I went to a tree planting this morning, a perfect activity for a Spring day Down East. And no ordinary tree planting was this. It was for the recreation of an early 19th century orchard in its original location. Nothing is too arcane for this Dilettante.
The Jonathan Fisher House, built to Fisher’s own design in 1814. In foreground, Tim Seabrook gives a planting lesson
The Jonathan Fisher House in Blue Hill, Maine, is the carefully preserved homestead designed and built in 1814 by the town’s first settled minister, a 1793 graduate of Harvard, who remains well known today as a folk artist, diarist, farmer and author, entrepreneur, surveyor, and all around Yankee Renaissance man, a rural answer to Jefferson, a true product of the Age of Reason.
Self-Portrait by Jonathan Fisher, 1824 (Collection of Jonathan Fisher House)
A Morning View of Blue Hill Village, 1824, by Jonathan Fisher. The Fisher Farm is visible at the center horizon. (Collection of Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine)
Although the Fisher House has been open as a Museum for 55 years, , the two acre home grounds that survive of the original 300 acre farm were long neglected, and had overgrown with invasive bittersweet, bracken and swamp maples. As the board of directors started to take control of this jungle, the remnants of stone walls began to re-appear, and the 19th century lay-out became apparent. Fortuitously, Fisher’s hand-drawn map of those two acres survives in the collection of the Farnsworth Library & Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, complete with a chart of the fruit trees planted there originally. The board of the Fisher House decided to bring the agricultural story of the property to the fore, and to recreate the orchard.
Jonathan Fisher’s c. 1820 map of his home grounds, showing orchard and listing varieties (Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine)
Fisher’s 4 x great-granddaughter, Louise Fisher Abbot, offered to fund the clearing and restoration of the fields, in memory of her three late sisters. (Jonathan Fisher had also had four daughters) With this generous gift in hand, the Fisher House board was able to proceed with planning. Enter at this point, the current Congregational minister, Robert McCall, author of the Awanjanado Almanac, who himself maintains an orchard at his parsonage. He brought to the committee Leslie Cummins and Tim Seabrook of Five Star Nursery in Brooklin, Maine, who have made their life work the preservation and propagation of early varieties of apples grown in Maine.
A page from Jonathan Fisher’s Sketchbook, c. 1815, showing two apples, believed to be Golden Russets, on a pewter plate (watercolor, collection of Jonathan Fisher House)
Planning commenced. Fisher’s chart was examined, the space available measured, practical considerations like budget and manpower available weighed, and a plan began to take shape. It was decided that a reduced scale adaptation of the orchard could be achieved. Amazingly, one huge tree, labeled on the original plan as a ‘St. Germain Pear’, survived from 1820, and now anchors the new orchard.
Detail from Morning View of Blue Hill Village, showing the Fisher Farm, orchard at right center.
Looking toward the house today. The 200 year old pear tree partially obscures the ell, with a newly planted section of orchard to the right.
An 1888 view of the Fisher Farm from the street. The pear tree is at left.
Another fascinating feature of the orchard is that Fisher clearly intended it to be ornamental as well as useful (He often ventured from this post on the Eastern frontier to Boston, where he saw urban schemes and the new country estates then being built around Boston, and visited with relatives, including the landscape painter Alvin Fisher). Radiating out from the parlor windows of the house, splitting the orchard in two, he indicated a fan allee, widening from the house as it took in the spectacular view from his hilltop of Blue Hill Mountain, Blue Hill Village and Bay, and the mountains of Mt. Desert Island in the distance. This is probably the earliest known planned landscape feature in Maine. It was considered essential to duplicate this feature, although the view is long since lost to tree growth (and were the trees to disappear today, would focus directly on the rear of a supermarket a quarter mile away between Fisher House and the Harbor.)
Rev. Rob McCall, Louise Fisher Abbot, and Leslie Cummins of Five Star Nursery plant a cherry tree, descended from the original planted in this spot
For trees, two of Fisher’s original varieties, golden Roxbury Russets and a Pippin could be located. It was decided to also make the orchard a public home for other known pre 1850 (Fisher died in 1847 )varieties that were known to have been grown locally. Additionally, cherry trees descended from Fisher’s original stock of ‘English cherries’ still existed, handed down from Farmer to farmer around town, and were donated. Lastly, scion wood was taken to be grafted from the pear tree to ensure future stock.
A cage is then erected around the trees to protect them from Giant Maine Hooved Rats, a marauding pest sometimes more picturesquely referred to as ‘deer’ by the tourists.
Which brings us to this morning. The trees were put up for ‘adoption’, and all were spoken for, and this morning, with apple trees in bloom, members of the community gathered and planted ‘their’ trees, in the spots where Jonathan Fisher had planted similar ones nearly 200 years ago. Rev. McCall spoke a few words to bless the trees, and with that, Fisher’s great-great-great-great granddaughter helped to plant one of the cherry trees descended from those first ones, in the very spots where the originals had grown.
Spring, by Jonathan Fisher, 1820 (Collection of Jonathan Fisher House)
An entertaining general biography is Mary Ellen Chase’s Jonathan Fisher, Maine Parson
(Houghton Mifflin); or Versatile Yankee, the Art of Jonathan Fisher
by Alice Winchester, former editor of Antiques Magazine, (Pyne Press, Princeton University). A new biography, exploring Fisher’s art & life, by Kevin Murphy of CUNY, is to be published in July by University of Massachusetts Press. http://www.umass.edu/umpress/fall_09/murphy.htm
The Jonathan Fisher House is considered one of Maine’s most important historic sites, and contains extraordinary collections. It may be visited July-October, Thur, Fri, Sat. 1-4, and other times by prior arrangement.