An Early Down East Orchard Reborn

I went to a tree planting this morning, a perfect activity for a Spring day Down East.  And no ordinary tree planting was this. It was for the recreation of an early 19th century orchard in its original location.  Nothing is too arcane for this Dilettante.
  The Jonathan Fisher House, built to Fisher's own design in 1814.  In foreground, Tim Seabrook gives a planting lesson

The Jonathan Fisher House in Blue Hill, Maine, is the carefully preserved homestead designed and built in 1814 by the town's first settled minister, a 1793 graduate of Harvard, who remains well known today as a folk artist, diarist, farmer and author, entrepreneur, surveyor, and all around Yankee Renaissance man, a rural answer to Jefferson, a true product of the Age of Reason.

 Self-Portrait by Jonathan Fisher, 1824 (Collection of Jonathan Fisher House)

 A Morning View of Blue Hill Village, 1824, by Jonathan Fisher.  The Fisher Farm is visible at the center horizon. (Collection of Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine)

Although the Fisher House has been open as a Museum for 55 years, , the two acre home grounds that survive of the original 300 acre farm were long neglected, and had overgrown with invasive bittersweet, bracken and swamp maples.   As the board of directors started to take control of this jungle, the remnants of stone walls began to re-appear, and the 19th century lay-out became apparent.  Fortuitously, Fisher's hand-drawn map of those two acres survives in the collection of the Farnsworth Library & Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, complete with a chart of the fruit trees planted there originally.   The board of the Fisher House decided  to bring the agricultural  story of the property to the fore, and to recreate the orchard.
 Jonathan Fisher's c. 1820 map of his home grounds, showing orchard and listing varieties (Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine)

 Fisher's 4 x great-granddaughter, Louise Fisher Abbot, offered to fund the clearing and restoration of the fields, in memory of her three late sisters. (Jonathan Fisher had also had four daughters)  With this generous gift in hand, the Fisher House board was able to proceed with planning.   Enter at this point, the current Congregational minister, Robert McCall, author of the Awanjanado Almanac, who himself maintains an orchard at his parsonage.   He brought to the committee Leslie Cummins and Tim Seabrook of Five Star Nursery in Brooklin, Maine, who have made their life work the preservation and propagation of early varieties of apples grown in Maine.  

 A page from Jonathan Fisher's Sketchbook, c. 1815, showing two apples, believed to be Golden Russets, on a pewter plate (watercolor, collection of Jonathan Fisher House)

Planning commenced.  Fisher's chart was examined, the space available measured, practical considerations like budget and manpower available weighed, and a plan began to take shape.   It was decided that a reduced scale adaptation of the orchard could be achieved.   Amazingly, one huge tree, labeled on the original plan as a 'St. Germain Pear', survived from 1820, and now anchors the new orchard.  

 Detail from Morning View of Blue Hill Village, showing the Fisher Farm, orchard at right center.

Looking toward the house today.  The 200 year old pear tree partially obscures the ell, with a newly planted section of orchard to the right.

An 1888 view of the Fisher Farm from the street.  The pear tree is at left.

Another fascinating feature of the orchard is that Fisher clearly intended it to be ornamental as well as useful (He often ventured from this post on the Eastern frontier to Boston, where he saw urban schemes and the new country estates then being built around Boston, and visited with relatives, including the landscape painter Alvin Fisher).   Radiating out from the parlor windows of the house, splitting the orchard in two, he indicated a fan allee, widening from the house as it took in the spectacular view from his hilltop of Blue Hill Mountain, Blue Hill Village and Bay, and the mountains of Mt. Desert Island in the distance.   This is probably the earliest known planned landscape feature in Maine.   It was considered essential to duplicate this feature, although the view is long since lost to tree growth (and were the trees to disappear today, would focus directly on the rear of a supermarket a quarter mile away between Fisher House and the Harbor.)  

