Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods
Roxanne Quimby’s goal is to preserve the landscape of Maine’s North Woods forever, but controversy has been sparked by those who want to retain use of that land.
In the early summer of 1975, 24-year-old Roxanne Quimby arrived in northern Maine, having driven across the country with her boyfriend, looking for a place to homestead. Between them, they had $3,000. In Guilford, a mill town 50 miles northwest of Bangor, they found 30 acres of woods on a back road for that sum. They planned to build a cabin and live off the land, there at the edge of the fabled North Woods.
On the day of their arrival, as Roxanne stepped out of that road-weary Volkswagen bus onto the carpet of pine needles that was to be her home for the next 20 years, you might, if you were paying keen attention, have felt the earth tremble slightly beneath her feet, for the state of Maine would never be quite the same again.
Soon after, in 1976, the last logs tumbled down the Kennebec and brought to an end the legendary world of the river drives, which for generations had been alive with teams of oxen, timber cruisers, camp bosses, and loggers, a place that resounded with the ring of the axe and the smell of fresh sap. When those last logs drifted into the boom, it is possible that no one quite knew the changes that lay ahead for the 10-million-acre kingdom called the North Woods.
Rather than seeming like an end, this may have seemed like progress. Logs would move on railcars and trucks, as they had been increasingly for many years. It seemed as if nothing much else would change. That chapter of the Maine woods might have been over, but the framework that had supported it all those years — the paper companies that owned that land — would remain. The woods, everyone assumed, would continue to regenerate, and the need for wood and paper would never end.
The purpose of owning this vast timberland was to harvest the trees. Whatever else went on on that land didn’t much matter to the paper companies. Thousands of hunting camps rest among the pine and spruce and at the edges of those ponds, there by virtue of a hundred-year lease, given by the paper companies to whoever staked a claim. Hunters and their families built camps, often of logs cut from the property, and knowingly at risk of someday losing the land beneath their efforts.
But nothing ever happened. Hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails were cut through the forest. Recreation became the North Woods’ secondary use. For generations, the paper companies allowed a special kind of privilege: public use of private land.
Roxanne knew little about any of this when she arrived. She was not a woodswoman but an aspiring artist. Having just graduated from art school in San Francisco, she envisioned a life where costs would be low so that she could paint and sell her work. She and her soon-to-be husband, George St. Clair, cleared enough trees to build a 20×30-foot cabin. No running water, no electricity, no phone — not a hardship but a challenge. They cleared space for a garden. “We were very idealistic. We did a lot of wood-splitting, bow-saw work, hauling. It was very different from the way I’d been raised,” Roxanne says now. “It was important to prove to myself that I didn’t have to live the way my parents lived.”
Roxanne, who had grown up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and then moved to San Francisco, had much to learn about life in northern Maine. She worked as a waitress, and George worked occasionally at a local radio station. The old VW bus died, and so they walked where they needed to go. At the end of each year, they had money to pay their taxes and buy the small things they needed. Four years later, Roxanne gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. After a few years, George found a life elsewhere.
So it was Roxanne and the twins, in the cabin. Roxanne needed more money than what she was making. One day, she stopped to buy honey from a pickup truck parked by the side of the road. She became friendly with the man selling the honey, a gruff, bearded beekeeper named Burt Shavitz. He was older than she by 15 years and was having back trouble. She offered to help him, and he gladly accepted, as he could use a woman with a good strong back. That summer, she learned how to keep bees and how to render honey. “I was inspired by the bees, the way they all worked together,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, what good little communists they are. Well, except for that queen in there.'”
She and Burt became partners in life and partners in business. She put the honey into prettier jars, pouring the golden sweetness into little bears and hive-shaped containers. Packaged this way, business picked up. In his barn, Burt had a lot of wax stockpiled. Roxanne saw it as an opportunity. She started making candles and took the honey and candles to craft fairs.
The honey sold steadily. The candles sold well in the fall and through the Christmas season, but people didn’t seem to want them in the summer. They melt; they have no allure. So Roxanne looked around for something else to do with the wax and found an old book with some recipes that called for beeswax. On her woodstove, she made up cauldrons of boot polish and furniture polish and poured the substances into little tins. She liked the tins. They looked old-fashioned and homey. And then she discovered a recipe for lip balm.
She labeled the products “Burt’s Bees.” Burt had all his hives stenciled “Burt’s Bees,” and when Roxanne was working the hives, she says, “I used to think that was so funny, as if anyone could actually own a bee!” So she put it on the tins. She found that when people came by her table, even if they didn’t buy anything, they liked the name. “People would go, ‘Look, honey, Burt’s Bees!’ and they’d laugh and keep walking, saying things like, ‘Burt’s Bees, Burt’s Bees! Mind your own beeswax!’ They seemed to love to say it,” she recalls. “It was so simple, down-to-earth, two syllables, nothing fancy, sort of like Burt, sort of like the product, sort of like the lifestyle I was trying to paint. So I thought, ‘Okay, yeah, that’s a good name.'”
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