Yankee Ingenuity — Hundreds In Farmington Celebrate The Man Who Invented Earmuffs

Dec 1, 2018

Every year on the first Saturday in December, hundreds of people flood the streets of Farmington, Maine to remember a man most never met.

Chester Greenwood was a grammar school dropout who went on to become a prolific inventor and, during the 1930's, a steady employer. He's been dead for more than 80 years, but his most enduring legacy may be something he never planned: a celebration of history and community in his honor.

Clyde Ross poses with a photo of Greenwood.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

Nothing says Yankee ingenuity like the invention of the wide bottom kettle, the shock absorber, the spark plug and the steel-tooth rake. Those inventions are all credited to Chester Greenwood. But his most famous creation has to be the earmuff. Legend has it that at the age of 15 he was ice skating near his home one day when his ears got very cold.

"He wrapped his head in a bulky scarf and it was itchy and uncomfortable,” says Jane Woodman,the treasurer of the Farmington Historical Society.

"He went home, determined to solve the problem,” she says. “He found some soft wire, farm wire, and made loops to cover his ears and his grandmother then sewed fur to those loops."

That was the rudimentary basis for what later became known as Greenwood's "Champion Ear Protectors." Over the next few years he made improvements to his creation, ditching the wire and making the earmuffs more comfortable. By age 19 he had a patent for them, and within a decade he'd hired nearly a dozen workers who were producing 50,000 of them from a factory in Farmington. It was 1883.

More than a century later, Chester Greenwood Day has become a popular event for residents of Farmington and beyond. There are cookies and crafts for sale, plenty of hot chocolate, a polar bear dip and a festival of trees. But the highlight of the gathering is the Earmuff Parade, which features holiday floats belting out Christmas music and creative displays of Greenwood's most famous invention.

Annie Nortis of New Sharon shows off the earmuffs she made - an egg on one ear, a bacon strip across the top and a piece of toast covering the other ear. She knitted the earmuffs and lined them with felt. Her son, Kevin Montminy is also wearing earmuffs
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

Bystanders also get into the spirit. Annie Norris of New Sharon crocheted an unusual, custom pair of earmuffs as an homage to her favorite meal: breakfast.

"Like, seven years ago, I crafted these bad boys. We have egg, bacon across the top and toast on this side," she says.

The egg covers one ear. The toast covers the other. Both are lined with flannel.

"I think there should be zanier earmuffs in the world so I just made my own," says Norris.

But Ben Millster of Temple likes the convenience of earmuffs. He pulls out an original pair of Chester Greenwoods to show how they fold up and fit in a coat pocket.

"There's a little notch here, a little opening where they lock,” he says. “It's ease of folding and then when you take 'em apart, then they lock."

Greenwood, Millster says, was a pretty smart guy whose factory churned out 400,000 earmuffs in 1937, the year he died. He was also a prohibitionist whose wife, Isabel, was an early suffragette. The two were active in their church and town affairs.

Their great-granddaughter, Sandy Greenwood Thomas of Cumberland, says the couple had a strong sense of community, even when it came to Chester's inventions.

Bill Millster of Temple discusses the advantages of earmuffs with Roger and Karyl Condit of Farmington.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

"He involved the townspeople,” says Greenwood. “They all did piece work. Many people were hired to take piece work home, and so and it put Farmington on the map. But he didn't do it all by himself, and he knows that. It was a group effort, you know? It takes a village. And Chester believed in that."

After the parade, friends and relatives gather for a short ceremony to raise the Chester Greenwood flag outside the courthouse.

Clyde Ross has been playing the role of Chester since 1986. He says what he admires most about Chester Greenwood is his problem-solving ability.

Workers from the Greenwood factory in Farmington. "He involved the townspeople," says Greenwood. "He didn't do it all by himself, and he knows that. It was a group effort, you know? It takes a village. And Chester believed in that," says his great-granddaughter, Sandy Greenwood.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

"Particularly, if a local farmer or a woodsman or someone had a problem, there was a challenge to find a way to take care of that,” says Ross. “And that was it! That's what I liked about him."

Greenwood also ran a bicycle shop, owned a telephone and telegraph business, and sold boilers. The earmuff factory closed during World War II, but the town continues to embrace its special identity as the Earmuff Capital of the World, and to give residents like 12-year-old Trent Beaudoin a reason to put on their own muffs and come together one day each year for fun.

"I've never missed a Chester Greenwood parade, ever since I've been born,” says Beaudoin. And, "I'll try not to. I'll try not to."

Originally published Dec. 2, 2018 at 9:43 a.m. ET.