Chester Greenwood Day: How it All Began

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It’s now been 40-years since the first Chester Greenwood Day. It’s double that, or 80 years now, since the time of the famed inventor’s death in 1937. It’s thus an appropriate occasion to take a quick look at “Chester,” the name by which most people refer to him. More importantly, it’s also an occasion to take a look at how an event that annually draws both international attention and thousands to Franklin County evolved.

Though the event is based in Farmington some of the leading performers in it live in the Yarmouth-Brunswick area. They include Chester’s only surviving grandchild, George, a retired U-Maine engineering professor, George’s daughter, Sandy Thomas, whose own daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline, have in recent years taken turns portraying Chester’s wife, Isabel , once a leader in her own right in the women’s suffrage movement.

The impetus for the “Day” was a Jan. 15, 1976, editorial in the Evening Express, then a Portland daily newspaper.

Under the heading, “All Hail the Memory of Chester Greenwood’s Ears,” the editorial proclaimed that “A protector of mankind’s aural appendages, Chester Greenwood deserves to be remembered.”

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The editorial went on to recite that “There ought to be some way in which Maine can honor one of its most famous inventors in the world of business, Chester Greenwood of Farmington.”

A Farmington resident who then worked frequently as a government attorney in Portland where the editorial was published then brought it to the attention of Franklin Journal news columnist Mickey Maguire. Maguire then seized leadership of the cause with his own journalistic advocacy of a “Day” to honor Chester.

Thus, Jan. 20, 1976, just five days after the Express editorial, Maguire ran one of his own. Though it implicitly took issue with the Express’s assertion that Greenwood was still “famous,” he wound up joining the Express in suggesting that there ought to be a way to honor him.

“There probably isn’t one Mainer in ten thousand who knows who Chester Greenwood is, or was, but as temperatures drop to sub zero levels these days we should be all hailing his memory.”

Maguire carried his advocacy even a step further by personally urging State Representative Richard G. Morton to sponsor a bill to designate a day to commemorate Chester.

Maguire, though originally from Auburn, was by then still widely remembered for having coached Farmington High to the state Class M basketball championship some years earlier. He was also revered as the co-owner with his wife Betty of Mickey’s, a popular Main Street variety store. His columns were seldom partisan or political. (In those days Maine Times writers then instead usually played the role for that now filled by Bill Nemitz and Al Diamon.) Maguire’s articles were filled with more personal human interest news, anecdotes, and testimonials, the likes of which would not perhaps be seen until the advent of Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild a generation later. A street that bi-sects a part of the Farmington branch of the state university campus is now named after him.

When Mickey Maguire took the unusual step of going to bat on an issue his influence thus carried considerable clout. When he spoke, Representative Morton knew he should listen.

As it turned out, Maguire could not have chosen a more effective sponsor. A former member of the prestigious Governor’s Executive Council, by the time he sponsored the Chester Greenwood Day law Morton was a House member on “Appropriations,” the most powerful committee in the legislature. It was also through his sponsorship and guidance that Protection from Abuse (“PFA”) statutes were about to be enacted, something that became one of the more frequent avenues by which citizens now find redress from the court system of Maine. (It’s an achievement that no doubt would have found favor with Isabel Greenwood, a crusader for women’s rights.)

During the time the Chester Greenwood bill was pending, Morton acted as the lead player in lining up support. He made sure, for example, that retired UMF Professor Myron Starbird, then the historical society’s president and other credible authorities made a presentation at the legislative hearing on the issue.

Enactment of the Maguire/Morton proposal to set aside a “Day” for Greenwood was by no means a foregone conclusion. At the time, there were only two other commemorative days in state law —  Statehood Day and Maine Poetry Day. The bill for Chester would be the first to commemorate an individual, however.

The legislative committee voted against it 7 to 6. At that point, worldwide media attention ensued.

“It caught the fancy of news people all over the country and the interest of people as far away as Europe and Mexico,” Morton said.

Morton’s clout with his fellow House members also helped, 94 of his 151 colleagues there approving it. After squeaking by in the senate by a single vote it then landed on the desk of redoubtable Gov. James Longley of Lewiston.

There, Morton had to bring his considerable diplomatic skills to bear. As with the esteemed present occupant of the Blaine House, Longley did not hesitate to deploy vetoes in his tug-of-war with the other political branch of government. Morton credited Brewer Democrat Edward Kelleher with also helping to overcome Longley’s misgivings.

Morton and Kelleher were successful, the veto pen stayed in Longley’s ink well and the measure became law in the fall of 1977.

Maguire died in 1994 after having written over a million words in his career as a news columnist. Morton died in 2011, leaving a legacy of public service that expanded well beyond his sponsorship of the “Day.”

The Evening Express? It had its last press run in 1991. Nearly all of its thousands of editorial pronouncements during its 109 year history have been relegated to obscurity. One that has been heeded, however, is the 1976 issue which spurred Mickey Maguire and in turn Rep. Morton to afford us the “Day” that commemorates both a man and an invention that will not soon be forgotten.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

Chester Greewood

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