Maine Wild Blueberry Land in Columbia Falls. Photo by Nancy Beal

The history of Wild Blueberry Land and how it will help preserve wild blueberry heritage

by Nancy Beal

The blueberry-blue domed food and gift shop at the corner of Routes 1 and 187 South in Columbia Falls is a popular stopping place for tourists traveling east of Acadia. There is usually a line at the checkout desk of folks waiting to pay for the knick-knacks, jams, jellies, and sundry blueberry-related items they picked up from the crowded shelves encircling the kitchen portion of the circular building.

Marie Emerson, proprietor and certified and award-winning chef is often manning the register. Checkout often takes a while since Marie loves to chat and educate folks about Maine wild blueberries. In the next 24 months, the food will be gone, and the entire shop will be devoted to explaining, extolling, and exhorting the wild blueberry industry.

Getting together

Emerson, originally from New Jersey, developed a passion for Maine’s wild blueberries through her marriage to Dell Emerson, a native Mainer who was born and raised in Columbia Falls and immersed in the industry from his childhood raking days. As a teenager in 4H, he was tapped by the manager of the state’s only wild blueberry research station to work summers there.

Dell was used to hard work and was always willing to do whatever was asked of him, and was eventually hired as an assistant to a university professor. In that capacity, he integrated the specialty fields of other professors and fashioned experiments designed to increase and improve the cultivation and yield of wild blueberries. He did everything from building equipment to stringing fields and, in 1953, became leader of Blueberry Hill Farm on Route 1 in Columbia Falls. There he would help engineer an annual yield increase in Maine wild blueberries from 19 million pounds on 60,000 acres in 1953 to 80-to-100 million pounds on half that acreage 40 years later.  He would hold the post until retiring in 2006.

Marie was lured to Maine in 1974 by the back-to-the-land movement pioneered by Scott and Helen Nearing. She arrived in Cooper and took part in the cooperative building and farming that characterized the movement. At the same time, she earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Maine and was hired at (then) Washington County Technical College to teach culinary arts, a job she held for over 30 years.

During her university study, Marie was assigned to make a film with a heritage theme and chose Maine wild blueberries as her topic. While interviewing growers and processors, she kept hearing about the legendary leader of the research farm. She made an appointment to interview Dell and drove to Blueberry Hill Farm to meet with him. “When I got out of my car and saw him,” she says, “I knew he would be my husband.”

Dell had been single for two decades and had sworn he’d never marry again. “She set a trap for me,” he quips now. “I met my thrill on Blueberry Hill,” Marie counters. The two have been devoted partners and helpmates ever since.

Enter the dome

The couple settled in the Wescogus district of Addison overlooking the Pleasant River valley and off to Mt. Desert and cultivated a blueberry farm where four generations of their family still work. In the basement of their farmhouse, they created a small processing plant where they package and sell berries — fresh and frozen — in five-pound boxes.

In 1999, on the property a few miles north of their home at Route 187’s intersection with Route 1, the family started building a round, domed structure. They painted it blueberry blue. In 2001, Wild Blueberry Land opened to the public. Outwardly and obviously a gift shop and outlet for all foods blueberry — pies, cookies, scones, syrup, jams, and jellies, much of which Marie creates in the kitchen area with help from a cadre of young men and women whom she mentors—the dome has also always contained the seeds of a museum displaying the history and importance of Maine wild blueberries.

The fruit is only one of North America’s four indigenous rhizome crops — plants with creeping root systems that send shoots above ground on which fruit grows. It flourishes in the shallow soil system created by glaciers 10,000 years ago. Marie calls the plant “a gift from nature” because it grows without human help. (High bush blueberries cultivated elsewhere in the world are a different species. Marie never refers to Maine’s blueberries without the modifier “wild.”)

In addition to the shelves of knickknacks, postcards, and jarred food items, the Dome began showcasing the history and value of Maine wild blueberries. There are artifacts such as rakes and a winnowing machine. There are video loops and tribute corners. One display teaches that Washington County’s sardine canneries switched to canning blueberries during the Civil War when southern markets for sardines dried up and canned food was needed for Union soldiers. Photographic displays pay tribute to significant contributors to the trade.

Space is limited, and the Dome was getting crowded. The Emersons’ dream of creating a museum to preserve the heritage, sustain the industry and encourage young people to carry on the tradition demanded capital, and grant money was not forthcoming to private individuals. In 2017, Marie figured out how to apply for tax-free status, and the cause became a non-profit group capable of accepting grants.

The board of directors, recently revamped, is chaired by UMO media Professor Jolene Blais. Retired attorney Jeffrey Lovit of Addison is treasurer, and retired East Machias physician and grower John Gaddis serves as secretary. Also on the board with the Emersons is David Ellis, retired director of the Boston Museum of Science, and acting as the facilitator will be Dennis Wint, retired president of the Franklin Institute. The museum’s goal is to highlight and conserve the wild blueberry’s unique ecosystem by collecting, preserving, and presenting its local heritage, to protect the community and culture by revitalizing and sustaining family farms, and providing a pathway to a sustainable future. More information can be found at the group’s website: wildblueberryheritagecenter.org.

This fall, the Emersons will remove the kitchen from the Dome to make room for what now are crowded exhibits. They will have help: a Vista Volunteer from Texas arrived late last month for a year’s tour and already says she will probably re-up for a second year, and an Island Institute Fellow will soon follow. Next summer, the Dome will open as a heritage center, with a gift counter and outlet for blueberry foods that Marie will prepare at home. By 2024, she says, the food will be gone, and, except for the gift counter, the building will be the museum.

 

Marie and Dell Emerson, seen here in Columbia Falls, are lifelong advocates for the Maine wild blueberry. Photos by Nancy Beal

 

Marie Emerson chatting with customers at the counter of Maine Wild Blueberry Land in Columbia Falls. Emerson’s quick wit, encyclopedic wild blueberry knowledge, and outgoing personality mean customers walk away with more than baked goods and gifts. Photo by Nancy Beal

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