By ARTHUR FREDERICK
FARMINGTON, Maine (UPI) — Townsfolk are warming up for their annual Chester Greenwood Day, a festival dedicated to a local boy who turned an inventive mind and a pair of cold ears into a lifetime career by inventing the earmuff.
And while the people of Farmington slap earmuffs on everything from local police cruisers to neighborhood dogs for the Dec. 21 parade marking the first day of winter, there are signs the earmuff industry nationwide is riding a modest revival.
Chester Greenwood wasn’t thinking about business during that cold Farmington winter more than 100 years ago; he simply wanted to do something that would keep his ears warm when he skated.
When he returned home from a local pond one day, the 15-year-old Chester rummaged around in a shed and came up with a piece of stiff wire. He bent the wire so that it would fit over his head, and asked his grandmother to sew some cloth covers at either end.
The invention worked. Chester’s ears were no longer cold, and the young man managed to make a comfortable living throughout his life by manufacturing and selling Greenwood’s Champion Ear Protectors.
Greenwood died in 1937, and the company that once employed as many as 50 people in the central Maine town is no more.
But the industry spawned by Greenwood’s invention is still churning out earmuffs, and signs indicate the domestic earmuff business, moribund for years due to foreign imports, is ready for a modest comeback.
Marilyn Becker, managing director of L&G Manufacturing Co. of Boston, a leading earmuff maker, said business is better this year after several years of being battered by the cheap imports.
Becker said the company her father founded 55 years ago will turn out about 50,000 earmuffs this year, up considerably from the production of the past five years when the company was buffeted by earmuffs from Asia.
‘For several years it was rather slow, but this year has been good,’ Becker said. ‘I think there is not quite so much from Taiwan this year, and the dollar is not quite so strong now.’
Business has also been helped by the fact that earmuffs have remained in fashion through the 1980s.
‘They have been in fashion the last seven or eight years,’ Becker said. ‘When you walk around the streets of New York on a windy day, it seems that everyone is wearing earmuffs.’
The owner of another earmuff company, Nathan Hanover of The Earmuff Shop of New York City, said sales ‘go up and they go down.’
He said the earmuff market has shifted many times during the 20 years he has made them, adding, ‘There are now a lot of imports from Korea and Hong Kong.’
When Greenwood died at age 79, he held more than 100 patents including one for the earmuff. The Smithsonian Institution once named Greenwood one of America’s 15 outstanding inventors.
But in spite of Greenwood’s successes, the people of Farmington had pretty much forgotten him until the 1970s, when the owner of a local magazine shop decided that Greenwood’s life should be memorialized.
Mike Maguire took his idea to his local legislators, who sponsored a bill making Dec. 21 Chester Greenwood Day in Maine. The bill sparked spirited debate, with one representative calling the idea ‘an unfortunate misuse of the legislative process.’
But in 1977, the measure finally passed, and Chester Greenwood Day was born in the sleepy town of 6,700 people. Since then, an annual parade has been held in Farmington, and some occasionally daffy events have been held as well.
There was the Greenwood Derby, a reverse-dogsled race in which teams of children pulled sleds which carried local dogs as passengers.
Then there was the contest in which children tried to sculpt likenesses of Greenwood out of soft ice cream.
And last year witnessed an unsuccessful attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, when 350 earmuff-clad local residents showed up at the Town Square in hopes of setting a record for the most people to wear earmuffs in the same place at the same time.
Guinness officials said thanks, but no thanks.