APPLETON — They are known as magical, dwarf-like creatures that inhabit the underworld — but in Appleton, tree-like gnomes are strutting their stuff very much above ground as Maine’s newest mascots of holiday merriment.

Already dubbed the “Famous Gnomes of Appleton” by the woman behind the them, the funny forest figures made of balsam and other tree branches are sprouting all over the town to the bemusement of residents and visitors alike.

They resemble upside down Christmas trees with hats and arms — some are even reading books. They range in size from a few squat feet tall to a giant, corpulent gnome at the Appleton Library that is about seven feet tall to the tip of its very pointed, wizard-like cap. And they adorn everything from farm driveways and blueberry patches to land preserves and the town’s new Foda restaurant. Typically, the gnomes are bedecked with a Christmassy red cap and a sign of the holiday times, such as “Joy” or “Welcome.” One has a blue cap and a menorah in celebration of Hanukkah.

This gnome decorates the entrance to Appleton’s new Foda restaurant. Photo by Jack M. Foley

It all began in 2020 — during the height of the COVID pandemic. That is when Zoe FitzGerald-Beckett set up a gnome-making workshop in her garage on Sennebec Road after taking a workshop in Rockport on how to create the elf-like figures from the boughs of balsam and pine trees.

“That was a tough year for everybody in town and we could all use a bit of cheering up,” FitzGerald-Beckett recalled.

Having lived in Appleton nearly 10 years, she had noticed a dearth of town holiday decorations in the rural community, except for efforts by private citizens here and there.

“We thought that as a community we’d try to cheer everybody else up,” said Fitz-Gerald-Beckett, who is married to Appleton Select Board Vice Chair Peter Beckett.

And it wasn’t just the pandemic that was on folks minds at the time, she said. “In the beginning we decided, almost as a counterpoint to all the political signs on lawns and the divisions at the time, that we would include signs of, Seasons Greetings and Peace on Earth.”

This gnome at Heritage Home Farm on Appleton Ridge Road celebrates Hanukkah. Photo Courtesy of Zoe Fitzgerald-Beckett

It started modestly enough; six people, a few gnomes, wreathes and swags. The reaction was beyond positive, according to FitzGerald-Beckett. By 2021 the group, calling itself The Holiday Greening and Gnome-ing of Appleton Committee, had grown to nearly 30 people — some building the figures and other donating funds. Their output was explained this way by FitzGerald-Beckett in a report to the town:

“We ended up with 20 gnomes popping up around town along with 40 wreaths and swags and 5 Christmas trees and one Menorah.” Compliments on social media, she wrote, were all positive: ‘“The town has never looked so cheerful for the holidays.” “It feels like some people care.” “Made my day driving by a gnome!” “Made me smile every time.” “My kids love the gnomes and want to drive around looking for them.” “Makes me happy to be part of this Town.” And, happily for this year, How can I get involved?”’

This year, the group placed close to 30 gnomes around town along with  25 wreaths or swags, according to FitzGerald-Beckett.

Along the way, FitzGerald-Beckett and her team, whom she refers to as the elves, decided to honor local groups, enterprises and cultures for their contributions to the community and asked permission to install gnomes on private land.

Among those approached was the Beckett’s longtime friend Elizabeth Siegel, whose family raises and sells Katahdin lambs and chickens at Heritage Home Farm on Appleton Ridge Road.

“They reached out to me last week asking if they could put one up by the farm and I just said to Zoe that would be wonderful,” said Siegel, who teaches at Adas Yoshuron synagogue in Rockland. She asked that the gnome in some way reflect the eight days of Hanukkah that begin Dec. 18 — and so the gnome came with a blue cap, and Siegel added a small menorah.

Gnomes study a map of Appleton before deployment for enjoyment. Photo courtesy of Zoe FitzGerald-Beckett

Others who received gnomes include Deer Foot Farm, Mannafest Mushrooms, Highcroft Farm, and Glendarrah Lavender Farm, all on Union Road; Ridgeberry Blueberry Farm Appleton Ridge Road; and Terra Optima Farm on Gurneytown Road.

The group bestowed gnomes on others it felt deserving of special holiday recognition, too. Said Fitzgerald-Beckett, “We also wanted to acknowledge and thank the people who have donated tracts of blueberry barren lands to the Georges River Trust this year — the Pitman family on Appleton Ridge and the Sigsbee family on Sennebec Road at the Union border.

Some of Appleton’s gnome makers bedecked in their gnome caps at Appleton Library. Photo by Jack M. Foley

The group this year also strung lights on the Christmas tree at Ness’s corner, and FitzGerald-Beckett gave a nod of appreciation to Kate Coffeey, whose house abuts the park, for “donating her electricity allowing us to run an extension cord to the tree.”

Anyone interested can see more about the group’s 2021 at its Youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukWokQyybP0.

The group can be contacted at  greeningappleton@gmail.com.

Gnomes also were placed to thank families that donated land to the Georges River Trust this year. Photo courtesy of Zoe FitzGerald-Beckett