BROOKS, Maine — As his manufacturing facility continued to smolder Wednesday afternoon from a devastating fire that began the night before, Peter Baldwin said he wasn’t sure what the future will bring for the business he has run in a converted dairy barn on Hall Hill Road for 23 years.
The fire at Baldwin Apple Ladders consumed part of a year’s inventory of the wooden ladders, all his equipment and a year’s worth of rungs.
“A lot of things were irreplaceable,” Baldwin, 62, said. “I’m not sure how much of a commitment I want to re-up for. But I care about the ladders and want to see them continue.”
Because of the extent of the damage, Sgt. Ken Grimes of the state fire marshal’s office said that the cause will be officially listed as undetermined, although Baldwin reported to the investigators that he had been having some electrical problems before leaving earlier in the evening.
Investigators went to the scene Wednesday and checked out what was left of the 1½-story, 6,500-square-foot facility.
“It was completely destroyed by fire,” Grimes said. “It was a wood manufacturing location. There’d be a lot of wood, sawdust and ordinary combustible material. Any fire in the building would travel and develop quickly.”
Baldwin said one of his neighbors drove by about 11:30 p.m. and reported the fire to authorities. The Brooks Volunteer Fire Department was assisted by mutual aid from eight other communities as well as the Brooks Ambulance service. Crews from Belfast, Belmont, Waldo, Thorndike, Jackson, Monroe, West Frankfort and Morrill came to the scene, according to Brooks Fire Chief Jeffrey Archer.
“It was an intense heat. It was unbelievable,” he said. “We got right into defensive mode, trying to save a house less than 100 feet from it.”
Archer said that the fire was a loss to the community as well as to Baldwin.
“There’s nothing left,” he said of the contents of the converted barn.
Vernon LeCount of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said he had stopped by twice Wednesday to check on Baldwin, who is a longtime member and helped to start the iconic Common Ground Country Fair.
“When I was there this morning, there were still 4-foot flames in the middle of the building,” he said.
LeCount said he is coordinating a fundraising effort to help Baldwin rebuild his business.
“His ladders are known all over the country,” he said. “They’re high-quality apple tree ladders. People drooled over them. They’re beautifully built, with old machinery he’s adapted for this process. It’s a real tragedy.”
Baldwin said he produces between 1,000 and 1,200 ladders a year in the business, which is partially insured. The insurance, though, likely would not be enough to rebuild.
He sells the ladders, which are designed especially to be used in apple orchards, as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as North Carolina, according to his website.
Two other storage buildings and a sawmill on his property were not damaged, and no firefighters were injured during attempts to extinguish the blaze, Baldwin said.
LeCount said he hopes many of MOFGA’s 6,000 members might consider sending checks to help Baldwin get the business going again.
“Someone doing manufacturing in Maine — it’s a dying breed. I hope he can rebuild,” LeCount said.
Baldwin said he appreciates the help.
“I’m really grateful,” he said. “I feel humbled.”
Donations can be made out to Baldwin Apple Ladder, Camden National Bank, 156 Main St., Belfast 04915.