Chester Greenwood Day: Our Parade

categories: Cocktail Hour / Don't Talk About Politics


Broadway and Main

The first Saturday of December may be a lot of things a lot of places, but here in Farmington, Maine, it’s Chester Greenwood Day, and we have a parade.  It’s not quite the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (which I wrote about last week), maybe two blocks worth, but it’ll do!

Chester Greenwood invented the earmuff, among other things, and almost anyone in town can tell you how it happened: he loved to skate as a young teen, 1873, but his ears got cold. He wrapped his woolen scarf around his head, but that was too itchy and uncomfortable, so he got his grandmother to sew circles of beaver pelt on a metal frame he’d fashioned, and (as a French-challenged college student of mine once wrote): wallah!

Chester Greenwood

He patented the invention as “ear-mufflers” on March 13, 1877, and went into business, building a factory that produced 400,000 sets of earmuffs a year at its peak. He made his fortune during World War I supplying the U.S. Army, and the factory continued production for 60 years, till Chester’s death in 1937. His house is a beau

tiful old cube of federal architecture (clapboarded and painted yellow) high up on the bluff over the Sandy River, just behind and

above the Farmington offices of Maine Human Services.

The parade is great fun, always cold. Community groups sponsor home-style floats pulled behind pickup trucks, or just ride in a pickup truck, all wearing earmuffs. Kids march in school groups, yelling and waving. The championship Mount Blue High School ski team skis past on wheel trainers, wearing earmuffs. I wear ea

rmuffs, too, because I always run into Jan Roberts, my chiropractor and movie pal, who gets into Reny’s early and buys a few dozen pair to hand out.

At the end of the parade someone tall (Chris Buschmann for a few years, husband of my massage therapist, now a man named Wayne, who wears a beautiful bowler his mother purchased back in the day and handed down) sports a fake mustache Chester Greenwood. And Ches

My friend Al and his girl, with muffs

ter’s actual descendants ride past waving from old convertibles, wearing earmuffs, both cars and people. My favorite thing is the giant earmuffs on the school buses and fire trucks, and all the sirens. My other favorite thing is the Civil-war re-enactors, who march in a small phalanx of six or eight soldiers with muskets (but no earmuffs, since that wouldn’t be accurate). They’ve apparently gotten over their animosities, as Gray uniforms and Blue uniforms march together. Every hundred yards or so they stop and load their muskets, lots of elaborate plunging and tamping, then aim at the sky and make an explosion so loud that the entire crowd (1000 or so intrepid souls) leaps in the air. Babies scream, dogs bark. The only people unaffected are guys wearing their ear protectors from work because they couldn’t find their earmuffs that morning.


Oh, and several people march with dogs, or ride past on well-brushed ponies, or lead miniature horses. I’m here to tell you that there’s no more beautiful thing than a horse or dog or mule wearing earmuffs.

Stephanie and Stephanie

I guess all the teens wearing headphones and trying to disassociate are in the spirit despite themselves, because the

design of headphones surely goes back to Greenwood. I hope the kids are listening to John Philip Sousa marches. There’s no marching band at Mt. Blue High anymore—budget constraints, lack of interest—but once there was (they won a competition and marched at the first George Bush’s inauguration in Washington). And once they marched in this parade, which had its first year in 1977. Never fear, a couple of the floats have their own boom boxes, and not even ear mufflers can shut out the joy.

The Beloved Sheriff Pike, Grand Marshall

I’m thinking about building a giant pair of earmuffs for my house, with heating oil post

ed at $3.44 a gallon this week and firewood at $225 a cord. Gasoline is up there, too. I’m not sure how people are going to get through the winter. Apologies to Chester, but earmuffs alone aren’t going to do it. Friday, I stopped at Irving to fill up. A nicely dressed

older woman came around the pump with a beseeching smile on her face. I recognized her vaguely, that small town circumstance, familiar face. I think she’d been a volunteer at one of the church booths, Farmington Fair. Maybe she recognized me, as well. Something was wrong with her right eye: it dripped tears, the lid was drooped, the sclera bright red, awful looking. I thought she was going to ask me to help pump her gas, and it made me happy to think I could be of service.

A toast to Chester

Rapidly she said, “I have an unusual little problem. I have to go to the doctor in Augusta, but I don’t have enough gas.” Of course what she meant was she didn’t have enough money. “I’ve been working on the problem all morning, trying to get a ride, but nobody’s available, nobody’s home. My husband passed away last year. And I have to get there today. I really have to. They fit me in. My appointment’s at 1:00.” One hour away! “I should have thought of this last night. I just need ten dollars. Of course I’ll pay you back.”

Gently, I said, “Can’t you go to the doctor here?”

