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UNCOMMON FOLK

Written by Virginia Wright
From "People, Places & Plants"
Winter 1998 issue, pages 52-55

THE 16TH DAY OF OCTOBER, 1997, dawned as a resplendent sunny postcard in the foothills of western Maine. With the crisp autumn air providing the happy suggestion of a busy season at hand, Betsey-Ann Golon and her husband, Dale, worked briskly, yet easily, alongside their crew at Common Folk Farm.

Six years after buying a windblown farm house on the back roads of Naples, the Golons had finally hit their stride in a business known nationwide for its herbal teas, potpourris, cider and soup mixes. By mid-October, their oldest son, Nathan, was well into the first semester of his sophomore year at college. Their younger son, Nicholas, was off enjoying a homecoming celebration at the local high school.

"It started off," Golon said, "as the most glorious day you had ever seen." As quickly as Maine's blue skies can turn to gray, however, the mood changed. Word came that Nicholas had been in an auto accident. Rushing to their son's overturned pickup truck, the Golons watched helplessly while rescue crews from three neighboring towns worked more than two hours to cut open the vehicle. Nicholas' wounds, though not fatal, were catastrophic.

For the next six months, through their busiest time of year, and then a January ice storm that knocked out power at the farm for nearly two weeks, Betsey-Ann and Dale were at their son's side almost constantly. They helped him, first to breathe again on his own, then to feed himself. They held out hope that their rambunctious 16-year-old would learn again to walk.

In the aftermath, the business that had once been all-consuming could reasonably have disintegrated under the pressure. It might have, said Betsey-Ann Golon if not for the magic of an October day that began so well, turned so tragic and then ended so lovingly.

"That night, Dale had to go back to the farm to gather some belongings," she said, almost a year later. "There were all kinds of people from the town, our friends, keeping the woodstove going, putting supper on the table, packing up an order for L.L. Bean that was due the next day. This has been one of those tests in life, but Dale and I began counting our blessings right then."

That sense of community has always meant the world to Betsey-Ann Golon. As the eldest daughter in a large, military family, she spent an itinerant childhood. No one house figures in her fondest childhood recollections; no special neighborhood is treasured in nostalgia's kind, warm glow. Memories of gardens, however, have lingered.

"I spent a lot of time in Maine with my grandmother in her garden," said Golon, who was born in Portland and always considered Maine home. "Also, my dad had a garden wherever we were. Being a nomadic child, I was always looking for that connection, that sense of place. And the things that made us happy as children are what we look for when we are older."

Her affinity for herbs - humble plants that have been used through the ages to nourish the body, soothe the sick and delight the senses - is a natural extension of that sensibility.

"I love history, and I love knowing about the people who came before us," Betsey said. "Herbs do that more than vegetables and even, perhaps, flowers. And they're so darned resilient. It doesn't take a jet pilot or a rocket scientist to grow herbs".

The livelihood has become an all-encompassing way of life. Even Nicholas and Nathan have put up their fair share of tea jars, packed and shipped mixes to stores and tearooms around the country, and worked the trade shows. They balked only once when their mother asked them to don breeches as part of Colonial costumes. "We've grown children out of this enterprise," Betsey said. "They've always had to be a part of it."

Dale calls his wife the "creative genius" of Common Folk Farm; she calls him "the rock". Dale is the "computer whiz" and office manager. ("in other words," Betsey said, "he does everything, besides being a good husband and a good father.") Betsey plants in the spring, rises early every morning to mix herbs by hand, and creates the mixes and teas - fragrant concoctions like blueberry-lemon tea, a blend of whole berries, rose hips, lemon peel, hibiscus blossoms and lemon verbena.

The hub of activity known as the herb room was once the carriage house of the three-story 19th-century Federal farm- house the couple purchased in 1992. At the time, Betsey was supplying her fledgling herbal products business from several gardens at friends' homes.

"I was wearing myself to a frazzle," she said. "I knew I had to do something the night I found myself out in South Bridgton watering plants by flashlight."

The old house came with its own share of challenges, however. Porcupines were living in the carriage house. A kitchen woodstove was the creaky building's only source of heat; army blankets on the walls were the only insulation. Wind blowing from the barn into the kitchen ruffled Betsey's clothes as she prepared dinner.

Still, there was never any question that the house was the right place to carry out the Golons' dream of making a living from the land. Set on a high open ridge three miles from Naples village, the house is nestled smack in the middle of a supportive farming community, with neighbors' orchards on either side and their greenhouses across the street. These are the neighbors who celebrated the Golons' growing success by turning out to help load 1,400 boxes of tea for Common Folk Farm's debut on QVC, the cable television shopping network, three years ago.

"When people say,'This is cool; you've done this all on your own,' I look at them and I think they're crazy," Betsey said. "We've been blessed with good fortune. Maine people look out for each other."

The way those closest to Betsey tell it, the generosity and work ethic she values in others has less to do with geography and more to do with the woman herself. She reaps what she sows.

