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Apple of their eye: Cumberland family continues 200-year-old orchard tradition

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Apple of their eye: Cumberland family continues 200-year-old orchard tradition

CUMBERLAND — If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then two centuries' worth would have to make you the picture of health.

Sweetser's Apple Barrel & Orchards goes back that far, spanning several generations of a family that has combined hard work with a hobby that's never lost its luster.

It was in 1812 – the year the United States went to war a second time with Great Britain, and "Father of the Constitution" James Madison was elected to a second term as president – that a family homestead was built on Blanchard Road for Hannah Pittee. The orchard's story begins there, although it wasn't until the late 1830s that the first trees were planted on the 14-acre property, according to Greg Sweetser.

It was Sweetser's great-great-grandfather, Samuel Robinson Sweetser, who married Pittee's daughter, Mary Jane, and started the orchard.

"Like every homestead that was built (at the time), everybody had a farm," Greg Sweetser said last week. "So they had animals and agriculture. But Sam really was the one that got the orchards going. ... Apples became really the mainstay of the property; they're the one consistent product that's been produced here."

Samuel Sweetser's son, Frederick, tried his hand at a meat business along with the orchard, a venture that had some success in the early 20th century. But when federal food and drug laws called for refrigeration of the product during transportation, and the business's transportation was limited to horses and wagons or sleds to reach Portland stores, that part of the operation folded.

The 1812 house still stands, with an ell built in 1850, and it has housed subsequent generations of Sweetsers, including Greg and his wife, Deborah, and their sons Samuel and Eben, who attend college in Utah. Greg runs the orchard with his parents, Dick and Connie Sweetser, who live in another house on the property.

Also on the property – which has about 1,100 apple-bearing trees – is a roadside stand, where the business sells its products from August through November. Seventy of the orchard's trees are more than 150 years old, and while they aren't as efficient at bearing fruit as younger ones, they remain beautiful and classic, Sweetser said.

Some of the apple varieties that Samuel Sweetser planted are no longer available, including Jewett's Fine Red, Benoni and Mother, but other original varieties continue to be grown, like Rolfe, Wealthy and Northern Spy, according to maineapple.com. The orchard now grows 50 varieties of apples.

Sweetser, who credits his grandfather, Herman Sweetser, for expanding the orchard's variety, noted that "more people are retailing, so having a variety makes a big difference."

"The thought is to keep this unique branding going, and the history of the property, but like every family business, it's a struggle," Sweetser said, pointing out that the orchard has been more a hobby for him and his 86-year-old father – both have had careers elsewhere.

"It's a great retirement job," the 58-year-old said, noting that the family is experiencing a "generational squeeze, where the older generation is aging ... and I'm still in my career, so it's a balance."

Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, said the business has employed a manager for the past two years, the first time it has done so. He and his family moved back to Cumberland from Rangeley in 1996, in order to help sustain the orchard.

"It's been nice to live in the homestead," he said, "because ... we're able to ... renovate the place, and prepare it for the next generation. You never know what the next generation is going to do, but at least we'll have (the house) in a sustained position."

Since the orchard has become a hobby, it's not something his sons are yet ready to undertake, Sweetser said, adding that it's hard to predict their long-term interest.

"The future's hard to say, and that's always another challenge of family businesses ... how to transition to the next generation," he said. "But I have a good long life ahead of me, so we know that things will be stable for a number of years ahead."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.