By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
It must be humbling to be the last person making something that people want and need. Peter Baldwin, owner of Baldwin Apple Ladders, has been making wooden orchard ladders since 1984, and he might be the last of his kind.
“There’s no one else making wooden [orchard] ladders that I know of in the country,” said Baldwin, “so we have a good continuing demand for them.”
A Web search seems to indicate he’s correct. Thirty years ago, there were many more, but with fewer farms, more farms using smaller trees, and the popularity of aluminum ladders, wooden orchard ladders aren’t as in demand.
“A small business like mine can be more flexible and settle into this niche,” he said. “It works out pretty well.”
Baldwin frequently hears complaints that dented or damaged aluminum ladders aren’t easily repairable. He says that wood is more resilient, not as cold on a frosty morning, and not as slippery. He’s also heard of cases of pickers getting electrocuted when their aluminum ladders contact power lines.
“They call them lightning rods,” he said.
And wooden ladders are far more environmentally friendly. “It’s a very energy-intensive process to mine and produce the aluminum,” Baldwin said. “Wood is renewable.”
Baldwin came to Maine from Hudson Valley, New York in 1971 at age 21. He was quite familiar with apple orchards, but didn’t plan to make ladders.
“In 1984, I made a few and sold them,” he recalled. “The next year I made a few more, and it just sort of grew naturally over the years.”
Word spread throughout New England and beyond. Today, he supplies ladders to apple, pear, and cherry orchards as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as North Carolina. For apples alone, Maine does about 750,000 bushels per year on average; New England does about 6 million. But Michigan does 25 million and New York 30 million. That represents a huge need for ladders.
In the early days, Baldwin used spruce wood for his ladders. But one day, a local farmer brought him some big-toothed aspen and asked for a ladder. Like many people, Baldwin believed aspen was a junk wood, so he asked the man if he was sure he wanted an aspen-wood ladder.
“He said, ‘Well, Father had one; we’ve used it for years,’” Baldwin recalled. “This gentleman was in his 60s already, so that meant it had been around a while.”
Baldwin heard another tale of a wagon made of oak and aspen abandoned in a field. Years later, when the oak had rotted, the aspen was fine. Soon, Baldwin converted to using big-toothed aspen for his ladders, milling it on site and dipping it in a preservative for extra protection. He’s also used it for rafters, joists, flooring, window trim, and stair treads. He likes it enough to buy about 50,000 board feet of big-toothed aspen logs every year.
“It’s a lovely wood, really, to work with,” he said, noting that Maine has plenty of it. “The aspen is definitely an underutilized species.”
In May 2012, disaster struck. A friend banging on the door awakened Baldwin with bad news: his shop was on fire. Aside from his supply of lumber, which was stacked outside, and a few ladders, he lost nearly everything.
“We lost a lot of inventory, a lot of special custom machinery that we built over the years, tools, and things that I’d accumulated over a lifetime,” he said.
Despite considering retirement at 62, he rebuilt his shop in an old chicken barn and custom-built many new machines. He received about $13,000 in donations thanks to a collection set up at Camden National Bank, popularized by a Bangor Daily News story and efforts by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
“People were very generous, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I got,” Baldwin said.
Peavey Manufacturing in Eddington worked quickly to get Baldwin a supply of his rungs, and he was able to set up some jigs and get some production moving last year. Over the winter, he upgraded his system to enable him to run at nearly pre-fire production levels.
Baldwin isn’t sure about the future of his company. His children aren’t likely to take over the business, and he knows he can’t do it forever. There’s an art and a science to his craftsmanship, and he’d be open to teaching someone who might be interested in purchasing the business and continuing to produce what may well be the last of its kind in the U.S.
“I’m proud of the product, and it’s a service business,” he said. “I feel some responsibility to keep doing it as long as I can comfortably do it.”