Rev. Rob McCall, Louise Fisher Abbot, and Leslie Cummins of Five Star Nursery plant a cherry tree, descended from the original planted in this spot

For trees, two of Fisher's original varieties, golden Roxbury Russets and a Pippin could be located.  It was decided to also make the orchard a public home for other known pre 1850 (Fisher died in 1847 )varieties that were known to have been grown locally.  Additionally, cherry trees descended from Fisher's original stock of 'English cherries' still existed, handed down from Farmer to farmer around town, and were donated.  Lastly, scion wood was taken to be grafted from the pear tree to ensure future stock.

A cage is then erected around the trees to protect them from Giant Maine Hooved Rats, a marauding pest sometimes more picturesquely referred to as 'deer' by the tourists.

Which brings us to this morning.   The trees were put up for 'adoption', and all were spoken for, and this morning, with apple trees in bloom, members of the community gathered and planted 'their' trees, in the spots where Jonathan Fisher had planted similar ones nearly 200 years ago.  Rev. McCall spoke a few words to bless the trees, and with that, Fisher's great-great-great-great granddaughter helped to plant one of the cherry trees descended from those first ones, in the very spots where the originals had grown.

 Spring, by Jonathan Fisher, 1820 (Collection of Jonathan Fisher House)

For more about Jonathan Fisher's House and art, visit their website:  www.jonathanfisherhouse.org  Their blog:  http://jonathanfisherhouse.blogspot.com/

An entertaining general biography is Mary Ellen Chase's Jonathan Fisher, Maine Parson (Houghton Mifflin); or Versatile Yankee, the Art of Jonathan Fisher by Alice Winchester, former editor of Antiques Magazine, (Pyne Press, Princeton University).  A new biography, exploring Fisher's art & life,  by Kevin Murphy of CUNY, is to be published in July by University of Massachusetts Press. http://www.umass.edu/umpress/fall_09/murphy.htm

The Jonathan Fisher House is considered one of Maine's most important historic sites, and contains extraordinary collections.  It may be visited July-October, Thur, Fri, Sat. 1-4, and other times by prior arrangement.


Emile de Bruijn said...

What a fantastic project, and what a fascinating place. Wonderful that the map and the painting were still there to guide the restoration. The National Trust is also starting to replant orchards, which were often grubbed up after the Second World War. I will show this post to the colleague spearheading that project, as she is bound to be interested.

Turner Pack Rats said...

this is inspiring and very touching. at the turn of the 20th century, there were over 4000 apple varieties in maine. i'm sure that the fisher house also consulted john bunker of palermo reconized as the preeminent expert on maine antique apple varieties. he has spearheaded the maine heirloom orchard at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners educational facility in Unity, Maine. this orchard has over 80 apple varieties many of which were thought to be lost but which john has travelled the state to find. he has also written a great book called "Not Far from the Tree" about antique apples. the most comprehensive chronicle of Maine apples was written about 15 years ago by George Stilphen of Bolsters Mills and includes thousands of varieties. speaking of MOFGA, on May 22nd, they will be holding their annual Small Farm Field Day - a day of workshops on farming, gardening, food safety, tools, wild gathering,etc. Admission is a very reasonable $2. this is a good chance to see the orchards - there are two, tour the grounds and learn valuable skills. go to mofga.org for more details. i will be there planting the permaculture culinary herb bed and selling plants for $1 to benefit planting more varieties in the gardens.
almost every maine farm had an extensive orchard (ours had over 100 trees) of which the almost unheard of Baldwin was the most popular. The severe winter of 1936 killed over 4 million Baldwin trees as well as many others. many small maine farms shipped apples all over the world.
so, congratulations to all involved with resurrecting an original old maine orchard.

balsamfir said...

Aren't the rats tiresome. When I first moved in, they were nowhere to be found. Instead I had rabbits. But they have since decided that any new thing I plant must be sampled, unless it's within 10 feet of the house. At some point, I'm sure they'll stop being scared of the house and join me for dinner. No hunting allowed in villages, unfortunately.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Emile de Bruijn, thank-you. The comment by Turner Pack Rats might also interest.

