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Walter and Helen Norton: A Powerful Force for Conservation

One in a series of profiles of people who played a key role in the first 35 years of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. 

By Doug Warren

Please note that this profile was written in fall of 2016 but it remains relevant today. Helen Norton continues to be a driving force for conservation.

walter-and-helen-nortonFor decades, the Norton name has been a very quiet, but very powerful force in the effort to preserve Maine’s farmland and its coastal treasures.

Walter and Helen Norton, for example, bought the historic Dunning Farm on Harpswell Neck in 2006, donated an easement to the Maine Farmland Trust, and now the land is leased to Joe and Laura Grady, who run Two Coves Farm. The Nortons’ generosity ensured that this beautiful piece of property will be forever farmland.

The list goes on: The Nortons own the historic building that housed the Schoolhouse Café. The couple have been major supporters of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, among other organizations.

In fact, the Nortons are the primary reason the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust exists today. In 1983, they bought the Tarr-Eaton House, built in the 1780s, along with 42 acres of land in Harpswell Center and donated the house and two acres to the Harpswell Historical Society. The historical society put easements on the house and land, sold them, and used the money to found what was then called the Harpswell Heritage Trust to manage the easement. That organization is now known as the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT). The Nortons later donated the remaining 40 acres to the HHLT.

With these and other preservation efforts, the Nortons consistently maintained a very low profile while raising three daughters and living on Harpswell Neck farmland that has been in the family since the 1740s. Walter Norton, an insurance executive and Harpswell native, died in May 2016 at 91. Helen Norton, who grew up on a dairy farm in York, Pa., says she and her husband always shared a love for farmland and open space.

“We saw how people had taken the beautiful farms of Harpswell and divided them up, sometimes not very well. We both felt this was part of our heritage that needed to be preserved,” she explained.

To acknowledge the Nortons’ unequalled legacy of support for preservation efforts in coastal Maine, the HHLT is naming its latest acquisition – 43 acres on Birch Island – the Walter and Helen Norton Preserve. “We’ve always tried to stay in the background,” Helen Norton acknowledged. “But it’s a great honor.”

Reed Coles, executive director of the HHLT, said recognizing the Nortons is a pleasure given their years of preservation effort. “Walter and Helen’s continued generosity has resulted in the conservation of hundreds of acres of important wildlife habitat and one of the last active farms in Harpswell. We are extraordinarily grateful for their commitment to conserving the natural resources and history of our town.” He noted that one of the HHLT’s newest trails, Widgeon Cove Trail, is on part of the Dunning Farm property purchased by the Nortons.

Helen Norton says she is very pleased with the current direction of the HHLT. “A number of people have become involved who have given it great impetus. It’s now a force to be reckoned with.” She also expressed her desire to see greater cooperation between land trusts in their preservation efforts.

Tim Glidden, president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, offered praise for Walter Norton’s love of the environment. “Walter was a champion of conservation at all levels: from his hometown of Harpswell to the waters of Casco Bay, to the oceans of the world. He took his responsibilities as a steward of the world very much to heart. I will miss him.”

Helen Norton said she and her husband shared a love of the isolation, but also the sense of community, that can found in the world of nature. “Animals need corridors to migrate, continuous undeveloped areas, to survive. And, ultimately, I think the same thing can be said for people,” she said.