Sunday, July 13, 2008

Moxie Fest 2008-The Silver Anniversary

No one knows for sure when Lisbon Falls became the hub of the Moxie universe. As with any subject lacking canonical authorization, conjecture becomes commonplace and verification of authenticity is more difficult.

When I left Maine in 1982, for greener pastures, only to return for better opportunities in 1987, the town had somehow become part of the story arc and epicenter of Moxie’s unanticipated resurgence.

Oddly enough, Frank Anicetti (one of Lisbon’s more colorful characters), had become the mayor of Moxietown, with his Kennebec Fruit Company (or “Kennebec’s” to the locals) serving as the world headquarters of a burgeoning movement of people that genuflected at the altar of a product, whose heyday had been the early 20th century.

When I was a kid, Kennebec’s was the place to go if you wanted to load up on an assortment of penny candy. Anicetti, a collector of the arcane, in the truest sense, also had acquired a reputation locally for stocking the bitter concoction, laced with gentian root, known as Moxie. As a youngster, I remember Kennebec’s being jointly run by father and son, both named Frank.

The Anicetti’s store has always held a timeless quality for me and many others that have ventured inside the store with yellow panels, and green trim. Entering the place from Main Street is the equivalent of modern time travel. A visitor is able to walk backwards, down that corridor of time, to an era befitting pre-WWII. The worn floor boards, the various bottles of antique Coca-Cola lining shelves near the ceiling, with hand-lettered 3 X 5 cards, inserted like flags, indicating the part of the world and time period where they were from. The vintage countertop and old-fashioned fountain, are like nothing you’d see in the 21st century. In fact, Kennebec’s seemed strangely out of place, even during the early 1970s, when my friends and I used to ride our bikes downtown, to chug a mug of root beer (an Anicetti family recipe) and buy 25 cents worth of penny candy like Hot Balls, Zotz, and other chemically-enhanced and sugar-saturated candy derivatives.

The Kennebec Fruit Company, was founded by Frank’s Italian immigrant grandfather, who brought his knowledge of fruit vending to America and Lisbon Falls, parlaying that skill into a successful business. Later, his father, would take over the business and eventually, young Frank fell into the business, a 75-year-old tradition, which he’s continued into the new century.

While some locals cast sidelong glances when discussions originate about Anicetti and his current exalted status with Moxie aficionados from away, the popularity of his store and his own personal magnetism is obvious during each summer’s annual festival celebrating the soft drink, which seems to grow every year. Now, over 20,000 people flock to Lisbon Falls the second Saturday each July, for no other reason than to watch the Moxie parade and congregate on Main Street afterwards to sample Anicetti’s Moxie ice cream, watch Moxie-chuggin’ contests, listen to music, and watch the fireman’s muster.

[Excerpt about the New England Moxie Congress, from Moxietown, by Jim Baumer, ©2008 (RiverVision Press)]

It’s been a quarter of a century since Frank Potter first came to Lisbon Falls to sign some books for fans, at Frank Anicetti’s Kennebec Fruit Company.

Potter, the author of The Moxie Mystique, had come to the sleepy Central Maine town at the behest of Anicetti, who was a fan of Moxie. Because of his love of the drink, and its history, Anicetti had struck up a correspondence with Potter by mail (remember, this was pre-Internet, when people used to write to one another).

Potter’s book was the first one to define the magic of Moxie, and help explain why this regional soft drink, which no longer was marketed or advertised, had enough staying power to survive in a world that was now dominated by multi-national corporations. Even better, the drink had a rabid enough following that when Potter came to Kennebec’s in 1982 for his first signing, several hundred fans showed up to meet him and pick up a book about Moxie.

[Moxietown author, and Moxie Boy, Jim Jansson]

That signing was the start of the Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls, and Saturday, the town celebrated its Silver Anniversary, commemorating 25 years of the festival, and its ties to the bitter soft drink that could kindly be called an acquired taste. Better, Moxie elicits a strong reaction. It seems that people either swear by it as their drink of choice, or think it’s the worst tasting liquid they’ve ever imbibed. One thing is a surety about Moxie—opinions are never neutral about the soft drink.

