Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods
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.'”
Some may have chuckled over the name, but most of them bought it. She couldn’t make enough lip balm. She moved her wax and the cauldrons to the abandoned schoolhouse in Guilford. No running water or electricity, either, but she barely noticed, setting the cauldron on the gas range and sometimes working until midnight by the light of kerosene lamps. She added a drawing of Burt to the label, his bearded face representing anything but beauty. Buyers embraced the product even more.
That was the beginning of Burt’s Bees, which today is the best-selling natural personal-care brand of cosmetics in the country, a brand market researchers call “lightning in a bottle.”
But this little handcrafted product was hardly so back then. Roxanne followed the destiny of her creation one step at a time, a road without a map that led her, after 20 years of living and doing business from a remote Maine town, to North Carolina, where she felt the business climate was more favorable. Maine was high on taxes and low on accessibility. It was 1994. Her twins were in boarding school. As much as she hated to leave, Roxanne left for the South, not with a backpack but with a $3 million business of her own creation in tow.
The same year Roxanne left Maine, the Warren division of Scott Paper, one of the two largest landholders in Maine, sold everything it owned to Sappi — South African Pulp and Paper Industries Ltd. It represented a shift in the global market and a shift in the life of the Maine woods at least as significant as the end of the river drives. Apparently no one foresaw that opening the world to free trade would one day steal away the North Woods. China and South America became easier and cheaper places to find wood and paper. Seemingly overnight, the North Woods went up on the block. Tracts of thousands of acres of land came up for sale. A Seattle-based firm called Plum Creek — which turned out to be as much a real-estate developer as a timber company — was buying.