Helen Norton: her legacy is the protection of land in Harpswell, including a shorefront family farm.

BY MARY POLS STAFF WRITER, Bangor Daily News

Conservationist Helen Norton grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country, which shaped her into someone who believes that agricultural land is precious. “Farming is my blood,” she said.

Because of the work she and her late husband Walter did, farming is back in Harpswell’s blood as well. If you drove down Route 123 out of Brunswick this month, you could see Belted Galloway cattle grazing at Merriconeag Farm while pigs snuffled away in an adjacent field. The livestock belong to Joe and Laura Grady of Two Coves Farm just down the road, a shorefront historic family farm the Nortons bought in 2006.

It went by auction, with Walter bidding mainly against a developer. Helen didn’t want to be there. As the numbers went higher and higher, he called his wife to ask, “When do you want to stop?”

As it turned out, not until they had it.

But now, the question was what to do with it?

“I sat on it for about two years,” Norton recalled. Then she heard about Maine Farmland Trust and decided to donate an easement to the nonprofit, which protects and preserves farms across the state, as well as helping young farmers find land. “They sent me a fistful of resumes,” Norton said. “And here came Joe and Laura.”

It was a very quiet gift. The Nortons were a private couple. But they have been leaders in preservation, said Martin Hayden, Maine Farmland Trust’s director of development, furthering the trust’s work in Harpswell and throughout the state. “Some of us have a chance to leave the earth a better place than when we were born to it,” Hayden said. “Helen and Walter are two people who were given that opportunity and took advantage of it in a wonderful way.”

The couple had met in Harpswell when she was 19, he 24 and a local, his family having owned a farm there since 1740. Her family had bought an island off Basin Point and were summer residents. They became acquainted at dances at the Merriconeag Grange and went on to marry and have three daughters. After his early career in civil engineering led them briefly to Spain, they returned to his family’s land on Wilson Cove. Walter worked on the pipeline that connected the deep-water fueling depot at Mitchell Field in Harpswell to Brunswick Naval Air Station, then took over his brother’s insurance company.

And they carefully tried to intervene when landmarks they loved were in jeopardy.

They’d saved the Tarr-Eaton House, farther down Harpswell Neck, in 1983 and donated the house and two acres to the Harpswell Historical Society. The sale of that home and the two acres formed the foundation of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. Later, they gave the remaining 40 acres to the land trust. “That was my first farm,” Norton said. As a young woman, she’d ridden horses through those woods. “I didn’t want to lose that.”

She’d seen what had happened to farm country in her native Pennsylvania. “It was an example of how to rape the land,” she said. Recently, the Nortons made another gift of an easement on land they own on nearby Birch Island, now known as the Birch Island South Preserve and open to low-impact recreation for the public in perpetuity. A 43-acre parcel on the northwest side of the island has been named the Walter and Helen Norton Preserve in their honor.

They would have celebrated their 64th anniversary this month but Walter died in May at age 91. His widow is grieving. To cope with that loss, every morning she takes a 2.5-mile walk that ends at Mill Cove, on the working farm that they made possible. She gets eggs, admires the work the Gradys are doing and the beauty of the land. And finally, she now speaks of what the couple did together, because Walter is gone and she wants him to be remembered. “He was very proud of this.”