The seeds of conservation and preservation have taken strong root on a ‘special’ 500-acre, 227-year-old farm in Lisbon that’s now up for sale.
LISBON — Patrick Arras Jr. started the farm by squatting there, eventually paying $1 an acre when the state of Massachusetts threatened to kick him off.
Two hundred years later, Ella Mae and Bob Packard, Connecticut school teachers who hadn’t planned on tilling fields and baling hay, kept it in the family by buying it from her parents.
Since 1790, the sprawling farm, which covers parts of Lisbon, Sabattus and Lewiston, has been owned by just two families.
It’s time for new blood and, they hope, a new farmer.
The Packards put the nearly 500-acre Packard-Littlefield Farm on the market last month for $2.7 million. They’re preparing for an auction on July 22 for the barns full of carriages, sleighs and equipment that date back to the 1880s.
“It was a lot to think about to keep it going for just the two of us, who didn’t have farming in our plans,” said Ella Mae, 74. “For us to lie in bed and think, ‘Oh, what are we going to do with those carriages? The horse equipment that’s still out there?’ It was too much. We realized we never are going to have horses and we’re not going to cut wood, all those old-fashioned things.”
After such a long history in the same hands, it’ll mean a jarring change for the community, but not as jarring as it could be: All but 54 acres are protected by conservation easements held by the Androscoggin Land Trust. The unusually large 1.9-mile-long by one-third- to two-thirds-of-a-mile-wide property won’t be divvied up for house lots — in fact, it can’t be.
“That’s our gift to the local people,” said Bob, 74. “They’ll be able to always ride up this road and look across the valley.”
‘BIG HOUSE, LITTLE HOUSE, BACK HOUSE, BARN’
The enterprising Arras first laid his claim to 80 acres in 1790, likely drawn by plenty of water and rich top soil.
“In 1818, the general court of Massachusetts ordered all squatters to either pay $3 an acre or lose their claim,” said Bob. “Patrick negotiated $1 an acre.”
The farm changed hands in 1853 when Ella Mae’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Seth Bickford, bought it. Ella Mae’s parents, Ralph and June Littlefield, had dairy cows and grew vegetables there.
Her father built a house next door to his parents, where she grew up. She remembers chores like grading eggs and haying.
“I learned to drive a tractor at a young age to do that,” she said.
She went on to be a teacher, marrying Bob and living in Connecticut. When the couple bought the farm in 1989, they were still teaching in the Constitution State. Neither of her sisters wanted to farm. Her father had been in declining health and the farm hadn’t been active for a time.
“We figured we needed some kind of income to pay the taxes and expenses, so we started growing vegetables,” said Ella Mae. “We started with sweet corn, just had a little table here by the road. We came up from Connecticut weekends in the spring to plant, and then we lived here in the summers, and in the fall continued coming up weekends to harvest until the frost.”
They moved up full time after retiring in 2004. Between growing and planting, there was also plenty of fixing: $500,000 over 25 years to carefully restore the huge 1800 post-and-beam farmhouse, according to Bob.
When they bought it, the home was insulated in just one corner, and that insulation was homemade brick.
There were no bathrooms, just a three-seat outhouse under the stairs that led to the attached barn. It’s still there, and would have been prized back in the day — at least you didn’t have to go outside.
The 3,615-square-foot farmhouse includes six bedrooms, a library, 19th- and 21st-century kitchens, three attached barns and an outdoor tank house with a forge. Water used to be pumped uphill to the tank house by windmill, then gravity-fed into cold water taps in the kitchen and barns.
There’s a time capsule quality to the house with ornate molding and trim, wide pumpkin pine floors and Ella Mae’s grandmother’s bucolic oil paintings in several rooms.
“This is typical New England — or at least New Hampshire and Maine —construction of the time, called, ‘big house, little house, back house, barn.’ It’s a formula that you see a lot, or used to, when barns were still standing,” said Ella Mae. “Unfortunately, a lot have gone to the ages.”