TPR, I know that Tim & Leslie were in touch with John Bunker.

Balsam, it won't be long---the Hooved Rats made short work of evergreens planted against my parent's house. I actually live in town, on a busy street, and a family of them lived in a thicket behind my house all winter, surrounded by neighbors. Any day I'm expecting to find them setting a place at the table. Always passionately anti-gun, as hunting dies out as our town becomes more densely populated, I finally understand the necessity of thinning the herd.

balsamfir said...

Actually, I should say I wish they would ban hunting coyotes. That would be a better solution. You can still be antigun.

magnus said...

Loved the post, but you have me in a dither about the "Giant Maine Hooved Rats". I don't consider myself squeemish- with one exception: rodents. I live on the North Shore of Long Island, and the Norwegian Water Rat can be a pest. A google search of your giant Maine variety didn't turn up much- and my imagination is running wild. Perhaps a pet Cougar to take care of the problem? In any event, a wonderful post about a fascinating project. By the way, my house is sited on an old apple orchard (the name of the place, conferred by an early owner is "Old Orchard"). The removal of a dozen deteriorating sugar maples that lined the drive permitted enough sun to replant the orchard which we did, using the outline of the original orchard, as best as we could guess it from the few remaining trees. sadly, almost all apple varieties available today seems to be grafted on dwarf or semi dwarf stock and unless I was willing to pay for fully grown trees (I'm still sweating from that estimate), we could not locate large sized trees. Odd, isn't it?

magnus said...

DUUUHHH????!!!!. I'm not usually so "slow on the uptake". Giant rats have been much on my mind since I read your post. I've been to Maine many times- I even went to summer camp there for years and never heard of such a thing. THEN IT HIT ME. Deer are so "off the radar" on the North Shore of Long Island (not, however, the South) that we regard them as nothing short of picturesque. My brother who is up in Millbrook feels very differently and would heartely concur with your feelings. Sorry for my "thick as a plank" comment earlier.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Magnus, You've made my day. I can barely stop laughing long enough to type. I actually thought you did get it and were just being whimsical or wry. So sorry for any terror we may have struck in your heart about giant rats with hooves.

Indeed we once thought Deer picturesque here too--Bambi and all that. Nowadays, not so much. The miserable critters are definitely an example of adaptive evolution at work.

And whenever I'm in your brother's neighborhood, I remember that a friend refers to the Taconic as 'Dead Deer Alley'

DM said...

Wow! What a guy! I think I want to pay a visit to this lovely place Summersby.

(I too imagined this horrifying hooved rat creature and choked a scream into my hankie!)

smilla4blogs said...

At last a dream is realized! Congratulations to you all!

With all his talents, we so often think of JF as a dour and rigid man which is why I love your point about the ornamental aspect of the old orchard and how the "fan allee" was meant to be viewed from the parlor window. The romantic side of me wonders if JF envisioned Dolly looking out of those windows, gazing on spring blossoms...ooops, that is to say "Mrs. Fisher!"

Barbara Wells Sarudy said...

Absolutely wonderful posting about that spot which has been on & off my radar for years. Thank you!

Cashon&Co said...

First time on your blog and I loves this post! Off to go read more!

The Down East Dilettante said...

Cashon, Welcome and Thank you!

Karena said...

Very interesting background and can't wait to read more. Love Fisher's art.


Art by Karena

Janet said...

It is not often that I get teary over a blog post (and then giggle over the comments). In all seriousness, when you told me about this project last winter, as we were knee deep in snow, it seemed like a glorious mirage in the distance. And here you are. My heart is a little lighter knowing that this orchard is coming back. And with Fisher descendant cherry trees no less! Glorious. May the boughs be full of fruit and the gardens free of all manner of rodents.

P.S. I recognize some of those "orchard gardeners" !!!