By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — Noise coming from the basement used to signal Anne Thibeau that her father’s science experiment to revive a piece of human history had begun for another night.
Carefully measuring the amount of clay, cow’s milk and chemical compounds like iron oxide, Charles Thibeau would mix them over and over to see which recipe would make the best “milk paint,” the primitive pigment that humans have used since the caveman era.
To recreate the authentic look of original Colonial- and Shaker-style furniture, milk paint must be smooth enough that wood grains shine through, but gooey enough to stick onto the rough lumber surface. After hundreds of hours of trial and error and many nights talking in his kitchen about paint ingredients with his chemist friend from Groton, Daniel Toombs, Thibeau would perfect the formula.
Thus was born The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. in 1974.
Thibeau’s tenacity for mastering whatever he set out to do was a key to the success of the milk-paint company and a host of other businesses he ran in his 84-year lifetime, says Anne Thibeau and his friends.
In his early days, Thibeau founded the Ark, a Boston performance venue where such music giants as the Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton performed. More recently, he became an expert in pocket-watch repair and gemstone cutting, creating engagement and other rings for his clients.
His life was all about following dreams, says Anne Thibeau.
“He always told us not to be afraid to jump right into things,” she said.
“I always thought he was visionary,” said Toombs, Thibeau’s friend of 30 years.
And, said his friend Bill Jennings, when he failed on a project, Thibeau knew what to say to himself: “When you get down, you’ve got to get up and move on.”
After inspiring people to reach for their dreams for decades, Charles Thibeau, an entrepreneur and a Groton resident of 58 years, died March 25 of complications from congestive heart failure. Predeceased by his wife, Mary, and son, Matthew, Thibeau leaves his sons, Gregory, Dana and Mark Thibeau and his daughter Anne Thibeau, as well as his grandchildren and his companion of several years, Blanche Foss.
Born in Boston, Thibeau, a one-time Groton Planning Board member, grew up in Forest Hills section of Boston. Despite suffering from polio, which made his school attendance sporadic, Thibeau became an avid reader, Jennings says. He and his brother, Bill, made and sold funeral wreaths near their home, and Thibeau grew confident in his entrepreneurial skills when he became the treasurer of the student body at the Connecticut Junior Republic in Litchfield, Conn., an organization dedicated to helping at-risk youths.
“He became very capable of figuring out how to make money” from the treasurer experience, Jennings, a Groton psychologist, says.
A bit of a rebel, Thibeau ran away from home twice as a teenager and would hitch-hike, Anne Thibeau recalls. He drove a cab at 16, worked as a roofer, sold encyclopedias and later taught dance at Arthur Murray School of Dance. After moving to Groton in 1954, he founded Conductorlab, a printed circuit company, before selling it in 1967. He then opened the Ark, which later merged with The Boston Tea Party.
An environmental enthusiast, he started the National Foundation for Environmental Control in Boston in 1970, which published an environmental resources directory. He then turned to his passion for furniture making, launching the Yankee Doodle Toy Company with his son, Dana, to produce wooden folk toys. Toombs said.
Thibeau began making milk paint out of his desire to replicate Colonial-era masterpiece furniture as accurately as possible. But when Yankee Magazine wrote about his paint in the “forgotten art” section of the publication, people started calling, says Anne Thibeau, who now runs the paint business with her husband, Brian Senecal.
To complement the furniture business, Thibeau started another business, Craftsman Lumber Company in Groton. Thibeau also had a custom-kit car business with his friend, Dave Johnson, and a Bugatti he built took first place at the Boston Auto Show in 1970.
Thibeau would obsess over his new interest. Once he mastered it, he would then move onto a new thing — and a new business. In his later years, he would stay up late at night, surfing the Internet to look for information on gemstone cutting, Anne Thibeau said.
Thibeau’s milk paint, which is free of volatile organic compounds and safe to chemically-sensitive people, has gained customers worldwide, she says. Charles Thibeau produced the paint in powder form — which can be dissolved in water to make paint — so that it wouldn’t require as much energy to ship.
“He was ahead of his time,” Toombs said.
Jennings said Thibeau was interested in all the issues surrounding health, history and politics.
“He was knowledgeable and an interesting guy to be around,” Jennings said.
Anne Thibeau said she will miss her father’s laughter and words of encouragement he always shared with his children, telling them not to be afraid of trying new things.
“He had a long life. He did everything,” Toombs said.