William Pedersen Beckwith
Tuesday, March 14, 2017 10:54 AM
William Pedersen Beckwith: March 13, 1943-February 25, 2017
“He cared most about the land”
William Pedersen Beckwith passed away Saturday, February 25, after a five-month battle with a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 73.
Bill was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, the middle of three children, to a Danish-Canadian mother and a father in the printing business. At age 13, he apprenticed to a local farmer, Louis Epstein, who owned Rosedale Farm on the Farmington River. While printing was not in his blood, farming was. Bill was hooked, and would work with Louis for the next 17 years.
His skin tanned the color of rich earth by his vocation, “Bronze Billy” began his courtship of Deborah Winship in the early 1960s. After he graduated from McGill University’s MacDonald College in 1967, the two tied the knot then embarked for Alaska, where Bill tried his hand at fishing and Deb gave birth to the “unexpected miracle” of their first son, Christian. (The same miracle allowed him to avoid the draft.) Shortly after delivering him the new parents, who had cradled their son in a lobster pot, packed their meager belongings and returned to Simsbury, where Bill joined Epstein in partnership to run Orkil Farms, an operation Louis leased from the town.
In 1974, keen to own a farm of his own, Bill began weekend journeys to the coast of Maine with his family, which had grown to include two daughters, Amy and Natala. One spring day, Bill drove the family up Route 1 into Warren, where he saw a 150-year-old farmhouse, the walls pocked by bullets and already beginning to sag. He stopped, walked up to the door, knocked; a fellow of questionable dental charm opened the door. Bill told him his story and asked if the farm was for sale. It wasn't. "Well, if you change your mind, here's my number," Bill said.
The next week, he received a call. The man had changed his mind.
“How much do you want?”
“$20,000,” the fellow said, slyly.
Bill offered $18,000. The man agreed. Bill would spend the next 20 years paying off the $6,000 loan his father had made him take out to establish credit.
The first farmstand was a table on the front lawn, handwritten signs advertising cukes, tomatoes and lettuce for prices that made the $.19/gallon gas seem expensive. Across the street, the one-room schoolhouse for the town of Warren lay neglected, nestled in a warren of trees. The next spring, Bill bought the school house and mounted an engineering expedition to move the building to his side of the highway. He now had a store, and School House Farm was born.
Over the next forty-two years — ably assisted by Deb, who ran the store while juggling her blossoming artistic career and childcare for the three kids, now grown to four with the addition of Billy — that one-room school house became the storefront for everything one could grow on a farm in Maine. The seasons kicked off with strawberries before progressing to chard, beet greens, peas, beans, carrots and tomatoes. Cukes and pickles and lettuce were mainstays of the summer, as was corn, which extended into autumn alongside squash and potatoes and pumpkins. Experiments with more exotic species — grapes, raspberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, peaches — were abandoned after they were beaten back by the vagaries of the Maine climate. The cornucopia of abundance that exploded from the tables in the front of the store varied from week to week, but was always magnificent.
Then there was the orchard, carved out of the woods on the farm’s eastern perimeter with a chainsaw, a tractor and Bill’s hands. By the mid-eighties it encompassed more than 2,000 trees and had metastasized to the other side of the farm as well. A cider press in the back of the store produced some of the mid-coast's finest cider, a mix made finer when added to the donuts that in turn added to the waistlines of Mainers for miles around.
The boys worked the fields. The girls ran the store. Once a week, summer in, summer out, Bill would rise at 1 a.m. to make the journey to Boston, where he would pick up a truckload of produce the farm couldn't grow — peaches, cherries, melons, nectarines — at rock bottom prices. By noon, he’d be back on the farm, the truck sagging under a load that included cheeses — wheels of Parmigianino Reggiano, blocks of Cabot cheddar, rounds of Jarlsberg and Havarti and blue and other varieties that would have made a New York crèmerie blush. Eight hours of driving and four hours of haggling in the Boston Market allowed Bill to sell his bounty at prices that couldn't be matched for 500 miles in any direction.
