Friday, March 9, 2018

The orchard on Argilla Road

Van Gough, In The Orchard (Lithograph)
Vincent van Gogh

Eugene Crockett died suddenly in early 1932, leaving a family, a thousand fruit trees, and a pile of debt in the pit of the Depression.

Only his daughter, Kitty, wanted to keep the orchard or thought it would be possible to do so.

Kitty's given name was Adele LeBourgeois Crockett, later Robertson. She left her job at the Hartford Museum and worked the peach and apple trees, out on Argilla Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, all by herself.

Much later her daughter published The Orchard (Metropolitan Books, 1995, and Bantam (paper) 1997), Robertson's memoir.

The author's story is full of grit and character, told with a spare straightforward voice.

In Robertson's words,

I determined not to mourn, but to throw my lot in with the trees, certain that somehow they and we would survive. These fields and this house in which we had all been born would never be lost. The apple orchard and peach trees would save us all....

I remember walking out among the trees, bare now and stark, but in my mind's eye I pictured them in blossom, in leaf, and at last loaded with fruit, the golden apples of the Hesperides.

Argilla Road is the route to one of Massachusetts's best beaches, a place I know. I could not help but try to puzzle out, from clues in the book, where the orchard might have been on that road.

A beach road seems to me to be an unlikely place to grow apples, but there is today a very fine (and large) orchard there. That is Russell Orchards, which sits on one of the drumlins that rise from the marsh.

As I read Robertson's story and learned that she tended a thousand trees, I thought some of those trees must surely be part of Russell today. How could so vast a forest of fruit vanish in less than a century?

But it did. In the 30s Russell was Goodale Orchards, which Robertson mentions several times as the place down the road. The Crockett farm was closer to the beach, on a different drumlin

Click for full map

Her home, the Patch-Brown-Crockett house, still stands today on the edge of the road at number 232, miles from where I had guessed it might be. I shall certainly stop to look, and imagine, the next time I take that road.

Robertson shares with us two harvests and many days of hopeful and unremitting toil. She coaxes balky farming equipment, handles harsh pesticides, and wrangles bees, all with the fate of the farm in the balance.

We are with her as she dickers, repels orchard thieves, and struggles every day to make ends meet.

For the harvest, she hires a small crew of men at twice the going rate of $2 per day.

"I wouldn't feel right with myself if I took advantage of the Depression to pay a man less than he can live on," she tells a neighbor. "If the orchard can't afford to pay properly then the devil with it."

This and further acts of decency meet a similar response from others similarly on the edge of ruin during the depths of the Depression.

In addition to showing us her fruit and her trees, and the mechanics of spraying and packing and selling, Robertson opens a small window into the desperate economic life of Ipswich in the 1930s, and the character of the men and women who lived there then.

Reading her memories of the abundant harvest of 1933 is especially fraught by our knowledge of what is to come. Kitty relates how, the following February, the mercury dropped to 24 degrees below zero. This is the winter that killed so many Baldwin trees in New England.

The intense cold also dealt a fatal blow to the farm, freezing and ruining most of the fat fall harvest as it sat in crates in the basement. Fifteen hundred bushels of spoiled fruit went for vinegar, at about a nickel for every dollar they might otherwise have fetched.

In The Orchard: A Memoir, Robertson tells her story with a clean unaffected style that gives the book the character of a classic. She passed away in 1979, in the place of her birth: "strange," she wrote of the prospect, "in restless America."

The author's words are bookended by a forward and epilogue from her daughter, Elizabeth Robertson Cramer, who edited the work for its 1995 publication. Cramer writes,

Three quarters of a mile from the thronged beach sits the old farmhouse, now very close to the road, its protected elms gone, one downed by a Hurricane, its mate by Dutch elm disease....

Here and there, an old tree still yields its wormy and abandoned crop. For me, the pages [of Kitty's story] have given each leaf, each apple, a kind of voice.

Cramer frames the story and makes it complete, though it is but a fragment of her mother's life.

apple harvest in hand
Ingo Jakubke CC0


  1. I read your blog - every single post - and this one leapt off the screen at me. I knew the moment I started reading the place of which you were writing. I moved away from Massachusetts years ago, but Crane's beach remains one of my favorite places on earth. It's where my now-grown daughter first dipped her toes into the ocean, and I still remember sitting there by myself, with a large paper dish of the best fried clams I've ever tasted, purchased from a clam shack in Ipswich. I'm going to get this book, and I cannot thank you enough for sharing it. My great-grandparents were farmers in Iowa during the Great Depression, so I have a sense of the story already. What a great posting - thank you VERY much!

    1. Becca, thank you so much. I really like this book and from what you've said I'll bet you will too.

      I think the thing that keeps me engaged with my blog after so much time is that each apple has a story, usually rooted in a particular place. Roxbury Russet and Hubardston Nonesuch, not to mention Rhode Island Greening. Robertson's story does the same thing for me, in some ways more so.

  2. Adam, far and away my favorite orcharding book. Horticulturally correct and an accurate reflection of day to day and season to season fruit growing. All wrapped in a compelling human(s) story. I have gifted several copies, the people who read it are touched.
    Good post - thanks
    David Doud

    1. Thanks, @David! What you say is true, though I hadn't though of it. I did learn a few things about the craft of caring for an orchard from Kitty Robinson.


Join the conversation! We'd love to know what you think.