Farm, garden store Allen, Sterling & Lothrop celebrates 100 years

FALMOUTH — One hundred years ago this spring, a small wholesale farm equipment and seed distributor opened on Commercial Street in Portland.

Then, in the 1950s, the company moved to a building at the corner of Federal and Middle streets, until the city took the building by eminent domain in 1969, forcing the company to Route 1 in Falmouth.

Now, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop is enjoying the resurgence of local farming and home gardening, which is helping it celebrate a successful centennial.

“It ended up being a blessing, but my grandfather didn’t think so at the time,” said Shawn Brannigan of the forced move to Falmouth.

Brannigan took over the business from his grandfather, Sherwood Maguire, who first leased it from Harry Lothrop. Lothrop died in the late 1950s, and Maguire took full ownership of the business.

Brannigan said his grandfather worked into his 90s, packing seeds into small envelopes even as his eyesight started to go.

“He was packing seeds six days before he died,” Brannigan said. “He had this big, booming voice. People used to come into the store, long-time customers, and he’d talk to them from behind the counter. He loved it. He had the best attitude.”

The business is still a family affair. Brannigan’s wife, Beth, and mother, Shirley, do all the buying for the business, and his sister, Jennifer Herring, runs the seed-packing process.

“We pack all our seeds by hand,” Brannigan said. “That helps us keep people working through the winter.”

With a week off from school for spring vacation, Brannigan even has his two youngest sons helping out, stocking grass seed and arranging potted plants.

“Business is unbelievably seasonal,” Brannigan said. “We do more than half our business in three months. I work about 65 hours a week this time of year.”

But not on Sundays. Allen, Sterling & Lothrop has been and will always be closed on Sundays, he said.

“We like to spend time with God and family, and we think our employees should be able to do the same,” Brannigan said. “We’re only here by the grace of God anyway.”

Allen, Sterling & Lothrop does approximately 70 percent of its business in wholesale seed packs and supplies for nurseries, hardware stores and landscape companies. The remaining 30 percent is retail.

The dramatic increase in home vegetable gardening is helping business, Brannigan said, but not as much as the increase in small, local farms. The small farms often buy supplies from small local businesses and, in response to demand, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop have a new line of organic seeds available for the first time this year.

“In the past few years there’s been a huge boom in local farms and it’s very important to support them,” Brannigan said. “We should be paying for food what it costs to raise food. It shouldn’t be subsidized.”

Allen, Sterling & Lothrop still sells about 40 varieties of the same seeds that were on the shelves in 1911. Popular and centennial items include Detroit Dark Red heirloom beets, Blue Lake beans, Danvers Half-Long Strain heirloom carrots and Straight 8 cucumbers.

Brannigan said that even though it’s been a cold spring and Maine is two to three weeks behind the historical planting schedule, those excited to get seeds in the ground can plant lettuce, spinach, kale, onions and broccoli, as well as other cold-hardy vegetables. He suggests waiting until after Memorial Day to plant the rest of the garden.

He encourages people trying vegetable gardens for the first time to start slow and simple.

“The No. 1 thing is soil. Make sure your soil is prepared, that it’s got plenty of organic matter and the pH is where it should be,” Brannigan said. “If you start off small, you won’t get overwhelmed and discouraged.”

Brannigan said even though he spends his days surrounded by plants, seeds and flowers, he still manages to maintain a small vegetable garden at home.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

Sidebar Elements

Riley, 12, right, and Blake, 15, help their father, Shawn Brannigan, set out the first pansies of the year Monday at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop on Route 1 in Falmouth. The garden and wholesale seed and supply company, which moved from Portland to Falmouth in 1969, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Seed drawers line the back room at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth. The same drawers were used in the original store in Portland, which opened in 1911.

An old wooden box is used to display of seeds at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop in Falmouth. The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and still has much of its original equipment and storage, including these boxes.

The former Allen, Sterling & Lothrop business at Middle and Federal streets in Portland in the early 1960s. The store, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, moved to Route 1 in Falmouth in 1969.

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