February 25, 2020
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From commune home to family-run bakery, this Montville barn has stories to tell

MONTVILLE, Maine — At the top of a windswept hill in Montville there’s a wooden barn with a view of the rolling, russet-colored landscape that stretches for miles.

Inside the barn, shelves of houseplants soak up the slanted afternoon sunlight, and the air is thick with the yeasty smell of baking bread. It’s warm, homey and a few generations removed from the days when the barn housed animals instead of people. In just the last 40 years, the barn has witnessed a lot of Waldo County life. It’s been home to the Whitten Hill hippie commune, a cooperative preschool and — most recently — a family-run bakery.

“It has such a good feeling. It really does,” Cindy Schofield, co-owner of Back 40 Bakehouse, said this week of the barn that now is home to both her family and her business.

Her husband, Ray Schofield, busy shaping loaves in the newly-constructed bakery at the back of the structure, said he has enjoyed hearing tales of the barn’s commune days from the former commune dwellers.

“A lot of the people still live close by,” he said. “They threw a party and told us all the stories that can’t be in print.”

Back to the land

But a lot of those stories can be, according to Lisa Newcomb, one of the original members of the commune that settled into the barn on Whitten Hill. She said that the group originally began as a housing cooperative in Brookline, Massachusetts.

“We were a great group of people and got along great,” she said. “Conversations at the dinner table turned to going back to the land. We were looking at western Massachusetts, where land was really expensive, and somebody said to check out midcoast Maine, where land was cheap.”

They did, and they found the 100-plus acre parcel on Whitten Hill, just off Halldale Road in Montville. It was in their price range — $200 per acre, and although the 19th century farmhouse had burned down long before, the barn was rustic and still intact. A previous owner had started to renovate it into a hunting camp and had gotten as far as installing banks of windows, building a “humongous” fireplace and constructing a massive hot tub out of bricks and cement, even though the barn lacked hot running water.

The 14 or so friends from Boston moved to Maine in 1976, and they had big plans for the land. They were going to use the barn as a central building and then build smaller, individual dwellings on the land around it. They were going to become organic farmers and dive right into full-on communal living by sharing their money and even a car.

“It was really different on paper,” Newcomb said with a smile. “Everybody was young and optimistic and excited about it.”

They weren’t the only young idealists around, either. When Newcomb first moved to Montville, she remembers feeling confused by the many locals who asked her if she was living at Twitchell Hill, where another commune recently had been established by back-to-the-landers. It was located less than a mile away from Whitten Hill as the crow flies, but Newcomb and her friends had never heard of it.

“For the first month I was just more and more confused,” she said. “I remember thinking maybe we’ve called this the wrong hill.”

They figured out where they were, eventually, but creating the commune of their dreams was taking a lot of work. Instead of individual houses, they ended up with tent platforms and tents. When it got cold, the commune members who were left in Maine moved into the barn, which was unfinished and freezing cold.

The giant fireplace “threw absolutely no heat,” Newcomb said, and the group went through a lot of wood, burning up more than a dozen cords in the first winter.

“By the time we started moving into the barn, we started losing people,” she said. “And we jumped right into organic farming, even though we didn’t know anything about farming. We joined [the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association], and we had apprentices. But we didn’t know what to tell them.”

One of those apprentices was a young woman who had some experience working on farms, Newcomb recalled, and kindly taught her new employers how to garden.

Other things got better, too. A local artist and metalworker built them an efficient stove, and rigged up a system to heat hot water, though it was too late to fill the hot tub that they had already dismantled. Still, the other commune members moved on by 1980, leaving Newcomb and her young son there alone.

“We were the last survivors,” she said.

Forest Friends and beyond

After the others left, it was quieter in the barn, but not for long. A group of area parents had started a cooperative preschool and asked Newcomb if she would like to be the teacher. She asked them where it would be located and learned the parents didn’t know yet.

“I thought, this was my opportunity,” she said.

