As the iconic B&M Baked Beans factory in Portland is emptied to make way for a gleaming technology campus, one tradition will remain untouched: Its annual rooftop lights strung in the shape of a Christmas tree.

The simple decoration stands above one of the state’s busiest highways and reflects on the nearby waters of Casco Bay. For at least three decades, city residents and commuters have waited for the lights to signal a beginning to the winter holiday season.

“When you get up on the roof, it is really nothing more than a few strings of lights attached to a flagpole, but people look forward to it coming on after Thanksgiving,” said Chuck Hewett. “It is sort of a sign that the Christmas, Hanukah (and) New Year’s holidays are coming, and I think people like it.”

Hewett is executive director of the Institute for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, or IDEALS, the nonprofit group that is buying the B&M factory.

The property will be transformed into a modern campus and research center that houses the Roux Institute, a Northeastern University graduate school created to help jumpstart a high-tech economy and workforce in southern Maine.

The sale was announced in August, but even back then Hewett announced the intention to keep the holiday display, despite planned changes to nearly everything else on the property.


“It is a nice, warm thing we all share,” Hewett said. “All of us who are Mainers share that, (and) we want to continue that tradition. We think it is an important bit of continuity.”

B&M General Manager Tyler Wallace did not respond to an interview request. But Wallace told Maine Public this week that the light display dates back to the 1980s.

Christmas lights in the shape of a tree are lit atop the B&M Baked Beans factory Thursday. Beans are no longer baked at the factory, but the light display will endure as a symbolic link between Portland’s past and future. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The display grew so popular that if the lights were late, the factory would get calls from Maine Medical Center, the city of Portland and nearby neighbors asking for the status, he told the public broadcasting group.

B&M stopped producing baked beans at the Portland factory earlier this month. Workers are dismantling machinery and decommissioning the facility in advance of the sale closure expected early next year, Hewett said.

The company, originally named Burnham and Morrill Co., started in Portland more than 150 years ago. Baked beans have been produced at the factory, on the north end of the city, since 1913.

Now, for the first time in more than a century, B&M Baked Beans, the favorite of New Englanders, will be made entirely outside of Maine. Production has been shifted to plants in the Midwest owned by B&M parent company B&G foods.

Instead, IDEALS, the nonprofit headed by Hewett, plans a modern development, complete with research labs and classrooms, apartments, restaurants, a hotel and offices, as well as public paths and other outdoor recreational space on the shores of Casco Bay.

Through it all, the light display will endure as a symbolic link between Portland’s past and future.

“To be honest, it wouldn’t have been the top thing on my mind when we were negotiating the purchase,” Hewett said of the light display. “But the second the first person asked me about it, I was like, ‘Yep, we have to keep that tradition.’ “

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