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400,000 earmuffs

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Jan 09, 2019

That’s the number of earmuffs ― actually, there were more than 400,000 ― that were being churned out of Chester Greenwood’s “Champion Ear Protectors” factory in Farmington by 1936.

Born in 1858, one of six, and raised on a Maine farm, Chester had only a grammar school education. He was, however a hard worker, who, early on, sold eggs and homemade candy door-to-door for help with finances. He also loved to ice skate.

However, the biting cold that comes with skating in Maine winters presented a problem: frostbitten ears. Poor Chester, it seems, was allergic to wool. (There was no such thing as acrylic back then. In my opinion, there never should have been. It can’t come close to the warmth of wool; nor does it take the warm, natural colors that wool does.)

Chester, however, was determined to keep skating and so set out to find a solution to his painful, frostbitten ears. So, at age 15, he came up with a contraption made up of wire he found on the farm and bent ear-shaped circles on the ends. He then cajoled his grandmother to make “muffs” that would cover the circles, using beaver fur on the outside and soft velvet on the inside.

These were his first rudimentary “Ear Protectors” and he took some ridicule at first. But when he won an award for his invention and then a patent for them at age 18, he was getting respect. This was the beginning of what eventually would become a huge factory that was a major source of employment for the town for many years.

The farm wire didn’t hold the muffs over the ears close enough, so Chester kept tweaking his design until they finally adjusted to the head better with the addition of small hinges that helped hold the muffs closer over the ears.

Farmington became known as the “Earmuff Capital of the World.” Business took a giant leap forward after World War I came along and the Army bought his “Ear Protectors” for the “Dough Boys.”

By 1936, Chester’s factory was spitting out more than 400,000 pairs of his invention annually.

I used to wear earmuffs some when I was in school but they never seemed to quite do the job. I also knit a lot, having first learned at my Grammie Tucker’s knee up on Tucker Ridge. She taught me how to knit mittens in the old Maine patterns, like “Fox and Geese,” made up of three or four different colors. This makes for super warm mittens as each color, while creating the pattern, is pulled across in back of the other colors. This creates a separate layer of wool for each color.

Later, when in high school, I lived at my Aunt Priscilla’s in Belfast. She ran a little yarn shop out of the house and had three daughters. Everyone knit. There was a collection of hand-knit wool cardigans, each a different color so there was always one to grab on the way to school. (Still no acrylic on the horizon.)

Later still, when raising my children, I knit, knit, knit ― matching sweaters, hats, mittens, boot socks. All wool. I seldom had time to knit for myself but would crank out a hat or two now and then. Still all wool. I tried knitting with acrylic once after it appeared. The result was a sweater that wasn’t warm, didn’t have true color and, after a few washings, wouldn’t hold shape and looked ready for the rag bag. Except acrylic is no good for even rags. Absorbs nothing. Never used it since.

Then in the past four or five years, I noticed an alarming trend, even with L.L. Bean’s winter sweaters: The wool “ski sweater,” Nordic designs with three or four colors, started disappearing. They first started to change to “wool blends,” blended with acrylic. And now it’s nigh impossible to find a 100-percent wool sweater.

It’s also hard to find a dry cleaner and most people have not been into washing their own sweaters. However, there is a good dry-cleaning sheet, like a softener sheet, that you simply throw into your dryer with your woolens and voila. (When I take them out of the dryer, I hang them outside for a good airing to dissipate the chemical odor.)

Panicked about the encroaching disappearance of wool, I have acquired a goodly collection of the old Nordic designs in pure wool from thrift shops and eBay. I have a rule of thumb: no more than $20 for a sweater. And I have several that sold originally for up to $350. These have become my “winter uniform” and I have one to match any outfit.

But I never wore earmuffs again until last year. I picked up a pair that looked promising. The design is new. No stubborn wire that never fits right over the head. I picked up a pair that, instead of going over the head, goes behind your neck and around to the ears. They stay put and aren’t bulky, yet amazingly warm.

Along with my new-style earmuffs, I’m ready for our Maine winters, no matter the cold. When that cut-you-in-two wind comes up, though, I will add a hat ― or just settle down by the wood stove and knit the day away.

So bring it on, January. I will be warm all over, including my ears.

And all because of the frostbitten ears of a young man in Maine way back when.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools, now lives in Morrill. Her columns appear in this paper every other week.

 

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