North by East
Two Down East towns declare "food independence," Vinalhaven's awesome autograph, and more.
Cartoon by Bill Woodman
Voters in Sedgwick and Penobscot declare their food independence.
The way Heather Retberg sees it, the small farmers who till the soil on the Blue Hill peninsula are simply doing what Maine farmers have done for generations. “Our practices aren’t changing at all,” says Retberg, who with her husband, Phil, operates Quill’s End Farm in Penobscot. “The only things that are changing are the regulations on the state and federal levels.”
So it is, Retberg says, that Quill’s End Farm has had to stop selling the chickens that it took to a neighbor for slaughtering and the raw milk that Phil milked from the couple’s four cows.
“Something is very wrong when it becomes this complicated to sell food to our neighbors,” Retberg says.
The neighbors seem to agree. In early March, the tiny town of Sedgwick quietly made history by becoming the first community in the state, and perhaps the country, to declare its right to “unimpeded access to local foods.” Soon after, Town Meeting voters in Penobscot, the Retbergs’ hometown, followed suit by adopting an ordinance nearly identical to Sedgwick’s. Brooksville voters, too, weighed in, though they chose to defeat a similar measure — by just nine votes. Among other things, the ordinances declare direct-to-consumer farm sales to be exempt from state and federal licensing and inspection.
Can towns do that? Not likely, says Hal Prince, director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulation at the Maine Department of Agriculture, who has sought the Maine Attorney General’s Office’s advice on the matter. “A town can’t pass an ordinance that frustrates state and federal laws,” Prince says, so these local food sovereignty laws won’t affect the way agriculture department inspectors do their jobs.
The sale of raw fruits and vegetables doesn’t require a license, Prince points out, but some foods, like meat and milk products, are governed by food safety regulations. That means that even small farms like Quill’s End must take their chickens to an approved slaughtering facility or seek an exemption permit allowing them to slaughter their own — and only their own — birds.
Likewise, cows must be milked in a licensed sanitary milking parlor, not the barn or barnyard.
But these options are so expensive they could drive small farms out of business, says Retberg, who is among the small group of farmers and their customers who drafted the ordinances. They argue that regulations were designed for factory farms, not community operations.
Food independence ordinances may prove difficult to enforce, but if nothing else, they will send a message to Augusta and Washington that it’s time to consider revising regulations designed for industrial agriculture so small farmers can provide their communities with fresh — and safe — local food.
The Vinalhaven Historical Society’s newest artifact bears a famous autograph.
Brittle and torn, the document that Jack and Angie Olson found in their closet may not be worth much in the antiques trade, but to the Vinalhaven Historical Society, it’s priceless. Dated January 31, 1785, the certificate bears the florid signature of the man whose name is synony-mous with the word “signature”: John Hancock. That’s impressive, but it’s the other name on the frayed paper that is significant to Vinalhaven: William Vinall.
Vinall is the son of John Vinall, the lawyer for whom the island, located thirteen miles off the coast of Rockland, is named. The certificate appoints William as justice of the peace of the Fox Islands (Vinalhaven and North Haven, which were then one town). Its creases are to be expected because Vinall likely carried the paper, folded, in his wallet or pocket as he performed his duties, according to historical society president Bill Chilles. In those days, a justice of the peace was essentially a police officer, charged with apprehending and arresting lawbreakers.
The appointment would have been one of John Hancock’s last duties as governor of the state of Massachusetts, of which Maine was then a part. Two days before he put his John Hancock on the document — front and back — the governor tendered his resignation, citing poor health. (He successfully ran for the office again in 1787.)
The document was not a surprise to Jack Olson, who is William Vinall’s great-great-great-great grandson. A family conversation piece, it was rediscovered every few years. “It was getting tattered and we didn’t have any way of maintaining it,” Olson says of his decision to donate the paper to the historical society. Olson’s grandmother, Min Vinal, was the last of the Vinalhaven Vinals, Olson says. (He does not know when the second “l” was dropped from the surname’s spelling.)
