doughnuts. The giant pastry will descend, and a new year will commence, at least symbolically.

To Bickford, it all makes for a fitting conclusion — and a beginning as fresh as a Krumpe's glazed.

"This all started with our love of these doughnuts," he said. "Now we've got a tradition on our hands."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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