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Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods

Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine’s North Woods
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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.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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17 Responses to Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine’s North Woods

  1. Beth Dorton March 7, 2008 at 2:58 am #

    Contention over how to assure the ongoing existence of wild places should not prevent people with vision and foresight from taking necessary steps to protect what’s left of our few remaining living forests. Maine is unique in the contiguous states in having that much relatively unscathed land left to argue over. When our family sets out to go hiking, we want wilderness, we don’t want to hear motors, we don’t want to smell exhaust. We want to see vibrant, complete ecosystems and the living things that can only exist there. Thanks to Roxanne Quimby and RESTORE, very possibly our descendants will still know what that’s like.

  2. Brian Miville March 7, 2008 at 8:02 pm #

    This is an interesting debate and both sides have merit. But one thing I think is being overlooked that would help BOTH sides come to agreement much quicker. That is to designate the land a National Forest instead of Park. The White Mountains are a supreme example of a National Forest at work. Sustainable, selective logging helps support the local workbase. Snowmobiling, hunting, fishing and hiking are also a big part of the National Forests motto of “Land of many uses”. There is a balance between nature (in the White Mountains there are Federally designated Wildernesses which protect the forest from human development of any kind) and Current-Use that can be reached if both sides are willing to give and take to come to an agreement.

  3. Pete Pete March 12, 2008 at 6:18 am #

    Why would I want to pay for areas in maine that I can not visit to hunt or fish? Now we can tax the owners and regulate there use of the land. How can people who have second homes around moosehead tell others they can’t build there. Makes no sense, good enough for them to develop the land for themselfs, but not for people now. The Maine North Woods is not park worthy. It is not anywhere near a yellowstone, or grand caynon. It is working forest. The State can regulate development in curtain areas forever. I just don’t see the spectacular volcanic areas or amazing caynons. It has nice lakes and small mountains. The Federal government will never want to spend the money for a park like that. You need amazing vistas and views. Katadin has some, but other areas around the north woods just aren’t spectacular to see. It is fun to camp and fish and hunt but agian it is no Denali. I love the area but I would hate to see it not get developed around moosehead and see the town of greenville disapear. I like to see resorts and industry come back and see more people spend time in the area and money.

  4. Alaine Winters March 13, 2008 at 4:27 pm #

    I guess I’m not as enthusiastic as others posting here. I respect Ms. Quimby for what she has accomplished, but I’m not convinced that a national park is in Maine’s best interest. I’m also impressed by the amount of land that will be permanently conserved under Plum Creek;s plan, roughly 400,000 acres, 95% of the plan area. What should we say to the people who live and work here? What happens to the forestry supply. Forestry jobs pay well and make up a huge portion of our state’s GDP, with all the federal cuts for social programs, a weakening dollar, the need for renewable energy, one more national park seems like a luxury we simply can’t afford…what if the government wanted your back yard?

  5. Tom Condon March 21, 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    For many years I worked as a canoe guide on the West Branch of the Penobscot with the Boy Scouts. This experience led me to a career with the US Forest Service and National Park Service. I believe the North Woods would be a perfect addition to the NP system. The rivers and mountains offer a wilderness experience within easy reach of millions of Americans. There are so few place left in the east that offer the serenity and unspoiled beauty of the North Woods. I still belong to the scouts. We take these young men (and women) to some wonderful places. We visit the Smokies and the Rockies. We canoe the entire Connecticut River. But it is in Maine, along the Penobscot, that we get our truest sense of wilderness. National Park status would raise the awareness of the American public to this vast resource. I hope that the people of Maine will see beyond the quick bucks of vacation home development and preserve this land for future generations.

  6. Robert Matthews March 26, 2008 at 10:00 pm #

    I have been a logger in Northern Maine for over 30 yrs. That said, I have little faith in industrial forestry’s ability to sustain, let alone improve, the economies of the local communities. There is also little evidence that the overall health and welfare of the forest is of any real concern.
    I do, however, believe that there is something inherently beautiful about a local culture built around the natural resources that surround it. This way of life is severely threatened. It is threatened by the Roxanne Quimbys, the Plum Creeks, the fact that land values are determined by out of state markets, the forest industry’s focus on consuming the trees rather than managing the forests,ect. ect.. Outside this complex web of control and consumption there are thousands of individuals whose connection to the land has been at best marginalized, at worst ignored. We (with permission and/or legal right) hunt, fish, trap, canoe, hike, camp, x-country ski, snowshoe, snowsled, ride 4-wheelers, pick fiddleheads, cut firewood, leaf peep, and in general sit around with our chin in our hands thanking God for the opportunity to just be here.
    There was a time when I thought that my passion, my love, my profound appreciation for what surrounded me (ie. what I had the right to reach out and touch on any given day) was payment enough to insure that I would not be excluded. I no longer believe this to be true and it saddens me beyond words. More for my children than for me.
    Yet there is hope. If my children can become obscenely rich, buy 10′s of thousands of acres in the North Woods, and invoke in perpetuity my personal agenda on all who would wander there then I guess that’s OK.