Her good eye began to cry, too. She didn’t want to have to explain. Clearly, the whole thing embarrassed her, from widowhood to illness to sudden poverty to supplication. She blubbered: “The Medicare won’t pay if I go back here. I’ve already gone here. This is the specialist. He’s in Augusta.”

School bus with earmuffs

There’s no public transportation in Farmington, and only a single taxi. The railroad tracks were torn up years ago, following a national trend. Maine Care will cover the costs for transportation to medical appointments they have set up, but perhaps my new friend wasn’t yet part of that system, or had understandably clung to her independence. If you’re paying yourself, the tab is seven dollars each way, plus seventy-five cents a mile: $31.00, roughly, and you have to plan well in advance. I thought of the afternoon’s schedule-I didn’t have time to give the good woman a ride, and of course that would be nearly the same as giving her the gas.

I said, “And you don’t have a credit card?”

“I’m past my limit, I’m afraid.”

After the hayride

No great sin-maybe she’d filled her heating oil tank—that’ll max many a credit card this winter. Plus it was the end of the month. Pension checks, social security, part-time work, these things only stretch so far. Her vehicle was an old Chevrolet Suburban with Support Our Troops ribbons and a good deal of rust, her late husband’s no doubt. I figured it for ten miles a gallon at best. Augusta is about 35 miles from Farmington, 70 miles round-trip, seven gallons of gas minimum at $3.19 a gallon, call it ten gallons in case my mpg estimate was too liberal (very likely): $31.90. I did this figuring out loud, in a tone of bemusement so as not to seem to chastise or judge her, tucked my credit card into the slot on her side of the pump.

She was horrified. “Oh, I can’t take that much from you.”

“But that’s what you’ll need to get over there.”

I pumped the gas for her, and just let it keep pumping, 20.3 gallons in a 20 gallon tank, phew, almost $65.00, a good chunk of the average month

The real Santa, not like in New York!

ly Social Security check in Maine, which is $851.00. And Franklin County is below the average by quite a bit. And not everyone even gets Social Security. What do you do if a fill-up amounts to ten percent of your monthly income and your tea party state legislature is in the process of strangling state support and service programs?

You beg.

She wanted my address, promised to send me a check, her good eye crying again, but I didn’t want to hang that over her head, not this month, what with Christmas coming and an eye patch looming. I said, no, no, it’s on me. It’s not a big problem. It’s just gas. Happy Chester Greenwood Day.”

And she said, “Earmuffs,” disdainfully.

“Drive carefully,” I said.

“Or don’t drive at all,” said she.

I watched her pull away.

The Syncopations at the Homestead

At her speed she’d be lucky to make her appointment on time.

After the parade, a quick lunch at Soup for You, a listen to singers on the street and at the Homestead (the Syncopations, a high-school outfit led by Carol Shumway, piano by Patricia Hayden, who rode in the parade as this year’s Farmington Gem, for all she does in the community), a hayride behind giant Belgian horses (over a ton each–24 quarts of grain twice a day), and then the historical society, samples of nine chili contestants at the bank (where four lovely middle-aged cloggers danced in the window), and finally the earmuff competition.

A big time in the small town.

  1. Shelley Burbank writes:

    I liked this essay: Chester Greenwood, the earmuffs on the vehicles, your kindness.

    • Bill writes:

      Oh, thanks, Shelley. My daughter discovered today that Chester Greenwood also invented the whistling tea kettle, which would make a great float.

  2. Peter Peteet writes:

    Humbug,Dave?But what about all that Karma stuff?Here’s some fractured rhyme to pass the time,yer buddy Bill liked it some…

    Happy Chester Greenwood Day,
    It’s just gas, is it too crass, to say this will pass?
    Would you beg if you hadn’t a leg?
    If you went to the doc and said it’s my heart-and he tested and found you just needed to give a fart?
    If you gave and were bold and actually told how both winter and hearts were both terribly cold-and they said you were soft and just too old-would you give if some woman’s look passed your rib like a shiv?
    In this prison of life amid the roaring and strife is there a memory of time when what was sacred was life?
    When gimmicks and geegaws were for children and fools and wise men wrote boldly not laws
    but poems that were sharper than saws
    and cut through the greed and baldly stated the need to both shelter and feed?
    Or perhaps that’s a time will some day come and the current conditions of denial ,like scum ,will pass over the dam that will break and make the earth shake; a flood of compassion will cover the land and make a green field of what’s now desert sand.
    I can see it and feel it and it may flow through my hand-or is that all just sleep sand?
    I’m both Arab and Jew and guess what-so are you.
    Isn’t there something better than war to do?
    Happy coming solstice to you!

  3. Tommy writes:

    Chester would approve! I don’t imagine for a Yankee minute, too many people have hung out a window over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (TM), then sat curbside the next weekend at the Chester Greenwood Parade wearing gifted earmuffs. Wallah!