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1970 – 2020: 50 Years of Cates Family Farm!

The farmhouse, high tunnel, and annual flower beds from the lakeside, summer 2019.

The big, three-story house at Cates Family Farm was completed in 1809. Its many staircases and doors tell of a time when farm families were huge — when the easiest way for a farmer to get cheap labor was to make it themselves. Ownership of the farmhouse and its surrounding lands has changed hands a few times. Built originally by a retired sea captain, the farm passed into the hands of the Cates family in the early 1900s. Benjamin Harold Cates, Sr. and his wife, Annabel Ingraham Cates had a growing family (they eventually ended up with a dozen children!) and were running out of space. The purchase of a big, rambling farmhouse, surrounded by a few dozen acres of pasture and forest, which was conveniently within walking distance of the village schoolhouse where Annabel taught, the local dairy and local general store that Harold operated, and the Quaker Meetinghouse the Cateses regularly attended, was the perfect solution For a growing family.

A view of the Cates Family Farm outbuildings to the west of the fields.

Annabel and Harold had six sons and six daughters, but of them, perhaps a third were interested in farming. Of that third, some had moved far enough away (including son Paul, who had hightailed it off to Germany) that when it came time to finalizing their will, the farm passed into the hands of their son George, who lived with two sisters in the big house. At that time, the farm was known as “Outlet Farm” — due to its abutting China Lake and the Outlet Stream that winds its way out of the lake, through Vassalboro, toward broader rivers. George was a forestry man, though he knew his way around a tractor and a dairy barn. He’d spent several years out West in the 40s, working in the national forests, and knew his way around the woods of the farm like the back of his hand.

Paul Cates holding sons Martin and Christopher in the summer of 1970, with the family’s Jersey heifers grazing in the pasture above them.

When Paul Cates came back to Maine in 1969 accompanied by his young wife, Elisabeth, and their son Martin, they settled into another family home in the village of East Vassalboro and, in 1970, began raising gladiolus on the farm in one of the fields that had lately been reserved by George for dairy cattle feed crops. At first, Paul was known simply as The Glad Man, selling gladiolus out of his VW bus. This moniker helped him to establish the Cates Glads brand — though in truth, the farm grew numerous types of cut-flowers — which lasted through the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Paul and Elisabeth continued using the lands, though they were in George’s name, until George’s death — when ownership of the farm passed to them. Around the same time, the first Cates heirloom glad bulb price list was published (this would later become a print catalog, and finally evolve into the web store that exists today) the most important word was added to the Cates Glads brand — Family.

The youngest of Paul and Elisabeth’s grandchildren, Klara, takes the lay of the land in 2018.

Cates Family Glads, as the farm was now called, lasted as a company name until the 2010s. By this point, Paul was well beyond retirement age (though in truth it took running himself over with the farm truck, which required several months of rest and leg elevation to heal) to force him to retire. Paul and Elisabeth’s son Chris was now the driving force on the farm — both figuratively and literally, since he’d not only taken on the lion’s share of farm operational work, but had also become the farm’s primary wholesale flower delivery driver. He had other projects on the farm besides flowers, though — he started raising a small herd of beef cows to feed himself, and he’d taken over George’s forestry and hay work. And so we made one last tweak to the brand in 2019: Cates Family Glads was now called Cates Family Farm.

Which brings me to the real reason for today’s post:

We Want You to Help us Celebrate our 50th Year in Business!

The Cates glad field (mostly without weeds).

To our favorite people:

On Saturday, July 11th, 2020, we are celebrating Cates Family Farm’s 50th year in business*! The work started earlier in 1970 than on July 11th, of course, but that’s right around the time the first glads always start blooming for us, and isn’t that something to celebrate by itself?

Because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we’re unable to invite everyone to come visit us, both because there are restrictions the number of people at gatherings in Maine, and also because we have no intention of our little farm on China Lake becoming the epicenter of the next coronavirus infection spike. So, instead, we’re going to throw a bit of a socially-distanced party. Let’s call it…

A GLOBAL, WEED-PULLING HOOTENANNY!

Cates grandson Nicholas holding decidedly more than one weed in 2011, with the intent to toss the armful to the beef cow herd.

We invite you all, in your own gardens, to go out on Saturday, July 11th, 2020, find at least one weed, and joyfully rend it from the ground. Bonus points if you can come up with some sort of terrible but brilliant pun to describe the moment, and make the late Paul Cates proud. (Fastidious gardeners, you’ll have to leave a weed in the ground prior to the 11th if you want to participate with us on the day of the hootenanny. (We’re sorry.))

