Pine Tree State may be Maine’s official nickname, but balsam fir becomes much more significant as Christmas approaches.
Throughout the 1950s an Auburn family was responsible for creating a remarkable supply of evergreen decorations. They supplied garlands that spanned the streets of Lewiston, Auburn, Farmington and Rumford, as well as garlands and wreaths for public buildings, churches, banks, business offices, stores and private homes.
It was the Robert Griffin family on Gammon Avenue that undertook this seasonal enterprise that was a significant part of the Christmas atmosphere in the Twin Cities.
These days, lots of artificial substitutes are available for Christmas decorators. Six or eight decades ago, that wasn’t such an easy option. Garlands of greenery were handmade, and some of them measured in the hundreds of feet. Beginning in 1949, the extended Griffin family teamed up from late October through Christmas Eve for their skillful contribution to the community holiday.
The greens came from the Henry Moody woodlot in North Turner. The boughs were bundled and placed in a backyard shelter and production took place in a basement workshop.
Rose O’Brien, popular writer for the Lewiston Evening Journal, visited the Griffins for a story published in the paper’s magazine section Nov. 28, 1959. She described the progress, starting with 65-foot lengths of rope around which short branches were secured with heavy string meant to survive any winter storm. For customers who wanted something extra, they added pine cones, silvered goldenrod and milkweed pods.
In 1959, the Griffins made 1,080 feet of fir roping for Lewiston’s streets, plus two arch gates and the city’s crèche. They made another 1,400 feet of roping for Auburn. Including other towns, they would turn out more than a mile of roping. The wreath count topped 650.
Large wreaths were also made. They showed the writer a 5-foot wreath, that year’s largest, which would go up on Goodwin’s Dairy Bar on Center Street in Auburn. The First Auburn Trust Co. had the biggest display of their work, the story said. Another of the displays they made that year was a huge roping for Snow’s in Auburn. That was an intricate job with double thickness and double weaving of the boughs.
Balsam fir in the late 1950s brought some other memories to my mind. Since 1931, Paine Incense Co. had made a popular Christmas item — a miniature log cabin which held a small cone of balsam incense in its chimney. For a short time following my high school graduation, I had a job in the fir tip drying operation at the company’s old building on Chapel Street. It was dusty and hot, and I didn’t stay with that work for long, but I was saddened when the firm burned to the ground in 1989.
However, that was not the end of that traditional balsam fir item in L-A. Members of the Vigue family, including Guy, his sons John and David, and daughter Anne Loomis, acquired the company and built a manufacturing facility near the airport in Auburn. They continue making the incense, the small log cabins, and a number of novelty pillows and other products stuffed with the fragrant balsam fir branches and needles that have been dried and finely chopped.
The natural greenery is still in demand and provides a seasonal option for local tippers. That’s the term for individuals who supplement their income by cutting tips from balsam fir trees and delivering them to Paine Products Inc. Paine’s tippers range from landowners to families who earn extra income from a healthy outdoor activity that’s a niche cottage industry.
Bob Lucas of Readfield has been one of Paine Products’ reliable tippers for a dozen-plus years. Lucas arrived at the plant on a recent morning with about a ton of balsam tips on his van-drawn trailer. He makes two or three such deliveries each week. Logging is his principal work, and the fir tipping adds income for him, his wife and three daughters.
Lucas said he recently learned that his grandfather sold tips to the original Paine facility in Lewiston and raised a family of 10 children with that work as supplementary income.
At the present Auburn facility, a small and dedicated workforce produces a variety of products that go all over the world. L.L. Bean offers the items, and gift shops throughout the country sell the balsam novelties year-round.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]