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Maine town celebrates a man with sensitive ears and a vision

Parade honors earmuff inventor

Rebecca LaRovera whispered to Sully Greenwood, a grandson of Chester Greenwood, who invented earmuffs in 1873. Rebecca LaRovera whispered to Sully Greenwood, a grandson of Chester Greenwood, who invented earmuffs in 1873. (Robert F. Bukaty/associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Sharp
Associated Press / December 2, 2007

PORTLAND, Maine - Today's market is flooded with newfangled ear-warming devices carrying names like Ear Grips, EarPops, and Ear Mitts. All share a common heritage: the 19th-century contraption created by a young inventor in Maine with large, sensitive ears.

At age 15, Chester Greenwood of Farmington grew frustrated by the choice of either wearing a bulky scarf or having cold ears while ice skating in 1873. He came up with the idea of ear-shaped loops made from wire, to which his grandmother sewed some fur.

Voila! The earmuff was invented. He later added an adjustable steel band, patented his creation, and manufactured thousands of "Champion Ear Protectors" in Farmington.

Yesterday, the town honored its native son with extra flourish during a parade marking the 130th anniversary of the earmuff patent, the 70th anniversary of Greenwood's death, and the 30th anniversary of Chester Greenwood Day.

For 89-year-old Sully Greenwood, Chester's grandson, it's the one day of the year when he wears old-fashioned earmuffs.

"I wear them when we hold Chester Greenwood Day," he said from his home in Farmington. "Nobody wears them any other time."

Indeed, many people these days seem to prefer sleeker models like "Arctic 180s," sold by L.L. Bean. The 180s wrap around the back of the neck, addressing a big complaint about the early ear protectors: mussed up hair.

Others have built-in head phones for iPods and other MP3 players.

But the old-school variety still exists. L.L. Bean sells Swix's Skier Earmuffs, which feature fleece and a metal band.

"They're going great guns," Carolyn Beem, L.L. Bean spokeswoman, said from Freeport. "They were inspired by Nordic skiers and they do have a classic, timeless design inspired by none other than Chester."

Greenwood was known for his inventions - more than 100 of them, according to many accounts. Maine's website credits him with creating a shock absorber, an improved spark plug, a doughnut hook, and a folding bed, among other things.

But Nancy Porter, author of the self-published "Chester: More Than Earmuffs," said she found patents for only five of his inventions. In addition to the ear protectors, Greenwood took out patents for a rake, an advertising matchbox, a tea kettle, and an automatic boring machine, a device designed to drill holes in the ends of wooden spools, Porter said.

That doesn't diminish his legacy because his achievements go beyond the factory that at its peak produced 400,000 ear protectors a year, she said.

Greenwood also created and sold a local telephone company, built a plumbing and heating business, purchased land and built houses, owned a bicycle shop, and ran an excursion boat with his brothers, she said.

His wife, Isabel, was active in the suffrage movement; both were active in the Unitarian Church, Porter said. "He was a real class act," she said.

Unlike many historical figures who become prominent after their deaths, Greenwood was well known during his own lifetime.

But like his invention, Greenwood seemed to fade away for many years after his death, in 1937. Then he made a comeback that began with the Maine Legislature declaring Chester Greenwood Day on the first day of winter in 1977.

"That was a turning point and perhaps a revival in interest," said Paul Mills, an unofficial historian in Farmington.

On Chester Greenwood Day, now celebrated in Farmington on the first Saturday in December, every parade float is expected to incorporate earmuffs.

Porter will be watching from the sidelines. Like Sully Greenwood and many of those wearing earmuffs, she'll take them off afterward and put them in storage until next year.

"I have a hat with ear flaps that I like better," she said.

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