A few years ago on a cold February day, Tabitha King (wife of megamillionaire and prolific author Stephen King, and an author in her own right) was driving along a country road in Sweden, Maine. At the top of a steep hill, the view was magnificent: the hills and mountains of Western Maine on one side, the White Mountains on the other. There was a tiny, rustic cabin, and an 80-year-old untended apple orchard. There was also a large sign: Now Selling! Sweetwater Estates.
Forty-two parcels had already been sold, and were just waiting for more temperate weather before building would commence. But Tabitha King wasn’t having it. A housing development on an old Maine farmstead with history? Not happening!
So Tabitha King proceeded to buy out every single one of the forty-two future homeowners.
“Aw, come on,” I said to an employee of Pietree Orchard who was telling me the story, “there are always idealists who are hold-outs.”
“Let’s just say she made them offers they couldn’t refuse.”
(Hey Tabby, feel free to check out our place!)
For the Kings this was nothing remarkable. They own lots of land in my neighborhood and property along Kezar Lake in Lovell. And although they enjoy their lovely lakeside summer homes, they want to make sure that few others will do the same. They want to ensure that Maine wilderness stays wild, and that historic farmsteads remain productive.
It’s a sentiment I can appreciate, yet I think their fears of overdevelopment are pretty much unfounded. Maine is one of eleven states in the USA where more people are on welfare than employed. In remote areas like where I live, it costs $10 in gas and 90 minutes of travel time just to get to a supermarket and back. Housing is cheap but the market is flooded with foreclosures and for sale signs, and some of those signs have been posted for four years. Basically, there are no jobs and no economy, unless it has to do with excavation, water well drilling, logging, carpentry . . . you get the picture. The “best” doctors, dentists, scientists are not coming to live in Maine anytime soon, that’s for sure. It’s only been 4 years since WiFi connections via DSL were a possibility in our area. The entire state of Maine has only one large shopping mall (most people in rural Maine have little use for clothing that isn’t denim, fleece, or flannel) although there are a couple of outlet centers in tourist towns. So while we do have an increase in population during the summer from tourists and people who have summer homes, Maine is just too darn far away from everything and everywhere else. The Maine wilderness will never be filled with bedroom suburbs; it’s too impractical.
The other thing is that in the Maine wilderness, the woods always, always win. Maine’s climate and rocky, thin soil are pretty inhospitable for growing much anything besides apples, potatoes, summer corn, and hay. But, as my Maine friend says, “the one thing Maine knows how to do is grow trees.” It’s true. You go to bed at night and when you wake up in the morning, there are trees where there weren’t any the day before. If you own a house in the woods, half the time is spent beating back the woods from taking over. Wild raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and thorny bushes; beech, birch, oak and pine saplings: they all invade your yard and your driveway with devious encroachment. It’s no wonder that “bush hogs” that gobble brush are a more popular tractor attachment than grass cutters. Just take a walk in the woods and you will see countless abandoned cabins. The roofs are caved in (due to heavy snowfall), the wood has dry rot, and the mice and woodpeckers have ensured that the cabins melt back into the earth. And of course, trees are growing in all former rooms of those cabins.
But. Tabitha King has done absolutely wonderful things with the old McSherry farmstead in Sweden, now called Pietree Orchard. She hired pomologists (apple experts) who pruned and babied the old trees, and got them blooming again. With their help, she added thousands of apple saplings, and incorporated new, successful techniques that limited or avoided use of pesticides. She also re-introduced “heirloom” apple varieties from old Maine orchards that you can’t find in stores, and that would otherwise be lost forever. She built a market store that sells bagged apples from the orchard, along with freshly picked vegetables and peaches, pumpkins, mums and winter squash grown on site, along with natural honey and crafts provided by local residents, farmers, and artisans. Their cider press turns out cider that is the best I’ve tried anywhere. Tabitha King also created an on-site artisan bakery, and hired an artisan baker, who turns out luscious-smelling pies, pastries, breads, cakes and cookies on a daily basis, baked with the finest and freshest – – and mostly local – – ingredients. She created a Pick-Ur-Own business to help harvest the produce, and provide a fun and productive outing for the public. The orchard provides tours and picking for educational groups and schoolchildren to learn everything there is to know about apple orchards and their legacy in Maine. She provided jobs for dozens of Mainers, who run the orchard, help with growing, harvesting and packing. The workers are models of pleasantness. When you visit Pie Tree Orchard, you come away happy.
I should add that here in Maine, Stephen and Tabitha King are venerated – – they can do no wrong. And for the most part, they don’t. They obviously and rightfully cherish their privacy while holed up all summer on exclusive Kezar Lake, the fount and muse of many of King’s books. But they run a foundation that provides grants for Mainers, as well as a foundation for destitute artists who’ve lost their home or health through accidents; and they donate heavily (in the millions) to libraries throughout Maine (when asked for $13K in funds to repair a public library, they wrote a check for $12,999: Stephen King is phobic about the number 13). In Lovell, the location of their summer home, they donated big-time to remodel the public library there; the children’s library is now state of the art – and they used all local craftsmen and supplies to build it. They donated funds for a baseball field and recreation center in their summer town as well, used by local Little Leaguers and Boy and Girl Scouts.
Since apple-picking season is coming to a close, I realized that I’d better hurry out to the Kings’ Pie Tree Orchard to get my winter supply of apples. Of the many varieties (samples are offered by employees with dazzling smiles) I chose Northern Spy, known for its good storage qualities (they’d be wintering on my porch), and hard, crunchy, juicy-tart bite. I was supplied with a hand wagon and two half-bushel boxes for picking, as well as a an apple picking tool on a telescoping stick (no ladders are provided) which resembled a lacrosse stick.
Within 30 minutes I had picked my bushel of apples and then some, but I lingered in the orchard because the day was so beautiful and the views so far-reaching. Pietree Orchard is truly a gem of a place.
Back at home, I began planning: apple butter; dehydrated apple slices; apple sauce; cider; pie. Lots of activity to keep me busy on those days when inclement weather prevents me from venturing out . . .