Freedom, Liberty in an apple orchard

As we celebrate the birthdays of our two greatest presidents, it might be a good time to reflect upon the two words most closely associated with these two men: freedom and liberty.

We proclaim our freedom and liberty in song, speech and prayer. We cherish both. We even go to war to defend them and to bring them to others in distant lands.

But do we know what these two words mean? My 1969 “American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language” tells me that freedom is liberty and that liberty is freedom. That’s not much help. After giving up on Webster, I thought it might be useful to check in with our ancestors of 200 years ago. After all, they were here when the American notion of freedom and liberty was brand new.

I’ve been living in Palermo for the past 36 years. No one knows for sure how the town got its name. In earlier times, it was called Sheepscot Great Pond settlement. When the town was incorporated in 1804, a less cumbersome name was sought. The Sicilian name Palermo was the choice.

Palermo, however, does hold the distinction of being flanked by two towns with names of clear origin. To our north we have Freedom and to our east, Liberty.

We’ve all heard the chuckles about Maine town names: Moscow, China, Sweden, Paris and all the rest.

But Freedom and Liberty are different. Something about their story might help us to understand what these two powerful words meant to our forefathers.

After the revolution, thousands of folks came north to central Maine. They did so because decent land was unaffordable in southern New England.

Unlike those who sneak across the Mexican border today, and unlike thousands or millions of Americans who routinely move from town to town and state to state seeking work, these folks did not come to Maine looking for a job.

They wanted no money. They wanted no employment. They didn’t much care for towns or stores or roads or entertainment.

They wanted freedom and liberty.

To these early central Mainers, freedom and liberty meant taking full and complete responsibility for their own survival. They wanted to own a small piece of land upon which they could grow all their food, raise their stock, cut their wood and plant their apple orchards.

The land was rough and the first years in what would later become Palermo and Freedom and Liberty and dozens of other small inland towns was difficult. As they struggled to create their own livelihood from the land and as they struggled to establish ownership of their own property, they called themselves what else? Liberty men.

For the next 100 years, nearly everyone in these towns lived on farms. These were not like the farms of today. They were small, diversified and largely self-sufficient. For generations, everyone took care of themselves and their neighbors.

Cupboards and cellars were full of food they produced themselves. They traveled in vehicles they built, powered by horses and oxen they raised.

They did not have to go long distances to find work. They had no employers. They worked at home. They created their own entertainment. They lived with an independence few of us will ever experience.

This was true homeland security. This was their freedom and liberty.

These early Mainers did not eat chips and soda or even bananas and oranges. They ate apples and drank cider.

Every household had a small orchard providing fruit from July until June. Hundreds of varieties were grown.

Each town had its favorites. Some came on early like Red Astrichan or Yellow Transparent. These summer apples were set right outside the kitchen so you could keep an eye on them and grab them before they went by.

Some, such as Duchess and Baldwin, were all-purpose.

Others were especially coveted for a single use. Gravenstein and Wealthy were the best for pies. Snow and King were eaten out-of-hand. Tolman Sweet and Pound Sweet were used to make molasses back when sugar was too expensive or not available at all. These apples were first pressed to cider and then the cider was boiled down to molasses.

Northern Spys and Black Oxfords and Golden Russets were kept in the basement and eaten all winter.

Apples were fed to the cattle, the sheep, the hogs and the horses. They were pressed into cider and several cider barrels were stored in the basement of every home.

Apples were fried, baked, boiled, steamed and dried. Cider was turned into vinegar. Apple pies, apple honey, apple custard, apple snow, apple fritters, apple floats, puddings, dowdys, cakes, pickles, sauce and on and on and on.

We hear the politicians regularly jabber about freedom and liberty. Most of us, however, are utterly dependent on Hannafords or Shaws for our food. We depend on Chevy and Toyota for our transportation and the Middle East for the fuel that takes us everywhere we go. We depend on Netflix and ESPN for our entertainment. We depend on the Chinese for practically everything else.

The town of Freedom was incorporated in 1813; Liberty, in 1827. Both were named for the words their citizens revered. The shingled barns and the horses and ox carts and gardens are mostly gone now.

But the ancient apple trees that still dot the snowy central Maine landscape this Presidents Day remind us of what freedom and liberty might really mean.

John P. Bunker Jr. of Palermo is the author and illustrator of “Not Far from the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and the Orchards of Palermo, Maine 1804-2004.”

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