Normand “Blackie” Labbe Sr., the friendly, well-known, always-there owner of Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce in Auburn, has died. He was 87.
“He will be missed by many, more than we will ever know,” daughter Sandy Haley said.
Labbe died Monday night after suffering complications from a broken hip he suffered in a fall last week. On Tuesday morning, Haley posted on Facebook about her father’s passing. Within hours, that post had been shared more than 760 times and had generated more than 350 comments.
“There will be a huge hole in our community, as he was there for all,” one person wrote.
Labbe was born in Turner and spent much of his childhood in Lewiston. His father owned L & C Cash Market, a community grocery store originally on Lisbon Street. Young Labbe enjoyed working at the store, setting up displays of produce and talking with customers.
Labbe eventually took over the family grocery and ran it for years. He sold the business in the 1980s when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to run a grocery store anymore. I’m feeling it’s tying me down and where I really love to be is in my garden,'” daughter Diane Jordan said.
In 1985, Labbe established a small, seasonal fruit stand on the side of Minot Avenue and added some produce that he grew himself. The business quickly grew and before long Labbe was running both his 120-acre farm in Minot and the farm stand year-round, full-time.
“People would come into his fruit stand and they’d be looking at his corn. He felt it was so good he wanted everybody to try it, so he’d take an ear and peel back the husk and then say, ‘Here, try it.’ People would get a kick out of that,” Jordan said. “He wanted to prove to them how good it was, even uncooked. Several people (took him up on it). They couldn’t say no to him.”
Labbe himself didn’t say no to a lot of people, especially when they needed food.
“When he sold his store … there were so many people who owed him money and still owe him money today. He never went after them to try to collect that money because he figured, ‘Hey, if they were hungry and they needed food, I fed them. It’s not making an impact in my life now,'” Haley said. “If they paid him, they paid him. If they didn’t, then he wasn’t worried about it.”
Labbe also didn’t say no to children in need. He and his wife, Jackie, were known for taking in teenagers who were troubled, who had experienced a rough childhood or had nowhere else to go. It wasn’t uncommon for the family’s one-bathroom home to be filled with more than a dozen people — Blackie and Jackie, their eight children and some number of teens.
Normand “Frenchie” Labbe Jr. remembers being 16 and running into a group of teen boys in Lewiston. The boys were getting into minor trouble in the city because they were bored.
“Those guys ended up finding their way up to the farm. They lived at the farm, they worked in the fields,” he said. “All of these guys now have productive lives. It was just a nice safe haven for kids like that, and they’d get great work ethics.”
Although Labbe’s school years ended at eighth grade, he felt education was important. His wife took some of their teenage boarders to night school to earn their high school diplomas. He made sure the younger kids knew math, a favorite subject of his.
“He’d stand by the door before he’d leave to work and throw out times tables at us,” Jordan said.
The family remained close long after the children grew up, married and started families of their own. Seven of Labbe’s eight children live within a few miles of the Minot farmhouse; the eighth lives an hour away. When that 200-year-old family farmhouse burned down on Christmas Day 2013, the kids, their spouses and friends rebuilt it by hand.
“He loved this house. He went to Florida (for the winter) for one year and afterward he said, ‘No. Why do I want to go anywhere else when I have this house right here?'” Haley said. “He always said, ‘I can never pay you guys back.’ I said, ‘Dad, this is only the tip of the iceberg of us trying to pay you back .'”
Despite illnesses over the years — including throat cancer about 35 years ago, bladder cancer 10 years ago, sepsis two years ago and a toe amputation because of diabetes a few weeks ago — Labbe kept working. He sold a second Blackie’s location in Lewiston last year but held on to his original farm stand, where he continued to greet customers seven days a week.
“He cut back to 50 to 60 hours (a week) a couple of years ago,” Jordan said.
He was working at the farm stand as recently as last Tuesday, a day before he broke his hip.
“You go to the fruit stand at 8 o’clock in the morning and Dad’s there. You go there 8 o’clock at night, Dad’s there,” his son said. “He’d go home and take a nap for a couple of hours, have some supper, and back at the fruit stand.”
Labbe is survived by his wife of 66 years, eight children, 14 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
His funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. There will be no visitation.
In lieu of flowers, his family has requested donations be made to the Saint Martin de Porres Residence, a Lewiston homeless shelter that provides meals for its residents.
“He was not a wasteful man. He wouldn’t want flowers that he’s not going to use,” Haley said. “He has fed people all his life, so that’s what we should do: Feed more people.”
Normand “Blackie” Labbe shows off some corn from his farm in Minot. Labbe died this week at age 87. (Submitted photo)
Normand “Blackie” Labbe rides with farm stand worker Wendy Mendenhall in this undated photo. “Daddy always thought it would be so cool to have a convertible filled with corn. So Wendy did this for him and he loved it,” said Labbe’s daughter, Sandy Haley. Mendenhall died a a number of years ago. Labbe died this week at age 87. (Submitted photo)
Normand “Blackie” Labbe handles some early planting in his farm’s hothouse, one of his favorite places to be. (Submitted photo)
Normand “Blackie” Labbe showcases some produce at his Auburn farmstand, Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce. Labbie died this week at age 87. (Submitted photo)
Normand “Blackie” Labbe and his wife, Jackie, in 2010, on her 75th birthday. (Submitted photo)
Normand “Blackie” Labbe in his old Lewiston community grocery store, L & C Cash Market. (Submitted photo)