Morgan and I are planning a camping trip on our fragment of abandoned orchard in Moultonborough.
Both my sons are exceptional and they fill my heart with happiness. I emphasize my love for them both so Alex doesn’t read anything into our not inviting him to join us.
We three have good, hard, simple, strong memories of this tiny spot in New Hampshire. A lot of memories for the little amount of time we spent there.
People who have orchards write about them — Jane Brox for one. It would be hard to capture the struggle and resolve of working an orchard and the struggle and release of letting it go better than she has, and I’m not going to try. Rereading her books now, after putting our remaining 2.65 acres with apple trees up for sale, has rekindled memories and given words to many feelings never expressed.
Buying this orchard was really a crazy thing for us to do. My husband Clark had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was feeling good after his bone marrow transplant and wanted to spend his last years working for himself, with me, at home. He wanted a bed and breakfast. We looked at other b&b’s but kept coming back to the first one we visited — Olde Orchard Inn.
I’m not sure what he hoped for at this point in his life, but I like to think he found it.
On move-in day we stepped into the kitchen and the house gave me a warm, firm hug as if it were waiting for us for a long time. That feeling never wavered, even when I was alone in it day after night after day in the coldest of winters, with the snow piled high over my head, and the wind wailing outside the bedrooms windows.
The land took a little longer to get to know, but after our first harvest we knew we had chosen wisely. It was hard work, but there was constant reward. I still wonder about the people who lived and worked there before us and what they left behind. If I believed in spirits or fairy godmothers or guardian angels I might be able to explain it better.
There were two or three innkeeper/owners before us. But before them there were only the Young’s, the Larson’s, the Brown’s, and the Abenaki’s.
White settlers drove the Abenakis from their land around Lake Winnipesaukee in the second half of the 17th Century.
We know that Batchelder Brown bought 50 acres from the colorful General Jonathan Moulton in 1783 for 5 pounds. General Moulton received a large tract of land as a reward for his successes in the American Revolution and sold parcels to Brown and others who served under him. The Browns bought abutting property in 1791 and 1803 and members of their large family lived there for over 150 years. One of the Brown men made bricks from clay by the stream, and built the brick addition when the family outgrew the original center chimney wood structure. Mildred Carter (a Brown through a second marriage) married Peter O. Larson. They bought the home and land from the Browns, planted the orchard, and gave it the name Homestead Farm. They shipped apples all over the country and sold them at a farm stand on Route 25.
The Youngs, who bought the farm from the Larsons in 1968, perhaps like my family, loved the land too much. Kate Young Caley writes beautifully of her love for the farm in her memoir. Unfortunately as I read reviews of her book, this part of her story seems overlooked and unappreciated.
At some point lands were sold off, and houses were built on Orchard Drive. Homestead Farm became Olde Orchard Inn in 1987. I’m not sure of all the owners but one of them, was the town building inspector, and that may account for why the tiny bathrooms in some of the guest rooms and a good deal of the wiring look like they couldn’t have passed code!
We bought the land from the Senners who ran the inn for several years. Grandma Mary, who would ride in the bucket of the large tractor and pick the apples high on the trees, was sad to go.
People with connections to the land would visit. A Brown descendent sat down in the old kitchen and and spent some moments in the past. Two Larson women visited and told me that as children on very cold nights they would sleep on blankets on top of brick ovens behind the central fireplace. These pilgrims would walk the orchard and visit the family cemetery. We all agreed that there was something special about the house and land. Guests would ask me about ghosts and tell me they felt a presence. One couple came back to renew their wedding vows because they felt the orchard a spiritual place.
The 1790 house came with a barn built even earlier, and over 500 trees on twelve acres. We spent our first months there fixing pipes and moving snow and figuring out how to keep warm. But once spring arrived the apple trees exploded with a flowery welcome.
We learned how to care for the orchard by trial and error. We joined Beginner Farmers and went to workshops at the Carroll County Extension. We tried our best to figure out which apple was which, when to prune, how to keep the apples crisp for as long into the winter as we could.
The orchard was rather comical. The trees had buzz cuts. Old huge trees were mixed in with newer, younger, smaller hybrids. Some were espaliered but neglected. Others had grown so many suckers and water sprouts they reminded me of banyan trees. We found cherries (the birds always got them before us), pears, and a few peaches scattered throughout. The pears did very well, perhaps because there weren’t enough of them to attract their own pests and diseases. The peaches withered away.
You cannot imagine my delight when I discovered the gorgeous raspberries galore —enough to make the richest raspberry ice cream and still have plenty for muffins and kuchens. I liked them because they practically took care of themselves.
There were special moments. We were picking up drops one autumn afternoon. The sun hit the maples just right, and we sat down and took in the colors, said how lucky we were, and stopped work for the day.
We saw bear curled up under bushes; a baby cub up in the crab apple tree outside our window. Sleeping deer left matted ovals in the grass. Wild turkeys strutted across the field picking up whatever goodies they could find. Fox would jump up and dive into the snow coming up with a snack every time.
Pepper, our dog, would walk along with us plucking dandelions off their stems without missing a beat. He would pick the apples off low hanging branches.
Our second year’s harvest was our best. I doubt we had one apple that didn’t have a blemish or a hole, but that didn’t matter to us.
The following winter Clark started to fail quickly. He continued to plow but I did the shoveling. We drove into Boston in early spring to meet Morgan for a Red Sox game, but Clark wound up in Dana Farber. He went home to hospice. The apple blossoms came and went and the grass grew up to my hips. One of my first mornings alone a mourning dove called to me from the top of the barn. A weight lifted off my shoulders and Clark was now free.
Mowing took 18 man hours. When Alex was up, they shared the work, one on the tractor, the other taking the lawnmower up close under the trees. It was my job now and it was when I really started to love the land. I understood why Clark gave up when he no longer could manage the mowing.
It was too easy to stay put, protected and comfortable on this magical land, to be the widow at the old orchard who only went into town to buy cheese at The Olld Country Store, or walked across the street for takeout at the Woodshed. Too easy to create my fantasy of being the crazy lady standing at the door with rifle in hand, dressed in calico and little brown boots, telling the tax collector to get off my property. Too easy to imagine a slim handsome stranger with a cigarette in a pickup driving up and staying on as the live-in handy man.
I put the inn on the market, split off a small piece in the back orchard for myself, and sold the house to a a woman who had spent some time at the house before it was an inn and had felt the pull of the place. She and her husband moved over from England and immediately hung a Union Jack from the flagpole. Batchelder might have shuddered in his grave.
Now these 2.65 acres are on the market. My sons and I are ambivalent. We want to enjoy the land but we live too far away. My neighbor who lives in the former apple storage building is under the spell also. He mows the orchard while he can.
Perhaps someone will buy the property, put up a sweet little home, care for the pears, choose a few apple trees to pamper back to health, steal a few of the raspberry plants from the inn’s property, spend a few years carving out a tree from a behemoth gone wild, and find peace.
But if it doesn’t sell, that’s okay.