She offered up the barn, where she and her son would continue to live. The parents were enthusiastic, and the Forest Friends moved in by the early 1980s. The play-based preschool was a hit, serving both back-to-the-land children and Mainers whose families had lived there for generations. In a cozy studio on the ground floor, she led the children in dance and yoga moves.

“Forest Friends just took off,” Newcomb said. “It was fabulous. There was a really incredible group of parents, and we expanded the hours and then expanded the days. We expanded into a legitimate kindergarten. It was definitely an institution.”

By 1988, the teacher decided to move out of the barn, although the school continued on there for five or six more years. After the preschool closed, the building mostly was used as rental housing, but in 2013, it was listed for sale.

Enter Ray and Cindy Schofield.

Ray Schofield had retired from a publishing career in Rhode Island, and Cindy Schofield, a bookkeeper by trade, was more than ready for a rural life.

“We’ve been trying to get to this area of Maine for 30 years,” Ray Schofield said, adding that the time was finally right.

But they were having trouble finding the perfect home, until one day when their real estate agent somewhat reluctantly told them about another option, one the real estate agent was almost positive they wouldn’t like:

“That hippie place over on Halldale Road.”

It was love at first sight for Ray and Cindy Schofield.

“We jumped,” Ray Schofield said. “Within two months, we were up here.”

They arrived in November, and the first thing they did was to start restoring the property to its back-to-the-land roots. They dug the garden and built raised beds for it.

“We’ve always grown our own food,” Cindy Schofield said. “My parents raised most of their food. We still do that. We even grew corn on the balcony of an apartment we lived in for a while in Los Angeles.”

After the gardens, the next step was to construct the bakery. Finished, the space gleams with stainless steel and whirs with the quiet hum of machinery. It is a lot more modern than the rest of the barn, which is by preference and also because after the Back 40 Bakehouse business started to take off, they have had little time to make changes to the rest of the barn. They have filled the downstairs apartment with plants and examples of the crafts she practices, such as upholstery, rug braiding and embroidery. Inside their unheated bedroom — which used to be Newcomb’s dance studio — they also store racks of winter squash and other food that they will eat through the winter.

“We’re country people,” Ray Schofield said. “We like gardens. We like quiet. This just fits the bill, here in Montville.”

From the Belfast Baguette to the Searsmont Sourdough

Ray and Cindy Schofield wanted to run their own business and knew they worked well together and that they made great bread. Maine, and Waldo County with its focus on farms and local food, is a good fit for the type of bakery they have created, they said.

“This area of Maine is probably the premier area of the country for local food systems,” Ray Schofield said.

The couple started small, bringing bread samples to the Ivan O. Davis Library in Liberty for people to try. The original business plan for the Back 40 Bakehouse was to add bread options to already established community-supported agriculture shares. But when Ray and Cindy Schofield started getting phone calls from different stores and co-ops that wanted to carry their bread, they knew they were on to something.

The breads are made using stone-ground flour, slow fermentation and gentle handling of the dough, and they are named after different Maine communities and areas. They include Liberty Levain, Scarborough Sesame, Rockport Rye, China Ciabatta, Frye Mountain Focaccia, Belfast Baguette and Otter Creek Olive, but the perennial best seller is the Searsmont Sourdough.

Ray Schofield works the night shift, starting around midnight on baking days.

“This is relaxing. The dough never talks back to me,” he said. “It’s peaceful. I can go outside and look at the stars.”

After the baking is done, they deliver the hot, fresh loaves to various area stores including Eat More Cheese in Belfast, the Belfast Co-op, the Bahner Farm Farmstand in Belmont, Uncle Dean’s Good Groceries in Waterville, Fresh off the Farm in Rockport and the Marsh River Co-op in Brooks. The couple is baking more than 500 loaves per week.

Even though the couple has only lived in Maine for three years, they feel as though they’ve set down good roots already, here in the old barn that has seen so much.

“It was a long time coming,” Cindy Schofield said. “When I crossed the bridge into Maine, it always felt like home. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”

Her husband agreed.

“The world is a great place, here in Montville, Maine, the way life should be,” he said.

“The way life is,” she corrected.

 


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