It was called “the Christmasiest smelling place” in L-A, and it had that special aroma of balsam fir all year round.
The place was Paine Incense Co., manufacturers of the small log cabins and incense cones that were once part of most every home’s holiday tradition. Tips were cut from fir branches, and the aromatic twigs were dried, crushed and incorporated into several fragrant products at the Lewiston plant. The company provided a local source of much-needed income for many people.
The business was founded in 1931 by Eliott Paine. He had a small business shop on Lisbon Street, where he made coned balsam incense. After his death, his wife sold the business to Edmund and Lavina Wentworth. When Edmund died in 1947, Lavina and their daughter, Frances, carried on with management of the firm. They never changed the company’s name, but they expanded several times. They moved to the top floor of the Tufts Building on Middle Street, and in 1944, they moved again to 49 Middle St., with a warehouse and drying facility on Chapel Street.
By 1951, Paine Incense Co. was making some 200 designs. The familiar log cabin was then made in Farmington, where the process included “tinning.” Tinning was placement of a tin chimney on the roof with tin on the underside so that when incense was burned, the smoke would rise from the chimney.
O’Brien’s descriptions of the factory call up thoughts of a North Pole workshop. It’s a big, clean, well-lighted area where a mostly female crew, dressed in bright calico aprons, worked on assembly or packaging at long tables. Some workers were busy at sewing machines, while others, usually men, pressed the balsam into cones in the basement area.
Fran Wentworth said the most reliable worker was an older person, Miss Abbie Buckley. She was a former Auburn school principal who retired on a Friday and came to work “for a little while” at Paine Incense the following Monday. Five years later, she was still employed at the company.
The Wentworths received letters from all over the world which said that the balsam products always brought fond memories of Maine. Fran Wentworth told Lewiston Evening Journal feature writer Rose O’Brien about her favorite letter. In a Dec. 15, 1951, magazine section article, O’Brien said Wentworth received a letter during World War II from a soldier on a Pacific island. Into his Christmas box had been tucked a Lewiston-made balsam pillow, and he wrote to tell her what it meant to him.
“He may have been exaggerating,” Mrs. Wentworth said with a smile, “but he claimed that one night, the boys lined up to get a whiff of that balsam. He said it brought home right back to them. I think that’s the nicest letter I ever had.”
My wife’s grandmother, Jessie Spofford of West Auburn, was one of many “tippers” who supplemented family income in the spring, summer and fall by heading into the family woodlot with a hatchet and an armful of burlap bags. She would chop down small fir trees, or lop off branches of bigger trees within her reach. The last foot or so of a branch would be trimmed off and tucked into the bags.
Her daughter, Mary Story-King, remembers that she would go into the woods with her mother, where she would help by climbing into the burlap bag and jumping up and down to make room for packing more fir tips.
“Dad would tie the bags onto the roof of our 1936 Chevy Coupe, with some of them dropped down into the rumble seat, and we would set off for the Paine Incense factory in Lewiston, with Dad swearing all the way,” Mary recalled.
Mary still has her mother’s meticulous records of the “tipping” income.
One of the entries in 1944 said a delivery of 191 pounds of fir tips brought in $7.64. Another record in 1943 showed proceeds of $62.52 for 2,983 pounds, and a tally of all the records showed that Mary’s mother had “tipped” a total of more than 9,000 pounds of balsam, all destined for the Paine Incense Co. production line.
It was May 9, 1989, when a massive fire destroyed the business. The company reappeared a couple of years later under new ownership, Guy and Elinor Vigue and their son, John. The company’s present location is on Kittyhawk Avenue in Auburn, and their product line has increased greatly through the years.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.