The certificate is the oldest document in the Vinalhaven Historical Society museum, and possibly its oldest artifact (the other contender is a cooking kettle believed, but not proven, to be of Revolutionary War vintage). “Every once in a while, a museum gets a piece that is very significant because it ties everything about a place or an event together,”Chilles says. “This is not one of those, but, still, it is a really, really cool piece.”
The Jones Museum disbands the last of its glass and ceramics collection.
Barely a word has been reported about the Jones Museum of Glass & Ceramics since 2005 when the Maine Attorney General’s Office stepped in to safeguard its world-class collections and mediate a legal dispute between the institution’s founder, Dorothy-Lee Jones, and its trustees. Over the last several months, we’ve learned, the sad saga has been winding to a close. The Sebago museum has been donating its artifacts to other nonprofit institutions, and Jones has been selling thousands of pieces of glassware from her private collection at auction.
“My parents were hoping to reopen the museum, but they are getting older and they ran out of resources,” Lyra Hankins, the daughter of Dorothy-Lee Jones and Lauriston Ward, Jr., tells us. “All the litigation has been hard on them.”
By the time the AG’s office intervened, Jones and the trustees had been arguing in court over ownership of a portion of the collections — some five thousand bowls, vases, and figurines — for nearly three years. The underlying issue, however, was their differing visions for the museum.
A respected glass and ceramics expert, Jones started the nonprofit museum in a converted barn on her father’s rural Douglas Mountain property in 1978. Its holdings grew to include ten thousand items, many from Jones’ own collection, the rest loaned or donated at her behest. The seasonal museum attracted 12,000 visitors a year, and glass scholars from around the world attended the seminars at Jones’ nearby Douglas Mountain Conference Center. In 1997, the American Association of Museums accredited the museum, a recognition that required Jones, as founder, to give up her unpaid directorship. She did so and assumed the role of founding curator.
But Jones and the new salaried director, John Holverson, clashed. Holverson, whose bitter departure from the helm of the Portland Museum of Art made headlines in 1987, wanted to relocate the museum to the former armory in South Portland; Jones opposed the move. The disagreement turned ugly as the board locked Jones out of her own building, preventing her from using artifacts in her lectures at the conference center. She successfully sued to be allowed inside to identify objects that she said belonged to her. Holverson, meanwhile, was found in contempt of court for moving some of the disputed inventory to a Westbrook storage facility. In 2005, the Museum of Glass & Ceramics, which was to succeed the Jones Museum in South Portland, went bankrupt before it even opened its doors.
“All of the [Jones Museum] board members left, and we were left with a charity in litigation and without a board,” says Assistant State Attorney General Christina Moylan. “We tried to get the charity back on its feet, but we couldn’t find anyone interested in serving on the board. The charity dissolved.”
Volunteers guided by the AG’s office have spent the last few years returning loaned pieces to their owners and donating the rest of the items to nonprofits, including Wheaten Arts and Cultural Center in New Jersey, Corning Museum of Glass, Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Maine State Museum, and Saco Museum.
As for the disputed items, they were found to belong to Dorothy-Lee Jones, who perhaps best summed up the sorry affair in a 2002 interview with Maine Antiques Digest. “The whole matter is so outlandish as to be bizarre,” she said. “I never thought it would ever come to this.”
Maine’s new poet laureate will do the state proud.
Mainers who value the power of the written word are still smarting from Governor Paul LePage’s decision not to include a poetry reading during his inaugural, but the governor extendedan olive branch to literature lovers this winter when he named Wesley McNair as the state’s poet laureate. When asked for a bit of verse to contribute to this issue, McNair, who has long carried the banner of rural Maine, passed us his poem from The Town of No & My Brother Running (David R. Godine, 1998). He proudly declares that the poem is posted at the Cathedral Pines turnaround on Route 27 in Eustis and “is the only one to appear on a road sign in Maine.”
“Driving to Dark Country”
Past where the last
gang of signs
comes out of the dark
to wave you back,
and past telephone
with the light of someone
beyond the next hill
a slow, single line
will take the eye
of your high beam. Around you
will be jewels
of the fox-watch.
Great trees will rise up
to see you passing by,
all by yourself,
riding on light.