Mainers locally and farther afield are mourning the passing of Horsepower Farm founder Paul Birdsall, shown here in the summer of 1982 with two of his beloved Suffolk Punch draft horses. PHOTO COURTESY OF BIRDSALL FAMILY

Back to the land pioneer Paul Birdsall dies at 91



PENOBSCOT — The founder of Horsepower Farm, a beloved father and grandfather, horseman, scholar, sailor and much more died June 12.

Paul Grew Birdsall was 91.

Many people in Hancock County and in Maine remember Birdsall with respect and affection but especially so his family.

Paul Birdsall
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BIRDSALL FAMILY

“He was a lot of fun,” said son Andrew Birdsall. “He taught my brother and I how to ski and skate and work and believe in ourselves. He was a good man. I don’t of know anyone who’s had a work ethic like him.

“Things are keeping on at the farm as they have been except there’s a huge hole,” he said.

Ellen Werner had been a founding member of Blue Hill Heritage Trust with Birdsall.

“I was always impressed with his dedication and reverence to leading a life that respects and honors the planet,” said Werner. “That we are all together and that if something goes awry, it affects all of us. He was a terrific man.”

Birdsall and his late wife, Mollie, and their two sons, Nathaniel and Andrew, moved to Penobscot and founded Horsepower Farm in 1972.

Birdsall put a conservation easement on the 341-acre parcel, located off Route 15, so that it remains farmland forever.

The family moved to Maine after sailing from Connecticut to Maine most summers on their catboat, the Mollie B.

Andrew recalled his father’s encounter with a seagull during one of those childhood cruises.

“Dad would grill on the deck,” Birdsall said. “One time a seagull came along and grabbed a steak. My father ran after the seagull and scared it so much he dropped the steak in the water. My father jumped in and grabbed the steak and put it back on the grill.”

Thieving seagulls aside, Birdsall was remembered as a gentle man.

Bill Thayer, who owns Darthia Farm in Gouldsboro with wife, Cynthia, met Birdsall and his wife in the 1970s and remained friends.

“He was gentle, hardworking, very enthusiastic about doing things well,” said Thayer. “We quickly took up a friendship because I was interested in farming with horses,” Thayer said. “He was already farming with horses.”

“Hi wife, Mollie, and my wife, Cynthia, were co-founders along with Susan Grosjean of the Wednesday Spinners Group. We had a flock of sheep as did the Birdsalls. We worked together through the soil conservation district for the viability of agriculture.”

“Paul made a comment within the past few years about another horseman over in Brooks named Donald Nicholson,” Thayer said. “’What Donald doesn’t know about horses ain’t worth knowing,’” Thayer recalled of the conversation.

“I reminded Andy of that recently,” Thayer said. “I would say the same thing about your father.”

Despite his success on the land, Birdsall was not born into agriculture.

The Massachusetts native was a Harvard graduate who worked at a button factory before embarking on teaching career. He also had a master’s degree from Wesleyan University. Birdsall had also begun a Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut, his son said.

Paul and Mollie were in their 40s when they moved to Maine.

Jim Dow, former executive director of Blue Hill Heritage Trust, recalled Birdsall telling him that he and Mollie had been part of the “back to the land movement although they didn’t realize it.”

“He came here with a notion,” said Dow. “Small-scale farming had a future and also you need to do something to ensure there was farmland that was available when it took hold.”

Birdsall worked extensively with the Hancock Soil and Water Conservation District to develop agricultural land for the Route 15 corridor, Dow said. That was the mid-70s.

“The goal was ‘Let’s protect this soil.’ The problem was, there wasn’t any vehicle to do this.”

“He was persistent,” Dow said. “Protecting farmland wasn’t really at the top of anyone’s list but his. It took another 10, 15 years for that notion to take substantial hold — in the late 90’s.”

“He put an easement on his own farm — 383 acres,” Dow said. “He bought farms like the Quill’s End Farm and sold it at a huge discount to young farmers. He thought if this whole thing was going to work, you had to have young people engaged.”

Quill’s End belongs to Phil and Heather Retberg who farm the land with their children.

Heather Retberg said “We will miss him, the spirit, the fire, the tenacity, the fierce principles always worth fighting for.

“He stood up for us again and again, showed me it’s okay to yell sometimes, it’s OK to say when it’s not OK and demand different,” said Heather. “It’s good for change to come from the bottom up.”

Dave Colson, director of agricultural services at Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, said Birdsall and the Thayers took their horses to the Common Ground Fair every year to provide wagon rides for the children.

“A lot of folks who have horses, the training would be such that I would be concerned about them giving rides to children around the fair with 20,000 people,” said Colson. “Paul was so calm and the horses were well behaved so there were never any problems.

“Paul was of a generation that really came back, so to speak, to farming and agriculture as a passion and a pastime,” Colson said. In the 1980s, there were only 20 or so people in Maine getting organic farming certification. Today there are over 400 certified organic operations, Colson said. “He was definitely a pioneer in both coming back to farming and organic and organic certification.”

Dow concurred.

“We would not have this vibrant, local food community on this peninsula without Paul,” said Dow.

Birdsall was a board member of Maine Farmland Trust since its inception in 1999.

“In many ways, Paul Birdsall was the father of farmland conservation in Maine,” said Ellen Sabina, outreach director for the trust. “He recognized that Maine has a limited amount of rich, viable farmland and saw the need to preserve the soil and the open land so that agriculture could thrive for generations to come.”

Dow said he thought Birdsall’s work to protect farmland “would pay off over time. I was startled by how quickly things changed.”

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.