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Remembering Robert McIntyre

Sharon Whitney and Dorothy Rosenberg both contributed to this article.

Come spring, Harpswell’s air is sweet with blossoming scents, particularly, the scent of apple blossoms. Wander the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust trails at Houghton Graves Park on Orr’s Island or the Curtis Farm Preserve on Harpswell Neck and you’ll see an array of young apple trees in bloom.

Robert McIntyre kneels next to apple tree sapling

Robert kneels next to an apple tree sapling

The orchards are there because Robert McIntyre dreamed them.

Harpswell lost Robert in January, but his fascination with apples abides in the many trees he restored or planted, fostering a sustaining legacy from Harpswell’s past to its future.

It should be said that Robert McIntyre was neither a botanist nor a geneticist. He was by training an academic, specializing in labor economics. But his fascination with apples, he said, grew from his childhood. Abbie Verier of Maine Heritage Orchard reported in 2016 that he told her the first seeds of interest were planted when he was a little boy and his father cut down a healthy apple tree. “It didn’t have apples that I was interested in, but it sort of made a mark in my mind,” he’d said.

Those seeds sprouted at some point in 2006 when, on a run along Harpswell’s Route 123, Robert noticed a beat-up old tree near the Harpswell Neck Firehouse. He described it to Mary Pols of the Portland Press Herald in a 2015 interview: “There is almost no trunk to it left, it is a miraculous survival.”

This wasn’t a forgotten tree. There were those connected to the fire station in some way who had long been under the tree’s spell, enchanted by its apples. Sharon Whitney, Robert’s close friend and one of the collaborators in realizing his eventual apple tree vision, says “Many folks planned to pick its apples every year and cook with them.” But while locals harvested the tree, it affected Robert more profoundly.

What came to be known as the Firehouse Tree exerted a spell over the economist. He told Pols that some of the apples “were very beautiful, with very little in the way of insect damage.” More importantly, their flavor was “extraordinary.” He learned that they stayed on the tree much later than most apples, ripening only around November. “They are like immortal apples,” she reported him saying.

He needed to know more. He recruited his wife, Dorothy Rosenberg, and Ms. Whitney, a Master Gardener, for the quest to learn more about the miraculous apples at the firehouse. They consulted with John Bunker, an acknowledged expert on all things apple, who thought it was a Baldwin; Bunker’s wife disagreed, and in the end, the Firehouse tree joined the Maine Heritage Orchard (MHO) as a “Baldwin type” apple recognized as having some unique characteristics.

The Firehouse tree did more than pique McIntyre’s personal interest; it was the catalyst that led McIntyre, Whitney and Rosenberg to create Harpswell Heritage Apples (HHA), intended to identify and propagate the town’s heritage apples. Whitney observes that Robert dove into learning all he could and says that “over the years, he shared his enthusiasm for old apple varieties and built his apple skill set for their identification, care and propagation.

“Robert led local apple tasting sessions, first in homes and later at Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT),” Whitney recalls. “As you work with apples and apple fans you discover that many people have a favorite apple tree and often a good story to go along with it.”

When the Harpswell Community Garden was being planned for Mitchell Field, Robert and Dorothy joined in. Robert learned of the School and Community Garden Fund administered by HHLT, established back in 2005 by an anonymous donor, in support of Harpswell-based school and community gardens. He successfully promoted applying for funds to acquire trees for an orchard at the garden. As Rosenberg puts it, “The trust found the money, and Robert found the trees.” This is believed to have been the first community orchard in Maine.

Following the success of the Mitchell Field orchard, Robert looked for more orchard opportunities. When HHLT acquired the Curtis Farm Preserve, then HHLT Executive Director Reed Coles was thinking about supporting wildlife habitat there.

McIntyre stopped in one day to chat about apples with him, he says, and the idea was born of planting an orchard to attract wildlife. McIntyre made a proposal, and in 2016, an 11 tree orchard was planted in the field at Curtis Farm Preserve, later followed by two more trees.

The Curtis Farm orchard led to another, smaller planting on Orr’s Island at the Houghton Graves Park in 2017.

Harpswell Heritage Apples offered, and offers, help in the care and feeding of apple trees, as well as their identification and propagation. Today, there’s an appreciation for Harpswell’s apple trees that’s due in large part to Robert’s efforts. He wrote in a 2013 brochure on apple saplings for spring planting in 2014: “Because each of these saplings was grafted from a surviving 100 – 200 year old Harpswell apple tree, they are completely adapted to local climate conditions and diseases,” further noting, “This is a way of keeping the apples that were popular in Harpswell from 100 to 200 years ago alive in Harpswell for future generations. These apples are not just ‘as good as’ the modern apples bred for the mass-market—we find them to be clearly superior.”

Working with the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, McIntyre and his team had by then identified and could offer 14 varieties of Harpswell heritage saplings, with other varieties located but not yet identified.

Harpswell Heritage Apples will continue Robert’s work to revitalize and propagate Harpswell’s apple trees, Whitney says. “This spring [HHA] will inventory our plants and make certain we have contacted folks who have plants on order. In honor of Robert, we will be hosting an apple tasting session next fall. We are open to new apple detectives. We all miss Robert, and we know he’s watching from an apple tree, ready to guide us if needed.” She encourages folks who want to join in to contact her at eartheart1709@gmail.com or call her at 207.841.8265.

In May and June, Harpswell’s apple trees will be alight with delicate sun-sprayed pink and white blossoms. Their branches will be busy with nectar-seeking bees and bird flutter. As you enjoy the HHLT-supported orchards, take a moment to remember Robert McIntyre with gratitude. His fascination with an old apple tree and subsequent passion for salvaging these miraculous plants will benefit generations to come.

As to the Firehouse Tree itself, it somehow continues to survive and produce fruit. But should its sap finally cease to run, Whitney says, “it has been grafted, and grown on young root stock, so some of the same people who once picked its fruit at the firehouse now grow it at home.” As the Firehouse Tree fed the forebears of these folks, it will feed their descendants on into the future.

This article was written as part of a series for our 40th anniversary in 2023. For more information, click here.