In the absence of your own garden, we suggest you plan to find and remove weeds in your family’s or friends’ yards instead. Please note: we do not condone guerrilla weeding tactics such as leaping over hedges or garden fences in the middle of the night to steal dandelions from your neighbors’ flower beds, or pulling weeds on public land without a permit — we encourage everyone to party within the bounds of local ordinances.

Cates granddaughter Julia taming one of the beef steers in 2012.

After the festivities in the garden come to a close, those of us on the farm in Maine will likely end the day with a lobster feed. We hope that you all, as most honored guests of our first (and, to be honest, hopefully last!) socially-distanced global weed-pulling hootenanny, get to eat something delicious!

Of course, we would’ve loved to invite all of you to come and pull our weeds (with blanket permission!), but… perhaps after the pandemic?

In the meantime, with best wishes on behalf of the rest of the Cates family, and with hope that you continue to find joy in your (or your neighbors’ (within legal bounds)) gardens,

P.S.: If you take photos of your participation in our socially-distanced party, and you’d like us to include them in a gallery on our farm’s website, please email them to Me, Margaret Cates, at margaret.cates@gmail.com with the name of the photographer and location of the photo. We won’t post photos to which we can’t apply proper credit!

Really, though: pull only with permission.

P.P.S.: We mean it about the guerrilla weeding tactics. We hold no responsibility for anyone who gets arrested for pulling weeds.

* = Those of you who placed gladiolus bulb or dahlia tuber orders with us this spring have already gotten your birthday present! We included free limited edition 50th anniversary tote bags, whose appliqués were designed, cut, and applied in our dining room, with every bulb/tuber order this year.

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Notes from Up North, February 2019

This was a rough one to write. Of course it’s cold and wet in Vassalboro, because it’s winter. And of course we’ve brought you some real beauties this time around. But this is the first time since the founding of Cates Family Farm (and Cates Glads) that this letter has been written without input from Paul Cates. Paul passed from complications with dementia on October 21, 2018.

Paul Cates on his 93rd birthday in August 2018.

Paul’s joy of flowers lasted right up until the end. Chris Cates, self-described “Everything!” at the farm, would often bring in blooms for the kitchen table during the summer. He went outside often during his last summer with us, and sat on a chair on the walkway to watch the cars pass and chat with our roadside stand customers. Much to Elisabeth’s consternation, Paul frequently picked flowers out of the planters on the farm’s front steps, to give her a petunia bloom or a pansy. He’d pause to smell every bouquet that came in from the garden on his way through the house. He was, at his very core, the Glad Man our florist customers dubbed him so long ago.

You can read Paul’s obituary here. [Update 2020: the funeral home that took care of Paul has unfortunately closed and taken down the obituary. Our friends at The Town Line newspaper in South China, ME have graciously agreed to host the obituary here on their website.]

Paul would have been very disappointed if the annual letter didn’t come out as usual, so the show has gone on. You may notice that things look a little different around here. Let’s start with the price list: cates-family-glads.org is no more, and catesfamily.farm has taken its place as our home on the Web. Our price list is now fully online, as well. You can place your order via your PayPal account or credit card, or if you prefer, you can place your order and pay via check. We hope this simplifies the order process for many of our customers.

A single-page paper price list is going to go out to those customers who don’t have a listed email; those of whom we have an email on file for, we’ll be sending out a notification of the changes in our site and the availability of the online shop. We still can’t ship to foreign countries, unfortunately — even shipping to Canada is an incredibly complex and pricey process, so we’ve chosen to continue exclusively serving customers within the United States.

Enough about logistics, though. Let’s talk glads!

So, in 2018 we finally got a handle on the weeding. (It only took us 48 years.) So you’d think we would’ve had a bumper crop of bulbs! But alas, there were bug problems and health problems nonetheless, and after we sorted through our harvested bulb crop with a fine tooth comb, our list is a little shorter and our inventory a little slimmer than in previous years. But we can, and will, rebuild our list! Our planting stock and bulblets looked great last year, and promise to produce some healthy mature bulbs in 2019 (provided bugs aren’t, again, an issue).

Great, consistent varieties Gemini, Abbie, and My Rose are among this year’s list. There are several new (or new to us) varieties gracing the virtual pages of our shop as well; Prince of Orange and Rhapsody in Blue among them.

“But Margaret,” you might ask, “Why are there so many varieties without photos this year?” Well, it’s simple — last summer the weekend weather often wasn’t conducive to tromping around in a field with a digital camera, and during the week I have a full-time job off the farm that prevents me from being in the field during the day. May the weather provide us enough sun on Saturdays for weekly photo shoots this year!

Whether you’ve been a loyal customer for years, or you’ve just discovered our little farm on the banks of China Lake, I hope you have a marvelous 2019, and that you have the chance to bring a little beauty into your life with some wonderful glads.