COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — It’s just not summer Down East until they fire up the bakery ovens at Wild Blueberry Land.
That happened this week, marking the 10th year for this landmark Washington County source for all things blueberry: pies, scones, muffins, cookies, bread, Danish, coffeecakes, jams, jellies and more.
Dominating the corner of Routes 1 and 187 in Columbia Falls, the geodesic dome building was designed and built to resemble a giant wild blueberry. For a decade now, Wild Blueberry Land’s bakery and gift shop has been a seasonal, tourist-trail destination and labor of love for Addison blueberry farmer Dell Emerson and his wife, Marie, a chef who taught for 30 years in the culinary arts program at Washington County Community College in Calais.
“People think this is a tourist trap, but it’s not,” Marie said. “Not when you look at our prices.”
Most of the wild blueberries Marie works into her own recipes come from the Emersons’ family farm, just up the road in Addison. The couple has dubbed the 220-acre expanse of barrens “Wescogus,” which in the Passamaquoddy language translates to “above the water.” Though always farming, Dell retired five years ago after working for 53 years at the University of Maine’s experimental blueberry farm in Jonesboro, where he rose through the ranks to farm manager.
“For many years, we sold blueberries at [our] farm, and people would come each year to buy berries, either fresh or big boxes of washed and frozen berries,” Marie said Wednesday. “It was almost like a pilgrimage for them. Then someone had the idea to buy our berries, repackage them and resell them at a fruit stand they put up at the corner where we are now. So, we bought the corner. Dell wanted to put up a fruit stand there. Being a kid at heart, I said, ‘No. I want to build Wild Blueberry Land.’”
That they did, handcrafting the massive, blueberry-colored structure and decorating the seven acres that surround it with giant round marine buoys painted, of course, to resemble wild blueberries.
“People are fascinated by the building, and it’s become something of a landmark,” Marie said. “We drive by in the winter, and there are people on their stomachs in the snow, shooting photos of it. If I had a nickel for every photo that’s been taken by people from all over the world, I’d be rich. From the thousands of pictures you can find on the Internet, it’s like it has its own cult following.”
Wild Blueberry Land once was featured in artist Bill Griffith’s nationally syndicated cartoon strip “Zippy.” In a strip that ran in October 2003 under the heading “Fruit That Looms,” the strip’s main character, Zippy the Pinhead, finds himself wandering the complex “singin’ th’ blues” in what he terms “a land that strawberries forgot.”
The Emersons’ latest undertaking is construction of a whimsical miniature golf course that blends Marie’s imagination with Dell’s handyman skills. The course features decor and hazard motifs ranging from a shipwreck and a covered bridge to a lighthouse and a grandfather clock. Soon to be towering over the whole affair will be a giant blueberry pie, which is being fabricated from a long-abandoned TV satellite dish.
The nine-hole layout has been landscaped to take advantage of Marie’s total immersion in organic gardening. Players who shoot par or better on this course don’t get a Tootsie Pop as a reward. They instead get the privilege of picking — and eating — a cherry tomato, a radish, a floret of broccoli or any other vegetable growing between the circuitous walkways that decorate the course.
Marie said Wild Blueberry Land this week began hosting small groups of elementary school students for field trips that will teach the youths about gardening, farming and the origins of food. Half the students will play a round of minigolf, while their counterparts go inside to bake blueberry pies.
“The core mission is to sell the blueberries we grow and to help small farms add value to their crop,” Marie said. “But my long-term goal is a blueberry museum.”
Having written her master’s thesis at the University of Southern Maine on the history of wild blueberries, chances are the Emersons won’t have to look too far to find a curator.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Wild Blueberry Land is at the corner of Routes 1 and 178. It is located at the corner of Routes 1 and 187.