By John Bunker
Photos by the author
As many of you know, I have been tracking down, identifying and preserving the historic apples of Maine for quite a few years. I’ve driven all over the state, studied apples and old books, grafted trees, collected scionwood — and tried to keep track of it all. This sounds like a solitary pursuit and certainly at times it is.
But there’s a flip side of the coin (or the apple). My work requires the assistance and goodwill of hundreds of people: the neighbors who introduced me to Baldwin and Northern Spy, the old-timers who gave me free rein in their orchards, the apprentices who accompanied me on fruit exploring trips and kept me awake on long late-night drives back home, the amazing staff at MOFGA, and the many people who have contacted me about the old trees in their backyards and then invited me into their lives. It has been a true collaboration. You could say it’s about 5% apples and 95% people. As Pete Seeger often sang, “Many stones can form an arch — singly none, singly none. Drops of water turn a mill — singly none, singly none.”
The Maine Heritage Orchard at MOFGA’s campus in Unity is the crown jewel of varietal preservation, education and research, made possible by the generous efforts of countless folks. Sadly, we lost two of our most devoted volunteers in the past year. Robert “Haas” Tobey died in September 2022, and Robert “Roberto” McIntyre died in January 2023.
An interest in apples and orcharding came late in life for both Haas and Roberto. Although neither of them had any apple growing experience — or much agricultural background at all — that didn’t hold them back. Their contributions are immeasurable. Curiosity and fresh thinking were perhaps their greatest attributes. Each in his own way, and perhaps to his own surprise, was passionate about the work. They helped make the orchard what it is today.
I met Haas in early September 2011 at an apple history talk I gave in Damariscotta. He was front and center. I remember thinking, “Who is this person with a big shock of white hair?”At about that time, he started his own small permaculture garden in his backyard. I’m fairly sure he was at my talk to find out how I was growing trees on our farm. During the Q&A, he even quizzed me! Two years later he reappeared at the future site of the Heritage Orchard in Unity on the day we marked out the first terraces in the newly renovated gravel pit. He was there to help implement the permaculture-inspired design of the 10-acre site with its swales and terraces and other innovative components. In the early photographs of those days, there he is, a decade or two older than everyone else, tirelessly working away.
Haas was into process. Before long, he was attending our Heritage Orchard planning meetings. Later, he played an instrumental role on the Buildings and Grounds Committee. He was definitely a committee guy. According to MOFGA staffer Jack Kertesz, Haas “was a stickler for getting things done right.”
Longtime MOFGA member and volunteer Tom Vigue notes, “Another of Haas’ great skills was an ability to see ways to connect people, and to see who should be connected because they would complement each other or gravitate toward each other in some way. That last day that Laura [Sieger, Maine Heritage Orchard manager] and I saw him, he expressed gladness that he had first introduced Laura and me to each other and how well that worked out.” Sieger adds, “Haas derived a lot of joy from seeing people connect over shared interests, and he seemed to really enjoy being able to witness minds coming together over shared experiences, seeing people work together to build things that may not have existed had they not collaborated.”
I met Roberto McIntyre in September 2008, when he took me to visit his favorite old trees in Harpswell. One in particular bore beautiful large green apples known locally as Norton Greening, named after the woman for whom the seedling tree had been planted 80 years earlier on her birthday. By the end of that afternoon, I realized that Roberto was going to be someone I’d want to get to know. For him, it was all about the fruit exploring. He was the epitome of the adage “think globally, act locally.” Though he rarely traveled far from Brunswick, he probably got to know every old apple tree from Harpswell’s Neck to Orr’s Island, from Bailey’s Island to Cundy’s Harbor. He was absolutely fearless about knocking on a stranger’s door. He was outspoken, quirky, and even outlandish. Mostly, he was incredibly fun.
We went on dozens of fruit exploring adventures over the next 15 years. We would meet at a local coffee shop in Brunswick; he would show up with his New York Times in hand, and we’d discuss his latest schemes and then head off to visit a list of sites. Usually, it was just the two of us, but occasionally an entourage of vehicles could be seen parading down the peninsula with Roberto leading the way.
Roberto made excellent discoveries, several of which are now preserved in Unity. Some are classic cultivars such as the three exquisite Baldwin trees he found. (He maintained that the “Fire House” tree in the Harpswell Fire Department parking lot is not a true Baldwin!) Other finds remain nameless, though I’m hopeful they will all eventually be identified. If it wasn’t for Roberto, several might have been lost forever. He also — almost single-handedly — founded, promoted and staffed a side project he called Harpswell Heritage Apples. Planting young grafted Harpswell varieties and helping local homeowners restore their old apple trees are some of the goals of the organization.
MOFGA now has a thriving, dedicated and skilled staff. But we also continue to have a vast array of volunteers who bring their own interests and skills, contributing in their own unique way. If Roberto and Haas had not come along, the Maine Heritage Orchard would not be what it is today. Each of them gave it his own passionate, creative, indelible stamp. We are forever grateful for their contributions and for their friendship. They will be terribly missed.
Many stones can form an arch — singly none, singly none.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.