BRUNSWICK — Gary Brooks did not judge when Maina Handmaker first came to see him in 2009 and broached the subject of turning his family’s sagging old freight sheds into a permanent farmers market for downtown Brunswick.
As she herself puts it, she was a “totally naive, dreamy-eyed Bowdoin student,” a sophomore from Louisville, Ky., who had looked out the window of a nearby classroom and followed her architecture professor’s instruction to imagine those dilapidated, century-old barns, red on one side, beige on the other, teeming with farmers and their customers.
But Brooks listened to what the petite college kid with the big smile and the even bigger idea was proposing. He did not think she was crazy when she asked for a lease that would cover his taxes and not much else.
“I never thought that,” Brooks said. “Not yet anyway. Everything starts from a thought.”
But it’s a mental leap to make even now, five years later, with the project poised to move past the point of a feasibility study – the findings of which will be presented to the Brunswick Development Corp. on Feb. 19 – and into the actual planning stage.
On a tour on a recent, particularly dreary winter morning, the sheds are dark, cold and listing like exhausted runners coming off a marathon, but without the deliriously triumphant smiles.
It’s easy to see why Maine’s 33 remaining freight sheds were added to Maine Preservation’s Most Endangered list in 2012; these work horses, hearkening back to the era when nearly everything traveled by rail and needed to be stored next to the tracks, are not lofty, grand buildings.
Built with simple post-and-beam methods, they were moved regularly, depending on what Maine Central Railroad and other companies required. They barely get noticed by passers-by and even a fond owner like Brooks treats them like the utilitarian spaces they’ve always been. The smaller and sturdier of the two, where the first part of the project would be implemented, is piled to the rafters with straw for his Brooks’ Feed & Farm Supply store next door.
Despite their appearance, the freight sheds, or the land they are on, have been well coveted. Many, many buyers had approached Brooks over the years about the sheds, which sit on prime real estate right near the railroad tracks now used by the Downeaster. He’d rejected them all, and before that his father, Fred, had rebuffed his fair share as well.
The Brooks family had bought the sheds from N.T. Fox lumber company in the 1980s to protect their interests in the area. They weren’t about to sell to anyone. They didn’t want condos or office buildings in place of the freight sheds. “I’d just as soon Boston stayed in Boston,” Brooks said.
It’s true that it had occurred to him, several times over the years, that maybe it was time to tear the dilapidated sheds down. Shoring them up wasn’t cheap. But a home for farmers was the first idea he liked. “I like the nature of the business,” Brooks said. “Farms and farming.”
Winning over the farmers – the 15 members of the Brunswick Farmers Market Association – presented more of a challenge for Handmaker.
“There is always a little wariness in people’s heads when it is a college student’s project, right?” said Nate Drummond of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham and the current president of the association. “You think, this person is likely to be off living in San Francisco or New York by next year and what exactly is going to come of this?”
Moreover, on the face of things, Brunswick is not exactly impoverished in the farmers market department: It has three. On Tuesdays and Fridays in spring, summer and fall, those 15 vendors are down on the mall. On Saturday mornings in the same seasons, Crystal Springs Farm hosts a farmers market so scenic and appealing and rich in vendors (about 40) that Yankee Magazine voted it the best in Maine in 2013. In the winter, the same market moves into Fort Andross.
But there are problems with all three of those markets. The town green takes a beating from the vendors and their trucks, turning to slippery mud on a rainy day, and the size of the market – just 15 vendors – is very much limited by how it impacts the mall.
Crystal Springs is in danger of being smothered with love. Angela Twitchell, who manages that market for the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, says the parking lot often overflows, creating a safety issue for people parking on the shoulder of Pleasant Hill Road. Finally, being a once-a-week tenant at Fort Andross is tenuous; someone else could easily rent that space right out from under the winter farmers market.
The land trust has partnered with Handmaker in the planning stages as the project’s fiscal agent, Twitchell said, noting there is no competition between the markets. “A big part of our mission is supporting local agriculture and farmers,” she said. Nor does the land trust have plans to shut down Crystal Springs, but if a permanent home could be found for Brunswick’s other farmers markets, it would ease the pressure on the farm.
Drummond said the town of Brunswick never put pressure on the market association to relocate, but over time, the farmers started to open up to the idea, recognizing that a long-term solution was needed for their market, which is in its fourth decade of operation.
IT HELPS TO BE A FARMER
It helped that Maina (whose name is pronounced, appropriately enough, Maine-ah, despite that Kentucky upbringing) had not gone off to San Francisco or New York but in fact had become a farmer, joining the Six River staff part time as a college senior.
While her peers were interviewing with banks and corporations, the environmental studies and art major was riding her bike out to Bowdoinham to help Nate Drummond and his wife, Gabrielle, pick blueberries and such. “Everyone thought I was very confused or something,” Handmaker laughs.
For a year or so, she stopped pushing the freight shed plan. She was busy becoming a farmer herself, starting with selling vegetables on the green, then moving to Bowdoinham to farm full time. Eventually the farmers started asking what was going on with that permanent farmers market idea.
Being their colleague made a crucial difference; when Handmaker restarted the project she was a known and trusted entity. And since she had a little more “head space” than a farmer focused running his or her own farm, she was the logical person to spearhead the feasibility study.
“None of these projects get done just by farmers,” said Chas Gill, who owns Kennebec Flower Farm in Bowdoinham and was the only farmer to attend Handmaker’s very first organizing meeting. “As a general rule, we’re not good at organizing. Farmers are good at running their own businesses.”
People describe Handmaker as a study in the act of persuasion, that delicate dance of persistence, belief and personality. Twitchell of the land trust calls her “tenacious.” But as Gill puts it, she’s “not in your face.”
Ed Galvin, a former Maine Central Railroad worker and Brunswick resident who has been gathering historical information for the project, calls Handmaker “unusual” in her poise and delivers perhaps the ultimate compliment that she is “high energy but in a polite way.”
SISTER CITIES, SISTER PROJECTS
And in the meantime, her former architecture professor, architect Wiebke Theodore, the person who first planted that seed in Handmaker’s mind, was cooking up a twin project in Bath, in this case, a farmers market in another old freight shed that she could see from her studio window.
“It sounds like I am looking out the window all the time,” Theodore said with a laugh. “But we could just see that building deteriorating, and in some ways I wanted to test my theory on this.”
Bath’s Freight Shed Alliance has put about $200,000 into the building, Theodore said, and the farmers market is already up and running there. It’s probably four years from completion, but it’s well underway.
Summer fundraisers of full moon dinners cooked with local products raised just enough for a new wood floor, with a little left over for the monthly payment on the new roof. Again, a benevolent owner, Howie Kirkpatrick, who was willing to give the alliance a long-term lease, is making it possible.
Brunswick’s permanent farmers market would be a bigger project. The feasibility study puts a loose price tag at $1.7 million to structurally revamp the Brunswick freight sheds and create a canopied green space outside. Handmaker knows that is a big number, but she’s hopeful that Brunswick and its community will get behind it.
“There might be a little bit of sticker shock that comes with that, but the majority of that is site work,” she said. “I really feel like we can raise that fully from grants and grassroots and large private donations.”
Galvin, the former Maine Central Railway worker who knew those buildings so well when they were part of the railroad business, said he’s rooting for the project. “There’s no better way to preserve a building than to use it,” he said.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle but there is something about the whole effort – everybody would benefit,” he added. “My God, I can’t help think that she is going to do it somehow. It beggars belief really, in this hard world where everybody is watching every cent.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: