When you think about it, the fact that both snowmobiles and earmuffs were invented by Mainers is not especially surprising.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

But Maine has always had the sort of do-it-yourself spirit that lends itself to innovation.

Sometimes, it leads to world-changing ideas like the microwave oven. Other times, it leads to doughnut holes.

Giovanni da Verrazzano New York Public Library Digital Collection)

But Maine’s firsts include an astounding diversity, right from the beginning.

Take, for instance, something that Edwin Churchill, a former curator of the Maine State Museum, unearthed somewhere in the state’s collection of really important stuff.

Churchill found that Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who in 1524 poked around the coast of what became Maine, managed to convince skeptical natives to engage in a little commerce.

“We found no courtesy in them,” the explorer wrote, and the natives refused to go anywhere near his men, possibly because other Europeans had already snatched away some of their family and friends.

In any case, when the natives had finished whatever trades they were willing to make, via a rope dangling off a cliff to the water below, Verrazzano noted, they “made all the signs of scorn and shame that any brute creature would make,” including “showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately.”

Yes, that’s right. Maine may have invented mooning.

Let’s explore some of the other awesome firsts that have made their mark on the Pine Tree State, in no particular order.

THE FIRST AMERICAN CITY

The Old Gaol, established in 1656 (construction date of the original prison), is a National Historic Landmark that sits prominently on a hill at the center of York Village. It was constructed shortly after York’s status was changed from city to town. Photo courtesy of Old York Historical Society

It helps to have friends in high places.

In 1640, Ferdinando Gorges, who played a key role in the settlement of Maine, had the money and influence in England to get King Charles to offer the first city charter in the United States to a Maine spot in “lamentable disorder” then called Agamenticus.

The king’s charter allowed residents within three miles of the church to elect annually a mayor and eight burgesses, erect fortifications and hold courts, something dear to early Americans who had a special fondness for suing one another.

The following year, a new charter renamed the place Gorgeana and formally incorporated it as a city.

(Many years later, for some reason, the Boston Statistics Department in 1909 thought it was important to note in one of its monthly reports that two-thirds of the men in Gorgeana held elected office, a situation that made it difficult for them to engage in the customary tradition of complaining about the city’s officials.)

The city remained Gorgeana until the Massachusetts Bay Colony annexed southwestern Maine in 1652, after King Charles’ edicts had ceased to mean anything given his demise at the end of an ax.

The place’s new overseers quickly renamed it York and relegated it back to the status of a mere town.

To be fair, though, Massachusetts hated cities. It didn’t allow Boston to become one until 1822, almost 180 years after the thriving metropolis of Agamenticus.

THE FIRST FEDERAL LIGHTHOUSE

Portland Head Light during the summer solstice sunrise on a gray morning in 2019.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald

Completed in 1790, the Portland Head Lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth was first lit on Jan. 10, 1791, with a whale lamp burning bright.

It was the first lighthouse built and operated by the new U.S. government, which controlled it until 1989, when it handed over the keys to the town.

THE FIRST EARMUFFS

Chester Greenwood of Farmington loved to skate but he didn’t especially like the way Maine’s chilly winter weather froze his big ears.

So, at age 15, he got an idea.

He asked his grandmother in 1873 to sew some flannel or beaver fur onto a wire ring he could wrap around his head, allowing him to cover those freezing ears.

By 1877, he held a patent, and before long he started making serious money off his invention. By the 1930s, his Farmington factory churned out 400,000 or more annually.

THE FIRST VETERANS HOME

Back in the 1850s, a granite merchant from Rockland, Horace Beals, poured $250,000 into the creation of a summer resort called Togus Springs, complete with a hotel, bowling alley, race track and stables.

His timing wasn’t great. It opened in 1859, just before the Civil War started, and closed in 1863 as battles raged across the country.

But Beals’ Folly proved a godsend for the government, which snatched up the property for just $50,000, opening it again in 1866 as the nation’s first home for veterans, organized much like a military camp.

FIRST WOMAN TO GET A DRIVER’S LICENSE

The first woman to obtain a driver’s license was Mrs. Maynard Hanson of Portland, who received it in 1900, according to Gail Underwood Parker’s “It Happened in Maine: Remarkable Events That Shaped History.”

Hanson’s husband, too, was an innovator. He got a patent in 1915 for a golf driving mat.

But there is some dispute about the first woman to actually get a license.

Life magazine in 1952 awarded the honor to a Massachusetts woman. But no Mainer is going to recognize a Bay Stater as the first without a whole lot more proof.

THE FIRST DOUGHNUT HOLE

Photographer Alton H. Blackington captured an image of Capt. Hanson Gregory with a doughnut early in the 20th century. Alton H. Blackington Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Like many Maine stories, the one told by Capt. Hanson Gregory at age 85 to The Washington Post back in 1916 is perhaps laced with a bit of hyperbole.

But here’s what Gregory had to say: “It was way back — oh, I don’t know just what year – let me see — born in ’31, shipped when I was 13 — well, I guess it was about ’47, when I was 16, that I was aboard ship and discovered the hole which was later to revolutionize the doughnut industry.”

