Friday, December 13, 2013
Allen, Sterling & Lothrop turns 100 this year.
Allen, Sterling & Lothrop at its Falmouth location circa 1970.
ASL when it was located on Exchange Street in Portland.
In its century of operation, the seed store has had three locations: first on Exchange Street in Portland, then part of the block between Federal and Middle streets where One City Center now stands, and its current Falmouth location.
But a lot has stayed the same over the century.
"I think it always has had a wholesale division that, when it started out, supplied farmers," said Shawn Brannigan, part-owner and general manager. "And it had always had a retail store that supplies home gardeners."
The customers for the wholesale division have changed over the years. Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough were farming communities in 1911, growing lettuce for the Boston market. When Maine had canneries, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop sold supplies for the canning business. When Maine developed a poultry industry, ASL sold feed and feeders for that business.
When those businesses went into decline, the wholesale division shifted into supplying greenhouses with potting mix and other supplies. And it now supplies a lot of landscaping companies, including hydroseeding and bulk mulch.
Vegetable and flower seeds -- hand-packed in a room off the retail store -- are the company's signature items.
"We still have over 40 varieties of seed that were in our 1911 catalog," Brannigan said. "The old tried and true are what people seem to like. We still have a lot of open pollinated varieties, but we do add new things here and there."
Before all the hardware stores became affiliated with chains, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop would set up seed racks at hardware stores across the state. But now Ace, True Value and Aubuchon have their own seed lines, and that business had declined.
"We still do put seed racks in about 100 garden centers around the state," Brannigan said.
Back in 1911, three men named Allen, Sterling and Lothrop founded the company. By 1914, Harry Lothrop was the only one left, and he ran it until the 1950s.
Brannigan's grandfather, Sherwood "Mickey" Maguire, was working for an ASL competitor, Morrill's Coal and Grain in Morrill's Corner, before he started working at Allen, Sterling and Lothrop.
"At that time, the business was running in the red," Brannigan said. "It must not have been run very efficiently. But my grandfather and Mr. Lothrop made a deal that (Maguire) would pay (Lothrop) a certain amount for the rest of his life, and the business was my grandfather's. It turned out to be quite a bit, because he lived to 98 or 99. It was a handshake, and that was the deal."
When I was in the store buying my spring seeds, I spoke to Shirley Brannigan, Shawn's mother, saying I would want to talk to her about this column. "No, talk to Shawn," she said. "I never say the right thing."
The company has 12 full-time employees and two or three who come in during the busy season.
While Shawn is general manager, Shirley runs the retail operation with Shawn's wife, Beth. Shawn's sister, Jennifer, runs the seed-packing operation. And Shawn's father, Anthony Brannigan, runs the wholesale division.
Mickey Maguire and his wife, Isabelle, continued working in the seed-packing room until their 90s.
"Even when he was in the nursing home, they would bring him in here to work," Brannigan said. "He was still packing seeds six days before he died, and loving every minute of it."
Mickey died in 2009 at the age of 93; Isabelle in 2008 at the age of 94.
The most recent expansion is into trees and shrubs, and that business has gone well, although it is not a huge percentage of the business
"We always did a big business with annuals and perennials, and we had the foot traffic, anyway," Brannigan said.
In winter, the Falmouth Farmers Market operates out of a greenhouse on the ASL site. Brannigan said the market brings a little traffic into his store, but he does it mostly to help out the local farmers.
"It seems like there is a huge surge of people who want to buy locally," he said. "And there is a surge of people having backyard gardens. They are concerned about their health, and want to grow their own food."
Another way that Allen, Sterling & Lothrop differs from most companies is that it is closed on Sundays -- and that won't change until Shawn leaves, if ever.
"The biggest reason is that I am a Christian," he said, "and I think people should spend the day going to church and spending time with their family. God is a big part of the success of our business, and I figure we should give him some of our time."
And he thinks it would be unfair to ask his employees to work Sundays if he isn't willing to work Sundays himself.
Brannigan is 46 now, and has three sons, ages 12, 15 and 18. He doesn't know if the younger boys will have any interest in joining the business.
He does know the 18-year-old has no interest. Instead, he is going to go into law enforcement and will enroll at Southern Maine Community College.
Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at
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An interior shot of the seed operation at one of its earlier Portland locations.
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Allen, Sterling & Lothrop was once located between Federal and Middle streets in Portland.