Maple syrup, jams and jellies, candies, honey, as well as an idiosyncratic mix of snacks, crackers, bulk food and peanuts could all be found on the sagging wooden shelves. A large cooler held the cheeses and the cider. Deb’s paintings adorned the walls. A tourist walking into the stand might think that its owner was a hippie, but while Bill was not unfamiliar with such tendencies, he also embraced tenants of redneck, anti-authoritarian, and libertarian philosophies in equal measure. He took what he liked from each and made them his own.
His children worked alongside him and Deb until they were old enough to escape, which they did, far past the Mississippi, where the dirt could no longer reach them. Faced with the reality that Americans no longer cared to work long hours for little money and less applause, Bill began importing help: from Eastern Europe at first, then Russia and the ‘Stans (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), and finally south of the border, from places like Honduras and Brazil. Bright-eyed young men and women from agricultural programs around the world would travel to this out-of-the way hamlet just far enough off the coast to be uninfluenced by its tides to work beside Bill on the fields and in the store. They rarely exceeded 30 years of age; at age 63, he married one, Yelena Burdina from Russia. The youth and their backgrounds infused the farm with a lively pidgin of accents and perspectives that made it a United Nations of the coast, with Bill always ready to share the lessons of the fields with the enjoyment of a meal of the bounty therein. They kept him young, and he was a mix of their patriarch and older brother. It never fit a mold, and neither did he.
The greatest tragedy to beset the family occurred December 2, 2013, when Billy t-boned a Lexus with his motorcycle on a hill in his adopted home of San Francisco. The family was devastated, and its equilibrium would never be regained — though in a way, Billy’s death prepared the family for their father’s, which at least occurred in the right order, his children having said goodbye, his affairs for the most part squared away, his eldest daughter holding his hand as he passed.
Over all the years, as his children began to marry and then have kids of their own, as his marriage to Deb failed and he married Anna from Cuba and then divorced her when she learned English and yet stayed friends with both, he remained an iconoclast: growing pot plants out behind the orchard that he traded for kitchen appliances, spending a brief window of respite each spring on forays to far-flung places (Mexico, Belize, Thailand, Cuba in a two-man boat — before he knew how to sail), hiding the ground-down nubs of his yellowed teeth behind a tight, ready smile. Dime-store glasses, perpetually askance on his nose and held with a keeper cord around his neck, were part of the signature of his older years. They were inevitably crooked, because he sat on them.
As the store settled further into the ground and the various farm buildings got little help in their fight against gravity, it became evident that what he cared about most was the land. He worked it daily, in all seasons, in all weather, usually with a dog at his side. (An endless parade of them through the years was in part the product of their seeming inability to know when not to cross Route 1.) He knew each rut, every hillock, where the electric fence was touching the grass enough to undermine the charge, where the cows had gone to have their calves.
It is telling that on their last visit to see him, two of his children walked behind the farm to the Georges River at its edge and followed it to the Warren bridge. They'd never been down that way before, an indication of how fixed their tenure on the farm had been. Bill was rarely comfortable off it, even when it abutted his land.
Bill’s uniform was jeans, a denim shirt, a baseball cap and dirty boots. He neither liked nor trusted fancy people. Though he died a millionaire, the only new things he ever bought were a blue four-wheel-drive tractor and a Dodge Ram pickup, both of which are still on the farm now, as decrepit as all the other equipment. He was honest, trustworthy, quick to laugh, possessed of a puritanical work ethic and a penchant for the bottle.
We'd always hoped he'd die leaning against his hoe at sunset, another row liberated, for the time being, from the advance of weeds, looking out over those fields that he'd carved from the earth with his strong, gnarled hands. That was not to be, but in the five months of his cancer, he managed to marry Yelena for the second time and learn the joys of her one-year-old, something he'd failed to do with his own children and certainly never even attempted with his grandkids. He walked out of the house on the morning of February 25 assisted by his 40-year-old spouse and his 45-year old daughter, rode the ambulance to hospice, took one look at what lay ahead and promptly expired. As his newlywed said, "He didn’t want to bother anyone."
Three children, three wives, an international medley of farm workers, and a community of customers and friends as colorful and quixotic as the crops he grew survive Bill. A family memorial is planned for summer, when his ashes can be spread among the fields that were his one enduring love.