Cecilia Crooker, daughter of Sparrowhawk Orchard owners, Nate and Katy, and sister of Abe contemplates how to get an apple from a tree. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

BETHEL — Ira Gibson remembers when he and his brothers earned 50 cents to dig each apple tree hole.

Gibson was seven in 1968 when his father started their orchard. “It’s hard digging,” he said of the two foot deep by 2 foot diameter holes.

He and his wife, Penny, run Gibson Orchard off the North Road now. They  took over when his father passed away in 2012.

The Androscoggin River is to the left as you drive toward the orchard. “That’s a million dollar view,” says Gibson.

Inside the large post and beam structure that he built with his father in 2002 are several picking poles on the back wall, a crate of just picked apples, an old cider press and Gibson’s glassed-in doughnut making corner.

In a photo on the wall is the man he was named for, his great grandfather, Ira Hickford, who stands by a ferry on a cable. Gibson explains it was how they crossed the river when roads were muddy and they needed supplies on the other side. Gibson’s family has lived on the land since 1909.


On a recent Wednesday, Bob and Linda Rice, of South Carolina, have returned for cider and doughnuts after having picked apples on the weekend.

“The pie was to die for,” said Linda with her thick southern drawl.

Behind the Rice’s was Daryl Denman, of Bethel,  who also bought cider and doughnuts. Another couple did, too.

Gibson says the smell of fresh doughnuts never gets old and is what draws people in.

Ira Gibson of Gibson’s Orchard on North Street. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

“This is like the Disneyland of orchards,” says Gibson of the flat span of 300 apple trees behind the store. “To me the secret of a good orchard is to have it well-mowed. This year it’s been hard with all the rain.” He starts pruning in January and ends by March when the trees are dormant.

“What the old timers will tell you is we’re not growing firewood,” he says, stressing the importance of trimming the dead wood. He’s a little worried about his crop because of the May frost. They were away but he heard that snow fell on the orchard.


The Gibson’s children, Jim, Katie, Beth and Shelby, are grown now but help when they can. His in-laws Robert and Carol Everett help, too.

“We have a woman who comes each year to a particular tree that has  ‘wealthy’ apples (an heirloom variety) because she says it makes the prettiest apple sauce,” said Gibson.

“It’s neat because we get to see grandparents. We get to see people who came when they were children and they are bringing their children. We’ve been around long enough that we are seeing that kind of thing.” Besides wealthy apples they have other varieties too, like Honey Crisp, Cortland and Sweet 16.

In addition to the apple pies that Penny makes, the doughnuts and the cider; they sell honey, maple syrup, and pumpkins. Gibson opens every day from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and it’s the honor system if he’s out.

Nate Crooker and his wife, Katy, own Sparrowhawk Orchard on Grover Hill Road in Bethel. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

Sparrowhawk Orchard

A few miles away, as the crow (or sparrow) flies, is Sparrowhawk Orchard on Grover Hill Road. Nate and Katy Crooker are starting their third season as orchardists with some help from their children Cecilia, 9, and Abe, 10.


On a tour of the orchard, Cecilia takes a bite of a Redfree in hopes she will like it. Nope! Abe, on the other hand, said Crooker, eats so many apples they have to give him a daily limit.

Bears like the apples, too. Crooker said, “last year bears would lay right down under a tree just eating apples.” Deer and turkeys come to snack, too.

In an area they call the mid-east many apple varieties are growing and so is a small grove of peach trees. The family has named other parts of the orchard too – there is the house orchard, the sledding hill (near where the bears were sleeping), the wild west, and the upper west side.

The property was formerly owned by wholesale grower Herbie Lyon, a well-known local arborist who had other properties in town. He is deceased but the Warner’s who had worked with Lyon, helped Sparrowhawk get started.

Says Crooker, they have mostly MacIntosh and Cortland trees and some early varieties like Macouns and Redfree’s.  He has culled just a few of the 414 original trees to effectively manage disease on the other trees. Scab disease, he says, is the bane of the Mac’s. A lot of the new and vertical growth he prunes in late winter or early spring. If not, the air flow will be slowed and the light blocked.

The late freeze on May 18 of around 28 degrees affected a lot of apples but Nate said he feels they got spared possibly because they are somewhat elevated. “A lot of the blossoms at the low part of the orchard turned brown,” but still fruited. Other arborists he knows lost 90% of their crop.


They sell “drops” to people who make cider, or use it to feed their animals. “You can bait deer in New Hampshire, people will buy a truck full.”

He sometimes posts on Facebook and last autumn they had a party after they received 35 lobsters in an apple trade.

He said they are still trying to figure out which direction they will go as they grow, possibly selling peaches from their new peach trees. Pumpkins, corn and Christmas trees are all on the table, too.

This year they are adding picnic tables in the middle of the orchard and will allow pickers to drive through the orchard to access the lower trees.

They have been open since Sept. 8, but he doesn’t expect much early business.  “If it’s 70 degrees and sunny, [business] is generally pretty slow and I am the only person complaining. Those cold days get people in the mood.”

Sparrowhawk is open from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. It is self-service when they are not around – but they usually are.  Besides apples they sell Carvers syrup and fresh pressed cider. They are  introducing cider doughnuts this year. Crooker plans to sell other apple related goodies in the stand from time to time, too like spice kits from Gneiss Spice.

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