TREE FRIENDLY, BEE FRIENDLY
In addition to the restored farmhouse, the Packards have left an indelible mark on the land, adding 408 acres over the years, slowly buying abutting property that includes one-third of Robinson Mountain.
“They kid me at the soil conservation office, normally farmers are selling off a section, we kept adding,” said Bob. “I wanted to protect enough so that this land offers a variety of potential uses, and at the same time, it protects the three towns (Lisbon, Sabattus and Lewiston). It’s never going to be overdeveloped.”
Conservation’s been at the forefront: They’ve set aside five acres, permanently, to protect old forest tree growth with 250-year-old pine trees and hemlocks. They’ve planted four acres of flowers that especially appeal to bees. And there’s been no farming with pesticides for at least three decades.
The Stanton Bird Club of Lewiston and Auburn has counted more than 50 varieties of birds on the property. The farm has three artisan wells, two beaver ponds and a dug 1.2-million-gallon spring-fed pond used for irrigation.
“There’s quite a few important springs,” said Bob. “We sit on a major aquifer and we’re bordered by 5,000 feet of No Name Brook and 1,800 feet of the Sabattus River.”
To protect the water, they haven’t mowed within 100 feet of the Sabattus River for 10 years and they’ve left the land fronting No Name Brook forested. (Roughly 350 acres of the entire property are forested, 150 acres are fields.)
For the last 11 years, the Packard-Littlefield Farm has worked with Cultivating Community’s New American Sustainable Agriculture Project, a program that started with six acres. Last year, 45 families farmed on 31 acres. That program lease runs until 2018; it’ll be up to the new owner to continue that partnership.
Bob said it was a tough decision to decide to sell; neither of their daughters wanted to farm. But the couple won’t be going far — they’ve bought a home just up the road, downsizing to just two acres.
Tori Lee Jackson, an associate professor of agriculture and natural resources with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said the average farm in Maine last year was 177 acres, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
“Many large farms have been broken up over the years with parcels sold off for housing or other developments . . . so having nearly 500 contiguous acres in southern Maine is definitely something special,” she said.
Jackson thought it might attract a smaller, profitable farm looking to expand or a cooperative interested in pooling resources.
“One thing we do know is that thanks to the forward-thinking and generosity of Bob and Ella Mae Packard, this land will remain in farming, and the agricultural heritage of Lisbon will be preserved,” she said.
Nina Young, farmland protection project manager at Maine Farmland Trust, said the farm’s long track record of productivity and location close to markets will be appealing.
“I understand that there are people, maybe from out of state, who are looking at farmland who have an idea for some niche in agriculture. Maybe it’s goat meat or certain vegetables or foods; people do have ideas of doing a certain kind of agriculture, not just feeding the family,” said Ella Mae. “I have no idea what’s out there.”
They’re about to find out.
Ella Mae Packard stands outside of her home in Lisbon. The farm is being sold after having been in Packard’s family since 1853.
“They kid me at the soil conservation office, normally farmers are selling off a section, we kept adding. I wanted to protect enough so that this land offers a variety of potential uses, and at the same time, it protects the three towns (Lisbon, Sabattus and Lewiston). It’s never going to be overdeveloped.”
— Bob Packard of Lisbon
Bob Packard walks through one of the rooms in the 1800 Lisbon farmhouse. Much of the contents will be auctioned off separately from the farm.
Many old jars remain in Ella Mae and Bob Packard’s basement in their Lisbon farmhouse, including this jar of carrots, canned long ago.
Bob Packard stands at the bottom level of his Lisbon farmhouse’s barn. The equipment will be sold off at an auction this summer. The nearly 500-acre Packard-Littlefield Farm went on the market last month.
Ella Mae Packard holds a historic photo of her family’s Lisbon farm dating to around 1910, showing ancestor Ivory Ricker sitting in his carriage. Three pre-1900 carriages and three pre-1900 horse-drawn sleighs are still in the barn and will be sold at an auction in July.
Ella Mae and Bob Packard walk through a field toward their farmhouse. Their Lisbon farm, parts of which have been owned by the family since 1853, is being sold.