How Mainers Are Helping Other Mainers Prep for Winter
When cold weather arrives, the Cumberland Wood Bank cuts needy Mainers a break on heating bills.
Retired engineer Ralph Oulton goes to work on donated logs at the Cumberland Wood Bank.
By Will Grunewald Photographs by Mark Fleming
When the minister at his church in Cumberland asked Bruce Wildes if he could spare some firewood for an elderly woman who couldn’t afford to keep her woodstove going all winter, Wildes was indignant. “One of the wealthiest communities in the state, and this widow didn’t have heat,” he recalls with a shake of his head. He did some poking around and soon realized hers wasn’t an isolated case. So, in 2007, he launched the nonprofit Cumberland Wood Bank.
A wood bank is still a fairly novel form of charity, with only a handful of other such groups operating in Maine and maybe several dozen around the country. Each operates a little differently. Cumberland’s is located down a rutted industrial-park road, on a lot loaned by the owner of an excavation company. It works by taking donations of timber, whether a tree or two from a homeowner or a truckload from a developer. Last year, volunteers processed about 55 cords (down from 76 the year before). In the spring, they spend Saturday mornings sawing, splitting, and piling. In the fall, they load seasoned wood into trailers for delivery to people in need.
In Cumberland, about a fifth of the donated wood goes directly to people who need it for their woodstoves. The wood bank sells the rest — $275 per cord of seasoned wood, $240 for green wood — and the proceeds go to neighbors who use gas, oil, and other heating sources.
Founder Bruce Wildes at the Cumberland Wood Bank lot; Emmet Seymour pitches in; Oulton, with tools of the trade; a donated conveyor expedites the work.
“This just really is traditional, quintessential Mainers helping Mainers getting through a hard winter,” wood bank volunteer Heather Seymour says, talking over the din of a chainsaw and a conveyor dropping logs into a trailer on a recent volunteer day. Her husband, Andy, is the morning’s crew chief. The couple’s son, Emmet, hoists pieces of wood one at a time onto the conveyor. At 3 years old, he’s the youngest volunteer.
The oldest is Wildes’s 87-year-old father, Glenn. He came to the area five years ago and makes it out just about every Saturday when the wood bank is running. Mary Lowery says she and her husband, Dick, have been working at the wood bank for eight or nine years. They found out about it right after moving to the area, when Wildes stopped by to ask for the trees they were clearing on their property. In the early days, Wildes was often scrounging for wood. It was, as he puts it, a “seat of the pants” operation. Now, he says, many donors know about the wood bank, although “very few years have we had enough wood.”
“Nobody should be choosing between putting food on the table and heating their house,” Wildes says, watching as a freshly loaded trailer bounces away down the road. “I’ve lived in this community for twenty-some years, and it’s surprising how many people need help, that you don’t see. There was a single mother of three kids who got to the point of taking cabinet doors off their hinges and burning them, to keep the kids and the pipes from freezing. That’s wrong.”