Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Bob Crowley, well known from the “Survivor” TV show, and his wife, Peggy, are the proprietors of Maine Forest Yurts in Durham, where customers camp glamorously in updated versions of traditional nomadic homes.
Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Decorated with items from the woods, this yurt built by Bob Crowley and family is nestled in a part of their property.
The collapsible structures originated in present-day Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia as far back as the eighth century B.C., although no one knows for sure. The first written account of a yurt appeared in a Chinese poem written between 829 and 846 A.D., by Po Chu-I.
“The fine fleece from a thousand sheep is brought together;/Hundreds of arcs are fitted together;/The round skeleton and the willow staves of the sides are strong,” the poet wrote.
The yurts of today are still made by hand, but sheep’s fleece is replaced by heavy-duty vinyl, and finely hewn wood lattices take the place of willow staves. The design, however, remains essentially unchanged. The walls are 7 feet high and a plastic dome covers the central oculus, letting in natural light about 15 feet above.
The homes are built atop planked decks of hardwood. A chemical toilet and a gravity-fed shower stand nearby. Inside, the yurts are clean and bright, warmed by a wood stove, lighted largely by the sun. Two sets of handmade bunk beds line one side of the room. On the other stand a gas stove, sink, countertop and futon. There is no electricity.
Two chairs that rest around a central table exemplify how Crowley lives. One day at a power company yard where he was looking for discarded telephone poles, Crowley noticed the yellow cloth-covered seats, made by Knoll, a famed German manufacturer with roots that date to the German Bauhaus and the emergence of modernist design.
“A woman came in, looked at the chairs, flipped one over (to look at the label) and said, ‘These are $250 chairs, where did you get these?’ ” Crowley recalled. “I said, ‘In a dumpster.’ ”
Few things are wasted on the property. A wood cabin that serves as the business’ front office was cut apart into pieces small enough for two people to carry, towed in on a trailer, and reassembled.
Everything except the yurt is built by Crowley and his son John, 31, who lives on the farm with them.
Together with his two other children, David and Page, who live in California and Georgia, the family divides the work of expanding the business. David, who has a business degree, helps plan future growth. Page, their 26-year-old daughter, handles marketing and social media. John and Bob do the heaviest labor on the property, and Peggy, Bob’s wife, helps with planning and reservations.
With two degrees in forestry from the University of Maine, Crowley said he is eager to put his knowledge back to good use. He hasn’t worked in the woods since he stopped managing a 3,000-acre estate in Cape Elizabeth in the early 1980s, the last in a series of adventurous jobs he held after college.
“I ran out of trees,” he said.
Other career detours after college included the stint hunting for Eskimo graves in Labrador aboard a Smithsonian-backed research vessel, and the federally funded hike from Old Orchard Beach to Bath, looking for a harmful species of moth. He has and continues to maintain a commercial lobstering license.
One time, after a major winter storm, Crowley was with a friend marveling at the debris from homes that was floating in the ocean.
“I said, if you pick this stuff up you could build a house,” Crowley said. His friend bet him that he couldn’t.
Crowley won, and the structure still stands as Crowley’s camp on an island in Casco Bay, he said.
His outlook and work ethic have carried him a long way, Crowley said, and will likely carry him even farther.
While his horse farm is currently horseless, Crowley has big agricultural plans for the property.
In the spring, the family will plant hops, an easy-to-grow plant in high demand by local beer brewers. With a massive arena, barn and fields, the Crowleys are working to turn their homestead into a wedding and event venue, offering accommodations by yurt. In a nearby two-mile-long pond, the family is exploring raising tilapia, a type of fish.
So what would he be doing if he had never won “Survivor”?
“I’d probably be doing the yurt project. I’d still be lobstering in the summertime. I’d still be doing tree work. I’d be doing probably the same thing I’m doing right now,” he said. “The only thing I wouldn’t have is this farm.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:
click image to enlarge
Yurts have an unusual wall and roofing system and a dome that lets in light. The yurt is built on decks of hardwood.