Apples grown and sold in Wiscasset
“Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits.” – Henry David Thoreau.
I had intended to write this Salt ’n Spar column last September but one thing led to another and I never got around to it. It came back to me the other day when I was returning with Bo from hiking Eaton Farm Preserve on Youngs Point. A few of you will recognize the elderly gentleman pictured here. His name was Lewis Percival Hodgdon, better remembered as “Pert.” I know the Averill brothers, Wayne, Jeff and Steve at Ames True Value remember him. Pert always did his business in Wiscasset and was a familiar face down at the “grain store” known then as Ames Supply. Pert was 84 when I interviewed him and took his picture for the newspaper in September 1981. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because it was apple harvesting time at the farm on Birch Point Road and Pert was, as the old saying goes, “busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”
Let’s back up first, and give credit where credit is due. I was at Ames Supply one morning picking up a few items. When I approached the counter, Dan Ames, the original owner and grandfather to the Averill brothers, suggested, “Mr. Newspaperman you ought to do a story on Percy Hodgdon. He’s been growing apples at his farm right here in Wiscasset for better than 50 years! That would make good reading.”
People were always suggesting stories for me to write and this sounded like a good one. A day or so later, I drove over to Hodgdon Farm following the directions Mr. Ames had given me. From downtown the orchard was just past the railroad spur that led to Maine Yankee, the former nuclear plant. The thought never occurred to me that maybe I should have telephoned Mr. Hodgdon first. I saw the barn doors were open so I just pulled my pick-up truck alongside and got out, camera and notebook in hand. Pert was inside sorting apples with his granddaughter Ruth Bailey. After properly introducing myself and assuring Mr. Hodgdon I wasn’t there doing an “investigative story,” we started talking apples.
When I asked how business was, Pert smiled and told me it was going to be a pretty good harvest that fall. Macs a plenty this year, Cortlands too, he said. But Spys unh-un, he shook his head, they’re going to be in short supply along with the Red Delicious. “Macs” of course are Macintosh apples and “Spys” is short for Northern Spy apples.
Pert told me matter-of-factly he had about 130 apple trees in his orchard, about three quarters of which were Macintosh, a hearty variety and longtime favorite in Northern New England kitchens. Spys were “skimpier” he told me because, “They bear fruit just every other year. This year is the year they don’t bear.” Pert said he’d planted every single one of his apple trees by hand, and a good many of them had been put in the ground 54 years ago. I told you earlier I wrote this story in 1981 which means Mr. Hodgdon had planted a lot of his trees way back in 1927 when Calvin Coolidge was President.
“Apple trees will live just about forever if you take good care of them,” he continued placing another handful of sweet-smelling red ripe apples into a wooden crate. Farming apples, he added, was a year-round endeavor; there was pruning in March, fertilizing in the early spring after the ground thaws, and spraying for insects. Because there had been a lot of rain that summer, Pert said he often had to spray his trees twice a week. The apple harvest lasted three or four weeks. Work, work, work and more work is how Pert summed it up for me.
“When there’s a frost we have to wait ’til after the apples thaw before we pick them, otherwise it leaves fingerprints on the apple skin. But nobody be interested in reading about that,” continued Pert with a wry chuckle. After the apples were picked Pert loaded the many baskets brimming with apples onto a flatbed trailer. He then hauled them to the barn with his trusty ol’ Case tractor he bought brand new in 1944. “I paid $1,166 for that machine,” he said. And if I figured this right that would be the equivalent of spending roughly $19,500 today!
Helping Pert out with that year’s harvest were his brother-in-law, Harry Donnell, a limber 84 years young and his pickers, Jane Caton and Tootie Deschaine. After the apples were picked they were graded for size and quality, crated and ready to sell. One of Pert’s biggest orders – 800 apples – was sold that fall to Wiscasset School Department. Imagine it, fresh apples grown right here in town for our schoolkids to enjoy. There’s a reason folks call these the good old days.
I’m grateful Pert was willing to share some of the tricks of the apple-growing trade with me including schooling me on the proper way to pick ripe apples. With that said, getting him to hold still for a photograph was another matter. Well, I got lucky that morning and took a pretty good picture that for me has stood the test of time.
Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Boothbay Register-Wiscasset Newspaper. He resides in Wiscasset. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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