Now there are probably math majors, and other detail freaks that are reading this and have done the calculations and right now, you’re scratching your heads thinking, “if Potter’s 1982 book signing was the beginning, why is Lisbon Falls celebrating 25 years of festivals. Shouldn’t this be 26?” You would be correct on most calculations of this type, but in this instance, you have to know some of the history.

The Potter story was first told to me by Anicetti, back in 2004, when I was first ferreting out local details about Moxie and the town’s festival. I had been recruited to help the festival committee with PR and marketing, and as part of that duty, I was going to freelance several articles to local newspapers, leading up to, and detailing the annual festival that attracts 20,000 to 30,000 to the town, every second weekend in July.

[The Mayor of Moxietown, and Maine humah-ist, Gary Crocker, swap stories during the parade]

[Sentiments for troubled times]

As a local, I had come to the festival most years, since its inception, and even before, when the town celebrated Frontier Days. Despite being a regular, and someone that keeps up on the happenings of his place of birth, I realized I didn’t know the history of the festival’s beginnings. Neither did anyone else in town, save Anicetti, and possibly one, or two others.

In early 2008, I decided it was high time that I get busy on a follow-up book to my first one, When Towns Had Teams. Since small towns have always been of interest to me, and since there was no small town I knew better than Lisbon Falls, I thought the community might be a good subject for a new book, one that was part memoir, local history, and I would soon find out, Moxie.

After a couple of preliminary interviews about various aspects of the town, I interviewed Anicetti, on a rainy President’s Day, in February. After this interview, which touched on the Potter book signing, the town’s connection to Moxie, and other details about the annual festival, I was now detoured from my original intent. What began as a plan for one or two chapters in my full length (Moxie Matters: Life’s Beginnings in a Small Maine Town, which is still planned for the fall), detoured into seven chapters of Moxie and Lisbon Falls, and I knew I had a stand alone book. Then, it became a mad dash to see if I could have it out in time for the festival in July.

Moxietown has been well-received. Having it ready for the Moxie Festival was well worth the intense craziness of the past five months. On Friday, signing books in the exact location of Potter’s original signing, with a line snaking back through Anicetti’s Moxie Store (the original Kennebec Fruit Company) helped me to realize that I had tapped history, and was helping to add my own touches to a story that was now over a century old.

Saturday morning, set up on Main Street, right next to parade-goers and others, looking for Moxie t-shirts, or to sample Moxie Ice Cream at Anicetti’s store, RiverVision’s booth generated its own traffic and lines. The author signed books, talked to people from near and far and when it was all finished, sold over 250 books. There were times on Friday and Saturday, when this little-known author, who writes about the Maine that he loves, got a sense, at least for a brief time, what it might be like to be a best-selling author. Even better than that, he was supported by his family, and the good people of the town that helped him along life’s journeys.

The festival’s over. Moxie fans will have to wait until next year for a taste of Moxie Ice Cream, Moxie Chuggin’ Contests, and Maine’s largest summer parade. Attendees that picked up Moxietown now know the real story behind the festival, and why Moxie and Lisbon Falls are intertwined. They also will learn about another great group of people that sometimes are forgotten, but play a central role in Moxie’s perpetuity, The New England Moxie Congress.

It been a terrific weekend up to this point, and today, it’s party time, as I get a chance to finally kick back. We’re having friends and family over to the compound for a cookout and post-Moxie party, and I’ll have a chance to enjoy myself a bit, and maybe even reflect on the roller coaster ride that’s been my life the past several months, getting another book out.

[The parade's winning float]

[The RiverVision Press crew mucking for the camera]


Mark LaFlamme said...

Good stuff. I'm sorry I missed the signing, and all the other Moxie inspired madness.

Jeremy Stopford said...

Good job, Jim! Take a break - and SOON get to your next book!

Your fans are waiting.

Drink Moxie.

Jeremy from Norwich, NY