  7. bill melucci March 30, 2008 at 12:36 am #

    I think when God created Maine he surely wanted people to be able to enjoy all parts Downeast the North Woods, Deer Isle and MDI. But I am sure he wasnt planning on some greedy or self aggrandising CEO to charge the average joe 10 bucks to see it, swim in it or breathe it’s air. A WISE man once told me:

    IT IS EASIER FOR A CAMEL TO PASS THRU THE EYE OF A NEEDLE….
    THAN FOR A RICH MAN TO GET INTO HEAVEN!!

    TRYING TO BUY REMEMBERANCE IS SHAMEFULL
    ONE SHOULD BE THOUGHT OF ON THEIR MERIT(S), ALONE.

  8. John Cubberly March 31, 2008 at 1:14 pm #

    I’ll be happy to pay ten bucks for some clean air and water.

    Just donated to RESTORE and I wish success to Roxanne and her project.

  9. Ginny Ward April 7, 2008 at 9:44 am #

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if Roxanne Quimby’s ancestors were from Central Maine, where the lumber business thrived a generation ago?! I would love to know if the Quimby Veneer Mill in Bingham was owned and operated by her ancestors! She is not My hero! She takes pride in her “poor” beginnings (like most wealthy folks do). Her early hardships in Central Maine were much like the hardships of all Central Mainers, Downeasters and Northern Mainers. I would love to hear the REAL stories of Ms. Quimby during her early endeavors in the woods of Maine. These stories would need to come from neighbors and townspeople who observed her and had daily interactions with her. Her “uniqueness” comes from her wealth and riches, not from the fact that she lived in a way that hundreds of other Maine people have lived for generations. Any “uniqueness” in that area, would only be because she was not accustomed to the lifestyle of living in the Maine woods. Did she get town assistance? Did she get financial help from her Daddy? Did she get a welfare check from the State of Maine? Was she considerate of her neighbors and the community? Did she always have “complaints” about how the towns and State were run? Did she grow “pot”? Did she sell it? (Most hippies did) Did she pay taxes? Did she show respect for the generations of Mainers who were hardworking, mostly unskilled —- just doing what they had to do to make a living? Or was she, even then, looking down upon us all, from her “priviliged upbringing”, so engrossed in her own interests, that she was “blind” to the realities of the real Maine and it’s people?

  10. Mark of Millinocket June 25, 2008 at 5:22 pm #

    Roxanne, you have really lost sight of Millinocket and let down those that stuck up for you,,,, and no, I?m not one of those fools that thought you?d change.

    .

  11. Garnett Robinson January 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Having grown up in Maine and knowing of Burt’s backlandish ways from back in his days in Dexter before his move to Parkman, I can’t help but respect the foresight that Roxanne had in growing his Burt’s Bee Business (now hers) to where it is today. I also believe that wild places are needed such as Baxter Park. That said I find it is very hard to put a positive spin on what Roxanne Quimby has accomplished and is now doing for/to the average Mainer today. She took a Maine business that employed Mainers in a part of Maine where jobs are few, that also produced revenue and taxes to help the local economy (property taxes) and state economy (state corporate and individual income taxes) and had many positive spinoff affects with other local businesses and moved it out of State for personal gain (which I still respect) as the owner of my own business. That said, she now is back in Maine purchasing land at top dollar but benefitting from reduced taxes because this land is in the Current Use Program of Tree Growth or she is placing it in Open Space and is being run as a non-profit corporation. Either way she is paying pennies on the dollar for property taxes and avoiding other taxes (not contributing her fair share) and now changing the land uses which have beneffitted many Mainers for generations in a part of the State where other jobs are scarce. Local loggers, truckdrivers, foresters, hunting/fishing guides and the myriad of spinoff businesses (Truck and Equipment dealers, etc.) are finding themselves being displaced and possibly unemployed by her tremendous wealth. She may be a hero to many from Away who have visions of Northern Maine becoming a Park where the wealthy from other States and Southern Maine can recreate but she is anything but a hero to the average Mainer living in these areas (many for generations) who are being displaced so that she can feed her ego instead of finding a way to help poor Mainer’s feed their families.

  12. Garnett Robinson January 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Having grown up in Maine and knowing of Burt’s backlandish ways from back in his days in Dexter before his move to Parkman, I can’t help but respect the foresight that Roxanne had in growing his Burt’s Bee Business (now hers) to where it is today. I also believe that wild places are needed such as Baxter Park. That said I find it is very hard to put a positive spin on what Roxanne Quimby has accomplished and is now doing for/to the average Mainer today. She took a Maine business that employed Mainers in a part of Maine where jobs are few, that also produced revenue and taxes to help the local economy (property taxes) and state economy (state corporate and individual income taxes) and had many positive spinoff affects with other local businesses and moved it out of State for personal gain (which I still respect) as the owner of my own business. That said, she now is back in Maine purchasing land at top dollar but benefitting from reduced taxes because this land is in the Current Use Program of Tree Growth or she is placing it in Open Space and is being run as a non-profit corporation. Either way she is paying pennies on the dollar for property taxes and avoiding other taxes (not contributing her fair share) and now changing the land uses which have beneffitted many Mainers for generations in a part of the State where other jobs are scarce. Local loggers, truckdrivers, foresters, hunting/fishing guides and the myriad of spinoff businesses (Truck and Equipment dealers, etc.) are finding themselves being displaced and possibly unemployed by her tremendous wealth. She may be a hero to many from Away who have visions of Northern Maine becoming a Park where the wealthy from other States and Southern Maine can recreate but she is anything but a hero to the average Mainer living in these areas (many for generations) who are being displaced so that she can feed her ego instead of finding a way to help poor Mainer’s feed their families.

