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Maine town hosts 33d annual tribute to Moxie soda

Frank Anicetti is known as the unofficial mayor of Moxieville.

Frank Anicetti is known as the unofficial mayor of Moxieville.

LISBON, Maine — Soda was an occasional treat for the Baumer family in the 1970s. “We didn’t have it in the house all the time,” said Julie-Ann Baumer, who was a young child then. “Moxie was a special thing.”

And in Lisbon, at least, it’s as special as ever. The quirky soft drink was introduced and marketed as Moxie Nerve Food a hundred years before Baumer’s childhood, but it’s still celebrated here year-round. While Moxie actually originated in Lowell, Mass., a small store in Lisbon is credited with almost singlehandedly sustaining interest in the waning brand.

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This weekend, the town of 9,000 will welcome as many as 50,000 visitors, most clad in matching orange T-shirts — the color featured on Moxie labeling — for the 33d annual Moxie Festival. It’s a four-day celebration of the carbonated beverage that many Mainers consider a symbol of the state’s unique character, and which has been the state’s official soft drink since 2005.

Made with gentian root, which is used to flavor bitters and certain liqueurs, Moxie is — to put it delicately — an acquired taste for many. But those who like it tend to become slightly obsessive about the soda. The manufacturer has long claimed the product gives drinkers “spunk,” and Moxie fans do seem to have plenty of that.

Baumer, who lived outside of Lisbon for years, says she was drawn back to her hometown in part by the Moxie Festival. A few years ago, when there was talk of curtailing the event, she was one of several boosters who volunteered to help keep it going. On Friday, she will host the Moxie Recipe Contest at Chummy’s Mid-Town Diner. Connoisseurs from as far afield as New York and Washington, D.C., are coming to serve on the tasting jury.

Last year, some entries were “ridiculously elaborate,” Baumer said over lunch at the diner, which has a huge orange banner hanging out front to tout the contest. One contestant whipped up Moxie-infused crème brulee, she recalled.

“And any smoked meat with Moxie is good,” Baumer added.

In addition to the recipe contest, the festival includes a parade, a car show, fireworks, a 5K race, a bike rally, and a Moxie chugging challenge.

During its heyday in the 1920s, Moxie actually sold better than Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England has distributed the beverage since the 1980s. In 2007, a Coca-Cola subsidiary, Cornucopia Beverages of Bedford, N.H., bought the Moxie Beverage Company brand from an Atlanta firm, vowing to reinvigorate the original invigorating soft drink. Cornucopia spokesman Justin Conroy said it has doubled sales since the purchase, to about 15 million bottles and cans annually.

Cornucopia and Coca-Cola have no official role in the Moxie Festival, though they do send plenty of interns to give away promotional items.

Despite the relentless festivities, a somber note will hang over this year’s event after Sue Conroy’s unexpected death late last month. Conroy — no relation to Justin — was a hairstylist and community volunteer who compiled a cookbook, “Cookin’ With Moxie,” and co-organized the festival with her son Toby beginning in 2000.

Her passing triggered more speculation about the future of the festival, which has weathered recurring scrutiny as it threatens to outgrow the town.

“There are things happening this year,” hinted Frank Anicetti, owner of Kennebec Fruit Company. The 100-year-old general store has become the town’s Moxie headquarters. Anicetti, known as the “Mayor of Moxietown,” wouldn’t say what that might mean for the festival.

Now in his 70s, he helped give his hometown its “moxie” more than three decades ago, when he hosted a signing of a little book called “The Moxie Mystique,” written by Frank Potter. Anicetti, who takes his Moxie with cream, is fond of telling the story: He sent out 13 postcards promoting the event, and drew a line that stretched around the block.

The subsequent establishment of the Moxie Festival effectively replaced the town’s old Frontier Days celebration. These days, Anicetti’s younger sister, Cathey Bienkowski, travels north from her home near Memphis for a few weeks each summer to help her brother handle the festival surge.

Standing at the store’s old ice cream counter folding a stack of Moxie T-shirts, she said that each time the festival rolls around, “I get the biggest guy I can see and ask him to be the doortender.”

The ramshackle store has bananas in the window and a selection of old-fashioned candy hanging on peg hooks, but it’s mostly Moxie — orange hats, orange socks, plenty of old-time memorabilia and, of course, a cooler full of soda.

The store sits at the corner of the town’s Main Street, just a few hundred yards from the historic Worumbo Mill on the Androscoggin River, which was badly damaged in a 1987 fire and is now closed.

There was a time when morning shift workers stopped by the store at 4 a.m., leaving grocery orders that would be packaged and ready for pickup on their way home from the mill.

“It’s a very different world,” said Bienkowski.

Baumer’s brother, Jim, who lives in nearby Durham, recently wrote a keepsake book called “Moxie: Maine in a Bottle.” The siblings, said his sister, share a belief in small-town community as an antidote to global concerns like job migration and sustainability.

“We really believe the answer is local,” said Julie-Ann Baumer, “and Moxie is a part of that.”

The definition of “local,” however, is somewhat flexible. Augustin Thompson created Moxie as a “cure-all” in Lowell in the 1870s. By 1885, he had concocted and patented a carbonated version of the drink, the first of its kind in America.

Moxie’s mystique was largely credited to the ingenuity of yet another Frank — Frank Archer, who tagged the drink “The Leading Exponent of a Strenuous Life.” Associated with Teddy Roosevelt and endorsed by Ted Williams, Moxie was said to cure ailments ranging from “softening of the brain” to “loss of manhood.” The drink had strong ties to Boston: From the late 1920s into the 1950s, it was produced and packaged at a huge bottling plant in Roxbury known as Moxieland.

Today, after decades of declining sales, the brand is all but unknown in many parts of the country, but it retains a strong following in Maine. The Matthews Museum of Maine Heritage, located in Union — hometown of Thompson, the inventor — features a wing dedicated to Moxie lore.

At least one other Maine town, Lincoln, can lay claim to a piece of the Moxie story, said Anicetti. Archer was born there.

But Anicetti, the Baumers, the Conroys and many more have made sure that Moxie, despite its Massachusetts roots, has a permanent home in Lisbon.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.c.

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