"She goes the extra mile," said Nicholas, who, with the help of leg braces, therapy and surgery, is now back on his feet. "She is always helping people out. Everywhere we go, she is always making new friends. I've learned a lot from my Mom. I've learned independence from her, and social skills. She's definitely an original." It is not uncommon for Betsey to show up in the herb room with flowers and a hug for the employee who is going through tough times, said Gail Leahy, who has known Betsey for 16 years and worked for her for three.

"She makes you feel like you're somebody," Leahy said. "Working for her has just made our friendship closer and stronger. She's fun to be with. She's caring and loving."

Those traits are what convinced Dale, the self-described man behind the woman," that a business built on Betsey's talents could succeed. "I saw the way people responded to her at the Saturday craft shows," Dale said. "She's a good-natured person. She's a giving person, and people respond to that."

They were college students when they met on a blind date in Virginia, where both were studying horticulture. Together they bought a pre-Civil War era farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains and grew herbs and strawberries. Both went to work for Virginia Polytech, Dale on an experimental farm, Betsey as part of a dairy science team studying embryotic transplants in cattle.

When her grandmother's health began to fail, Betsey and Dale moved to Ellsworth to provide her care. A few years later they moved to Bridgton, where Betsey worked as a school librarian and started a weekend crafts business. Soon after adding herbal products to the display, they were selling better than the crafts. Serendipitously, the "for sale" sign went up outside the Naples farmhouse, and Dale happily walked away from an electrical engineering job to get the house in shape for the new venture.

Betsey, in the meantime, was gaining a reputation for her knowledge of herbs. The Shakers at Sabbathday Lake sought her out when they were having a problem with the "mother," or mold, used to make their herbal vinegars. Like a detective, Golon traced the problem to a window that had been left open during the preparation months earlier. She has worked with the insular religious farming community ever since, serving as its link to the business world.

Many people have proposed marketing the Shakers' herb products; it is Betsey whom they have entrusted with the task.

"She's a very energetic person, a person full of ideas and who is not afraid of work," said Leonard L. Brooks, director of the Shaker Museum and Library, which encompasses the herb department. "She's good with individual products. She knows what sells."

The relationship is, perhaps, symbiotic. It continues to deepen Betsey's knowledge of herbs - "it's like working with history; something new is always coming to light" - and it has influenced the way the family does business.

"The Shakers always stood behind the quality of what they grew and what they bought," she said. "There's a sense of working hard, working for the community's well-being, taking responsibility."

The television appearence on QVC in Sept., 1996, was a different kind of education altogether. Up to that point, Common Folk Farm had done well regionally, even nabbing a few big wholesale clients, including L.L. Bean and Bass. "But we were really still a Mom business," Betsey said. "It was Mom's hobby." The year before, in fact, the Golons had declined to apply for the QVC program because they didn't think they could meet the network's huge inventory demands. With new experience in the wholesale market, however, the Golons decided to take the leap. After maneuvering through a mound of paperwork, a terse interview, and a tense waiting period, they became one of the 46 out of 500 businesses to be showcased on the "Quest for America's Best."

"I brought in all my friends from the school to help get the jars ready," Betsey said. "All the teachers came and helped me. All their children came and helped me." When the 18-wheelers pulled up to the farmhouse - "this was not an order we could ship by UPS" - the neighbors arrived with tractor and fork lift to help load the pallets. Betsey Golon and her teas made their national television debut before millions of viewers at the end of a long hot day outside the Capitol building in Augusta. In six minutes, a thousand boxes of teas were sold.

"Now," says Betsey, "everything else seems easy. QVC was an awakening. It has made a significant difference, not so much financially, but more an awareness of what we are capable of."

MAINE HAS A REPUTATION as one of the toughest places in the country to make a living from the land. The Golons are among a small but growing group of "innovative, smart and capable people" who are showing how it can work, said Deanne Herman of the state Agricultural Food and Rural Resources Department. When farmers add a finished product, as Common Folk Farm has done with its herbal mixes, being from Maine suddenly is an advantage.

"Betsey is very thorough, flexible and adaptable to what's working and what isn't," said Herman, who worked with the Golons on the QVC project and at trade shows. "She's a great collaborator, a great team player who sees the benefit of working together and promoting us all."

Betsey Golon characteristically deflects credit for Common Folk Farm's success onto others, including Herman's agency, which helped the company get noticed by QVC. "Life in Maine is hard, yes, but it's hard for everyone," she said. "Everyone here is working at making a living and that bonds people together. You don't grow without support."

But the gestures that touch her most deeply, the ones that make her feel blessed, are the personal ones that have come from family, friends and co-workers. She marvels at the way her crew worked to the loud rumble of a generator after January's Ice Storm, and how her neighbors, with farms of their own to run, pitched in to meet the demands of QVC.

The supportive atmosphere came through strongest last fall during Nicholas' hospitalization.

"People came out of the woodwork', said Gail Leahy, who was there to witness the affection shared by so many people at the big old farmhouse at Kimball's Corner. "Betsey knows everyone in town, and she is very well-loved."

The outpouring of love at the time, said Golon, has kept her family in balance. "It's one of those turning points in your lives," she said. "It makes you or breaks you. Maine is unique. Maine people take care of each other. They're not afraid of hard work. They don't expect to be given things. That's why we call ourselves Common Folk Farm. We are the common folk of Maine."

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