  13. Joey May 15, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    roxanne,Why would you put a gate on your roads after telling the people you wouldn’t? Now I can’t go in and get fiddleheads in my favorite spot and most people love picking them and the old folks really look forward to an free meal when it comes to the Lords plants. please remove them for the harvest atlease please

  14. Frank Anderson July 26, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    The families who have been living in Northern Maine for hundreds of years are now feeling some of the pain that their ancestors inflicted on the Native Americans who lived there for thousands of years.

    Of course, the great-great-etc-grandfathers of today’s white Northern Mainers killed most of the natives, and penned the survivors up on Indian Island, or other outposts with marginal resources.

    Funny to hear them complaining about losing their snowmobile trails now that karma is coming back around.

    Also funny that the New World Order isn’t really much better than the old one, the poor white Mainers are going to have to move someplace else too, or die the new version of death, the economic one.

    In the eyes of the New World Order you could say they and their grandparents were lucky to live the “good life” in Northern Maine as long as they did. Thanks to the corporations who sold out as soon as profits dwindled.

    Things aren’t going in a good direction. Then again, they really never did since industrialization began. Something needs to change.

  15. Harold April 5, 2014 at 1:19 am #

    So is she buying the land to build her own mansions and stuff and basically monetize it herself or is she buying the land to prevent it from ever being developed into resorts and stuff?

    There are many celebrities buying thousands of acres of land, building ski resorts and hotels etc. If she’s building a park, what’s the problem? Who cares if you can’t log there anymore? It’s not your land anymore. I disagree with closing trails though. I mean if I was riding my bike through a trail for years and someone bought the land and closed it, I’d be mad too. Leave the area open to hike, ride bikes, enjoy the scenery, take photos, go camping etc.

  16. L De Voe September 9, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    I live not too far from Quimby’s land off of route 11 and 212. I am astounded by the amount of logging that is done in this area. Most parcels have only a cosmetic strip of trees in the front of the gutted lands. What is considered conservation and selective foresting leaves a lot to be desired. I have seen where loggers take their skip loaders and just bulldoze over the trees to get to their prize. I know were my property is located most adjacent properties have been logged out less than every 15 years The prizes, the harvested trees are getting smaller and smaller and the competition to log out areas more intense.

    We had a logger come up to our door asking if we wanted to sell off our timber when we said no we are not into that, he actually was visibly mad. It is starting to look like a bad poodle cut up here on Dudley Ridge all the surrounding properties are being cut! I know this has been Northern Mainers way of life but when it gets to the point you have connecting swaths of land over logged and re logged every 15 years, with slash left behind and little to no old forest growth and the new growth is sucker growth from the hard woods, that is poor conservation!

    The way I see it with lots being logged out more frequently with less and less time for regrowth with little to no old growth trees left, the loggers will kill the goose that laid the golden egg ! I can see why Quimby wants to put her property into conservation by turning it into a National Park. I have seen both sides and truly understand, anyway it is her land if they the loggers & Northern Mainer natives wanted it so bad then they should have bought it or the loggers should have formed a corporation to have bought it.

  17. L De Voe September 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    I live not too far from Quimby’s land off of route 11 and 212. I am astounded by the amount of logging that is done in this area. Most parcels have only a cosmetic strip of trees in the front of the gutted lands. What is considered conservation and selective foresting leaves a lot to be desired. I have seen where loggers take their skip loaders and just bulldoze over the trees to get to their prize. I know where my property is located most adjacent properties have been logged out less than every 15 years The prizes, the harvested trees are getting smaller and smaller and the competition to log out areas more intense.

    We had a logger come up to our door asking if we wanted to sell off our timber when we said no we are not into that, he actually was visibly mad. It is starting to look like a bad poodle cut up here on Dudley Ridge all the surrounding properties are being cut! I know this has been Northern Mainers way of life but when it gets to the point you have connecting swaths of land over logged and re logged every 15 years, with slash left behind and little to no old forest growth and the new growth is sucker growth from the hard woods, that is poor conservation!

    The way I see it with lots being logged out more frequently with less and less time for regrowth with little to no old growth trees left, the loggers will kill the goose that laid the golden egg ! I can see why Quimby wants to put her property into conservation by turning it into a National Park. I have seen both sides and truly understand, anyway it is her land if they the loggers & Northern Mainer natives wanted it so bad then they should have bought it or the loggers should have formed a corporation to have bought it.

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