Birthplace of Earmuffs

Festivals, Hometown Heroes, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 11, 2010
Pam Matthews Eight-month-old Asher Pond sports Greenwood’s most famous invention during last year’s parade.

It all began when Chester Greenwood’s ears got cold.

Allergic to the woolen scarves that others tied around their heads, the industrious teenager wanted a better way to warm his ears in Maine’s chilly winter weather. So, using wire, beaver fur, cloth and a pair of pliers, he fashioned the first set of earmuffs in 1873.

Only 15 at the time, he hardly could have imaged that, a century later, his hometown would dedicate a day in his honor, complete with a parade, speeches from local dignitaries, and the raising of a Chester Greenwood flag at the Franklin County Courthouse.

However, that’s exactly what the town of Farmington, Maine (pop. 7,410), has done each year since 1977 when the state Legislature designated Chester Greenwood Day, now celebrated on the first Saturday of December.

It’s decidedly an earmuff day as downtown streets overflow with proud townsfolk, curious visitors and students from Farmington’s branch of the University of Maine. Parade participants, spectators and even a few horses and dogs are decked out in Greenwood’s ear protectors, while oversize earmuffs also adorn police cruisers, fire engines, a school bus and other vehicles in the motorcade.

But earmuffs, which Greenwood patented at age 19, are just part of the legacy of Farmington’s most famous son. Called “an inventor for the ordinary man,” Greenwood also created the spring steel rake, wide-bottom kettle, doughnut hook, advertising matchbox, mechanical mousetrap, folding bed and dozens of other devices, as well as installing and owning one of the area's first phone systems. By the time Greenwood was 28, Chester Greenwood & Co. was shipping Champion Ear Protectors worldwide. By 1936, his factory was manufacturing more than 400,000 earmuffs, and more than half of the town was employed by Greenwood’s various enterprises.

Not bad for a kid with frosty ears or for a village, settled in 1781, that began with water-powered mills, including a paper mill and a toothpick factory, on the banks of the Sandy River. Greenwood died in 1937 at the age of 78 and, though his earmuff factory closed when World War II made spring steel for the headbands impossible to procure, his influence in Farmington is felt today.

“Chester Greenwood put Farmington on the map,” says Lorna Nichols, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, the event’s sponsor. “And while celebrating his accomplishments isn’t bad for Christmas season business, we enjoy the quirky way it sets us apart from other festivals.”

Chester Greenwood Day attracts as many as 2,000 visitors, many of whom line up at Renys downtown department store to buy earmuffs, most now made in Taiwan or China. They come to see the parade, hear street-corner carolers and sample steamy creations from a chili cookoff. The event also features a gingerbread house contest, the American Legion’s craft fair, the Rotary Club’s Christmas tree auction, and appearances by Greenwood look-alike Clyde Ross.

“I was born in 1937—the year Chester died—and I’ve enjoyed the role for 23 years,” says Ross, 72, a Farmington native who usually is accompanied by one of Greenwood’s great-great granddaughters in the role of Isabel Greenwood, Chester’s wife and the mother of their four children.

The Greenwood family is well represented on Chester Greenwood Day, with four generations of earmuffed descendants smiling and waving to the crowds from a family parade float. “We have a ball commemorating gramps,” says George Greenwood, 80, a great-grandson. “This is a day we Greenwoods don’t miss.”

Like their celebrated ancestor, the Greenwoods are a mechanically inclined bunch.  George, who lives near Bangor, has a doctoral degree in engineering; his older sister Eileen, who died in 2001, was the first woman to receive a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maine; great-great grandson Ron, 70, lives in West Farmington and runs a shop where, among other things, he builds and repairs safes.

Theirs is a testament to the spirit of ingenuity that reaches beyond the whimsical fun and creativity evident in Farmington on Chester Greenwood Day—all the way back to the earmuff inventor himself.

“He was a good businessman and a bright guy and lived in an era when there was a need for entrepreneurship,” says Nancy Porter, 62, a town leader who authored a book about Greenwood.

“Because Chester invented his ear protectors as a 15-year-old, teachers use him as an example to show that kids can be inventors, too. Look at Chester with a wider lens, and you see a man who influenced the character of the town he lived in.”