BROOKS, Maine — The floor of Peter Baldwin’s old chicken barn was covered in golden curls of wood shavings Sunday afternoon, with the bright smell of fresh sawdust rising in the air.
It was a cheerful contrast to the scene at the same property just over a month ago, when his 23-year-old Baldwin Apple Ladders manufacturing business burned to the ground in a devastating fire that left him reeling and uncertain how to rebuild.
In large part because of the support of the community, the 62-year-old Baldwin said he is going to continue making the handcrafted wooden ladders he sells to apple orchards as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as North Carolina.
“The response has been overwhelming and heartwarming. It’s unbelievable,” he said from the repurposed chicken barn which will be his temporary workshop. “The cards and notes have come in from people I don’t even know. And people stop me in the general store and say, ‘We’re rooting for you.’”
Altogether, people from near and far donated about $13,000 so far to help Baldwin rebuild his business. He also received a total of $35,000 from his insurance company after the May 8 fire, which consumed the 6,500-square-foot converted dairy barn and everything inside it.
Fire investigators said in May that because of the extent of the damage, the cause will be officially listed as undetermined, although Baldwin reported to them that he had been having some electrical problems before the fire began.
In addition to a year’s worth of rungs and most of his inventory of apple ladders, the fire consumed all of his tools.
“The donations that have come in, it’s just very moving,” he said. “The help means that I can buy tools and not have to worry about it.”
A couple of his new purchases already have been put to good use. Because apple ladders are built to be wider at the bottom for stability and taper at the top so they’re easier to place in trees, they need some customized machinery. Baldwin can use his newly bought skill saw to straighten the rails, which he makes from bigtooth aspen harvested in Maine. Then, he will use a power planer to bevel the edges, and a foot-operated press to drill holes for the rungs.
Once the rungs from Peavey Manufacturing in Eddington arrive, which he expects will happen this week, he can again start making ladders. Peavey had been making the rungs for Baldwin before the fire.
“I started out with a skill saw and a planer back in ’84,” Baldwin said. “It’s nowhere near the sophistication of the custom machinery that I built. It’s a step up from where I first started, but not too far. But it’s doable. For a temporary operation, it’s going to enable me to stay in business this year.”
Usually, Baldwin makes between 1,000 and 1,200 ladders a year. That’s a number that likely will drop by half after the fire. But, he said, the apple crop nationally suffered a lot of damage from early warmth, and it’s likely that demand would have been smaller anyway.
As for next year, Baldwin isn’t sure. He would like the chicken barn, which he had previously been using as general storage, to just be a temporary manufacturing locale.
“Ideally, I’d like to rebuild on the site and have a nice work facility,” he said.
People are continuing to root for him. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association organized a fundraiser for Baldwin, who is a longtime member, and set up a donation process for him through a local bank.
Baldwin is grateful for the ongoing support, and the small flashes of luck that shined through the dark days after the fire.
Just one sample of each of the three types of ladders he makes were being kept outside the shop and so survived the fire, Baldwin said. He’s now using them for patterns.
And of course he is grateful that nobody was hurt in the blaze.
“Some things can be replaced. Some things can’t. Life’s about moving on,” he said. “There’s no point in crying over spilled milk. You work with what you’ve got. You’ve got to accept it, and move on.”
Donations can be made out to Baldwin Apple Ladder, Camden National Bank, 156 Main St., Belfast 04915.