He claimed he was making doughnuts aboard the schooner Capt. Rhodes in the lime trade.

“Now in them days we used to cut the doughnuts into diamond shapes, and also into long strips, bent in half, and then twisted. I don’t think we called them doughnuts then, they was just ‘fried cakes’ and ‘twisters,’” Gregory said.

“Well, sir, they used to fry all right around the edges, but when you had the edges done the insides was all raw dough,” he said, “And the twisters used to sop up all the grease just where they bent, and they were tough on the digestion.”

“Well, I says to myself, ‘Why wouldn’t a space inside solve the difficulty?’” Gregory recalled.

“I thought at first I’d take one of the strips and roll it around, then I got an inspiration, a great inspiration. I took the cover off the ship’s tin pepper box, and I cut into the middle of that doughnut the first hole ever seen by mortal eyes,” Gregory said.

“Them doughnuts was the finest I ever tasted,” he said. “No more indigestion, no more greasy sinkers, but just well-done, fried-through doughnuts.”

“Of course, a hole ain’t so much,” Gregory said, “but it’s the best part of the doughnut — you’d think so if you had ever tasted the doughnuts we used to eat in ’31. Of course, lots of people joke about the hole in the doughnut. I’ve got a joke myself: Whenever anybody says to me: ‘Where’s the hole in the doughnut?’ I always answer: ‘It’s been cut out!'”

Gregory never made any money off his invention, though.

“I never took out a patent on it,” he said. “I don’t suppose anyone can patent anything he discovers. I don’t suppose Peary could patent the north pole or Columbus patent America.”

Though there is evidence that doughnut holes preceded Gregory’s presence in the world, there’s a marker in Rockport that claims the town is the “Birthplace of the Inventor of the Doughnut Hole.”

In any case, John F. Blondel of Thomaston secured U.S. patent number 128,783 in 1872 for a machine to cut doughnut holes. So Maine’s bragging rights are secure one way or another.

THE FIRST STRIKE IN AMERICA

When fishermen on Richmond Island got tired of waiting for their pay in 1636, they staged what we would call a walkout, insisting that if the bosses wanted them to keep drying fish to ship back to England, they had to cough up some cash.

The strike apparently lasted two days. It’s not clear they ever got the money they demanded.

FIRST GRAIN REAPER

The American Reaper as depicted in the 1912 book “Obed Hussey: Who, of All Inventors, Made Bread Cheap”.

Obed Hussey, born in Hallowell, secured a patent in 1833 for a full-sized grain reaper that farmers in the Midwest happily embraced until a later version by Cyrus Hall McCormick came along to capture the market from Hussey.

THE FIRST ZIGZAG SEWING MACHINE

Maine inventor Helen Augusta Blanchard. Courtesy of Frances Elizabeth Willard’s 1897 book “American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with Over 1,400 Portraits”

Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland racked up 28 patents in the latter half of the 19th century that mostly consisted of improvements to mechanized sewing, including machines that could do zigzag threading, a key innovation. She also invented surgical needles and pencil sharpeners.

THE FIRST AMERICAN SAWMILL

The first sawmill in the country got underway in 1623 near York on the Piscataqua River. Eleven years later, the first water-powered sawmill opened for business near Berwick.

THE FIRST SNOWMOBILE

Snowmobiles owe their existence to a slightly earlier invention, the Lombard Steam Log Hauler, patented in 1901 as the first successful vehicle with tracked propulsion.

Invented by Alvin Orlando Lombard, a blacksmith in Waterville, the log haulers had a steam boiler mounted on a platform with skis and tracked vehicle treads that could move the 20-ton vehicles more than 4 miles an hour.

Prelude to the snowmobile, this Lombard Steam Log Hauler was used between Eagle Lake and Chamberlain Lake around 1910. Maine Historical Society

They were wildly helpful in moving logs out of the woods a century ago.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that anybody came up with a truly practical smaller version of the machine, but many pioneers in the region made improvements over the years that led to the modern version of the snowmobile, now a staple during Maine winters.

Long before the steam log hauler led to practical snowmobiles, it sparked another innovation: tanks. The tracked weapons of war were used in battle before World War I ended in 1918.

THE FIRST SHIP MADE IN ENGLISH AMERICA

The settlers at the 1607 Popham colony built an oceangoing vessel they named the Virginia of Sagadahoc, a pinnace that ultimately crossed the Atlantic Ocean at least twice.

OTHER FIRSTS

The list of Maine firsts is chock full of crazy and practical things, so many that it would be impossible to find them all, let alone list them.

But a few other noteworthy items include the Mainer who invented the microwave oven, Percy Spencer of Howland; Francis and Freelan Stanley of Kingfield, whose 1897 Stanley Steamer was briefly the best selling automobile in the country; and the first paved roads in English America, in Pemaquid in the early 1600s.

As Maine heads into its third century of existence, who can doubt that more imaginative Mainers will come up with more firsts?


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