Viewpoint: Legacy of the Farm House

By Ward Miller

The Town Of Bar Harbor should make it a priority to protect the Farm House (also known as Mizzentop Gardens, from the commercial encroachment of hotels and other businesses into the surrounding neighborhood.

While the owners of the Farm House property and the neighbors are very thankful for the many distinguished businesses that have contributed greatly to the local economy, the planned seasonal employee housing objectives being presented to the planning board will do much to alter this historic property and the surrounding community which is primarily residential.

The owners of the Farm House are very sensitive to the importance of local affordable housing and local jobs, and therefore feel this development is not sustainable for Bar Harbor in the long-term. The planning board should consider a more appropriate place for seasonal employee housing needs, such as one of the many large and vacant lots along Cottage Street.

Locating the housing needs on Cottage might do much to generate a stronger sense of community in that part of town.

The town should be protective of the Farm House for many reasons. It is one of the most historic and iconic properties on the island. It was constructed around 1810 for the Richardson family, one of the first families to settle on the island. At that time, according to a map in the Town Managers office, the lands extended from the waters edge down Harbor Lane all the way up to the base of Cadillac Mountain and Great Hill.

It is significant for other reasons, too — it has renowned colonial style gardens originally designed by Beatrix Farrand and it barely survived the Fire of 1947 thanks to Mildred McCormick’s loyal gardeners, Mr. Riddell and Mr. Daigle.

There is evidence that the property might have also been used as a lodging house for the rusticators: intellectuals, writers, and painters, people like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. Through their art, the beauties of the island were revealed to the world. Most importantly, the Farm House is a testament to the local families who built Bar Harbor, names like Richardson, Rodick, Higgins, Hamor, Hodgkins, and many others. The descendants of the Bar Harbor families should see the Farm House as their own and be protective of the old place.

In addition, the Farm House is the remaining McCormick property in a neighborhood that once had five others. Thus, it is one of the last links to the great American legacy of the McCormick Reaper, the machine that revolutionized farming and played a central role in making Chicago the center of the world’s commodities trade.

These roots run to the 1830s, when Cyrus Hall McCormick, an inventor from Virginia, finalized his version of a horse-drawn reaper and moved to Chicago in 1847 with his brothers. Together they built what became the International Harvester Company, one of the 20th century’s great enterprises.

Their invention, the first practical mechanical reaper brought an end to centuries of harvesting grains by hand with sickle, scythe, and cradle. The McCormick Reaper was a revolutionary contraption when 90 percent of the world’s population farmed. The machine performed the work of five men and thus helped free up hands to labor in the burgeoning cities and, simultaneously, brought down the price of grain and helped establish the Chicago Board of Trade. In doing so, the brothers became the acknowledged giants of the new farm machinery business, and a household name around the world. As the largest employers in Chicago, they had a major hand in directing the growth of that city into the center of the world’s agricultural industry. This is referenced in the book “City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago & the Making of America,” by Donald L. Miller.

The issue facing the Farm House and the surrounding neighborhood is also about the proper ways to build local infrastructure — which is first and foremost about people because it is people who make communities lively and successful.

The road to building thriving towns and cities must go through engaging citizens and how to make their voices part of the community’s’ future. Over the last few years, we have seen a surge in new approaches to citizen engagement in towns and cities around the world, trying to listen to and map citizens’ needs. Overall, this crucial process is still a long way from getting useful data, on a wide inclusive scale.

Bringing everyone on board is, not only at the core of our democratic values, but at the very root of economic growth and environmental stewardship for all towns and cities.

Ward Miller is the Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit that works to protect and revitalize Chicago’s architecture, neighborhoods and urban spaces. On occasion, Preservation Chicago advocates for causes outside of Chicago that are important to the cultural legacy of the city.

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