Robert McIntyre kneels next to a sapling. The economist’s fascination with an old apple tree at the Harpswell Neck firehouse led to the founding of Harpswell Heritage Apples.

Come spring, Harpswell’s air is sweet with the scent of apple blossoms. Wander the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust trails at Houghton Graves Park or Curtis Farm Preserve and you’ll see an array of young apple trees in bloom.

The orchards are there because Robert McIntyre dreamed them.

Harpswell lost McIntyre in January, but his fascination with apples abides in the many trees he restored or planted.

McIntyre was neither a botanist nor a geneticist. He was an academic, specializing in labor economics. But he had a fascination with apples. He once told Abbie Verier, of Maine Heritage Orchard, that the seeds of interest were planted when he was a little boy and his father cut down a healthy apple tree.

“It didn’t have apples that I was interested in, but it sort of made a mark in my mind,” he said.

Those seeds sprouted in 2006 when, on a run along Route 123, McIntyre noticed a beat-up old tree near the Harpswell Neck firehouse. He described it to Mary Pols, of the Portland Press Herald, in a 2015 interview: “There is almost no trunk to it left. It is a miraculous survival.”

Others had long been under the tree’s spell, enchanted by its apples. Sharon Whitney, McIntyre’s close friend and collaborator, said, “Many folks planned to pick its apples every year and cook with them.”

What came to be known as the Firehouse Tree exerted a spell over the economist. He told Pols that some of the apples “were very beautiful, with very little in the way of insect damage.” More importantly, their flavor was extraordinary. McIntyre learned that they stayed on the tree much later than most apples, ripening only around November. “They are like immortal apples,” he said.

He recruited his wife, Dorothy Rosenberg, and Whitney, a master gardener, for a quest to learn more about the miraculous apples. They consulted with Maine apple expert John Bunker, who thought it was a Baldwin. Bunker’s wife disagreed, and in the end, the Firehouse Tree joined the Maine Heritage Orchard as a “Baldwin type” apple recognized as having unique characteristics.

The Firehouse Tree did more than pique McIntyre’s interest. It was the catalyst that led McIntyre, Whitney and Rosenberg to create Harpswell Heritage Apples, intended to identify and propagate the town’s heritage apples.

Whitney said that McIntyre learned all he could and “over the years, he shared his enthusiasm for old apple varieties and built his apple skill set for their identification, care and propagation.”

“Robert led local apple tasting sessions, first in homes and later at Harpswell Heritage Land Trust,” Whitney recalled. “As you work with apples and apple fans, you discover that many people have a favorite apple tree and often a good story to go along with it.”

When the Harpswell Community Garden was being planned for Mitchell Field, McIntyre and Rosenberg joined in. McIntyre learned of HHLT’s School and Community Garden Fund, established in 2005 by an anonymous donor.

The fund supported the planting of an orchard at the garden. As Rosenberg puts it, “The trust found the money, and Robert found the trees.” This is believed to have been the first community orchard in Maine.

Following the success of the Mitchell Field orchard, McIntyre looked for more orchard opportunities. When HHLT acquired Curtis Farm Preserve, then-Executive Director Reed Coles was thinking about how to support wildlife habitat there.

McIntyre stopped in one day to chat about apples, Coles said, and the idea was born of planting an orchard to attract wildlife. McIntyre made a proposal, and in 2016, an 11-tree orchard was planted in a field at Curtis Farm Preserve, later followed by two more trees.

The Curtis Farm orchard led to another, smaller planting at Houghton Graves Park on Orr’s Island in 2017.

Harpswell Heritage Apples continues to offer help in the care of apple trees, as well as their identification and propagation. Today, there’s an appreciation for Harpswell’s apple trees that stems, in large part, from McIntyre’s efforts.

In a brochure, he wrote that because each of the organization’s saplings was grafted from a Harpswell apple tree between 100 and 200 years old, “they are completely adapted to local climate conditions and diseases.”

“This is a way of keeping the apples that were popular in Harpswell from 100 to 200 years ago alive in Harpswell for future generations,” he wrote. “These apples are not just ‘as good as’ the modern apples bred for the mass market — we find them to be clearly superior.”

Working with the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, McIntyre and his team had by then identified and could offer 14 varieties of Harpswell heritage saplings, with other varieties located but not yet identified.

Harpswell Heritage Apples will continue Robert’s work to revitalize and propagate Harpswell’s apple trees.

“In honor of Robert, we will be hosting an apple tasting session next fall,” Whitney said. “We are open to new apple detectives. We all miss Robert, and we know he’s watching from an apple tree, ready to guide us if needed.” Folks who want to join in can contact her at or 207-841-8265.

In May and June, Harpswell’s apple trees will be alight with delicate pink-and-white blossoms. Their branches will be busy with nectar-seeking bees and bird flutter. As you enjoy the HHLT-supported orchards, take a moment to remember Robert McIntyre with gratitude. His fascination with an old apple tree and subsequent passion for salvaging these miraculous plants will benefit generations to come.

As to the Firehouse Tree itself, it somehow continues to survive and produce fruit. But should its sap finally cease to run, Whitney said, “it has been grafted, and grown on young root stock, so some of the same people who once picked its fruit at the firehouse now grow it at home.” As the Firehouse Tree fed the forebears of these folks, it will feed their descendants in the future.

This article was written as part of a series for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s 40th anniversary in 2023. For more information, go to