Round Top’s fields have been farmed for at least 250 years, maybe longer. Early owners were Dr. Thomas Flint and his neighbor to the north Francis Tufts, both of whom moved to Damariscotta in the mid-1700s. Dr. Flint was a farmer and a surgeon who served in the latter capacity aboard a privateer operating on the Maine Coast during the American Revolution and then, “after the peace, led a quiet life in the cultivation of his farm and the practice of his profession.” He died in 1803 and is said to be buried in the small graveyard near the farm entrance (though his gravestone is missing.) His younger brother, Jesse, who took over the property, also served in the Revolutionary War and is buried in the family cemetery, his grave marked with a flag in honor of his service.
Francis Tufts purchased the adjoining land, which included the meadows north of the present farmhouse, in 1770. He didn’t stay long. In 1780, after concluding his service in the Revolutionary War, he moved, with a number of other Damariscotta neighbors, inland and helped establish what is now the town of Farmington. His Damariscotta property, however, remained in the family and there are three Tufts graves, all of very young children of a later generation, in the farm’s cemetery.
Round Top Farms, Inc.
Round Top’s modern history begins shortly after World War I, when successful New York businessman Edward W. Freeman and his wife Dorothy Perkins Freeman started to buy up large parcels of farm land on the eastern shore of the Damariscotta River. Accumulated over a period of about twenty years, these holdings comprised five large farms and a few smaller properties, including several miles of shoreline on the upper Damariscotta and Salt Bay. By 1937 the Freeman property stretched roughly from Oyster Creek to the north to Pleasant Street in Damariscotta village in the south. The farm lands, with the present Coastal Rivers Round Top Farm as their centerpiece, were to become a large and regionally significant dairy operation that thrived for nearly fifty years.
In 1922, Round Top Farms started to build up its dairy herd with the purchase of seven registered Holstein cows and one Holstein bull. Over the years, the herd grew to include some forty cows, two or three bulls, plus many heifers. The cattle were stabled at Round Top under the stewardship of head herdsman Winfield Cooper and grazed the fields from Castner Creek in the south to the present-day Whaleback Shell Midden State Historic Site, which was then a part of the farm. As the herd grew, Round Top’s meadows, originally largely planted in potatoes, oats, barley and rye, were largely converted to cultivation of hay to feed the animals. Round Top also had what have been described as “a pair of very fine horses” used for plowing, harrowing, planting and harvesting forage crops until replaced by machinery in the 1940s. The horses were kept in the barn at what is now Coastal Rivers’ Salt Bay Farm on Belvedere Road, while Round Top’s teamster and other workers lived in the farm house, now Coastal Rivers’ Heritage Center.
Round Top Farms, quickly became a large producer and processor of milk and milk projects and by 1925 had already begun daily retail and wholesale milk deliveries to homes and stores throughout Lincoln and Knox counties, as far away as Rockland and Camden. Incorporated as Round Top Dairy in 1949, it also produced its own brand of ice cream and operated a dairy bar in Boothbay Harbor and a locally famous ice cream stand in Damariscotta.
Round Top’s history as a dairy farm ended in 1968, when the Freemans donated the dairy herd to the University of Maine. The milk and ice cream businesses were leased or sold to others the same year. With the Freemans’ deaths (he in 1979 at 87 years and she in 1990 at 99), title to much of the Round Top property passed to family member Nancy Freeman.
Round Top Center for the Arts (RTCA)
Nancy Freeman, a well-known Midcoast artist and printmaker, spearheaded the establishment of Round Top Center for the Arts in 1997. The following year, in 1998, she deeded approximately 10 acres of the farm’s fields along with its farmhouse, barn and outbuildings to this new organization as “a place where artists and students may perform, exhibit, study and learn for the benefit and enjoyment both of individuals and community.” Mindful, however, of Round Top’s valued heritage as open agricultural land and unspoiled riverfront and also as a treasured community institution, she had earlier donated a conservation easement covering most of the fields to the Damariscotta River Association. She also stipulated that ownership of the land and buildings would automatically transfer to DRA (now Coastal Rivers) should RTCA for any reason sometime cease to exist.
For the next ten years, Round Top Center for the Arts worked hard to carry out its mission. The so-called oats barn, attached to the farm house, was converted into gallery and work space, the old milk processing building provided areas for potters, woodworkers and printmakers, and the large cow barn was redone as Darrows Barn to become a popular venue for concerts, plays, and public events. Many who were here at the time fondly recall picnicking in the open field while enjoying Round Top’s symphony and pops concerts performed on an outdoor stage (since removed) at the foot of the hill, with the river, Newcastle shore and setting sun as a backdrop.
The DRA Round Top Farm
In 2007, after a decade of successful operation, Round Top Center for the Arts reorganized itself as River Arts and soon afterwards decided to end its occupancy of Round Top Farm in order to seek another, more appropriate location elsewhere. The Damariscotta River Association thereupon became the new owner of the land and buildings at Round Top. In February, 2014, The DRA Board of Trustees set the wheels in motion to move their headquarters to the Round Top farmhouse. In March 2019, Damariscotta River Association merged with Pemaquid Watershed Association to form Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust.
Coastal Rivers continues to encourage and support Round Top Farm’s now traditional role as a community resource. The farmhouse, fields and barn (in season) remain available for community events and activities, both public and private. In winter, Coastal Rivers volunteers install and maintain a public ice-skating rink and have now renovated the farm’s former ice-cream stand as a warming hut for skaters and onlookers. Round Top’s hills and fields are increasingly popular with skiers and walkers in cold weather while there are picnic areas and mowed foot trails for warm-weather public use.
In itself, Round Top Farm, with its protected riverfront, agricultural fields, scenic views, wildlife habitats, historical structures and public access, represents an important conservation asset. The farm gains added significance however as part of a more comprehensive effort to preserve significant properties throughout the upper Damariscotta River and Salt Bay area. Other nearby conservation properties–all open to the public–include the Whaleback Shell Midden State Historic Site and its adjoining shore land, Coastal Rivers Salt Bay Farm and Heritage Center, most of Glidden Point with its famous oyster shell heaps across the river, and the Great Salt Bay itself–Maine’ first designated marine protected area.
In other words, most of what you see from here will stay more or less as it is for a long time to come; and considerably more besides.
Coastal Rivers thanks the late George Dow, Marjorie and Calvin Dodge, and Tom Arter for background, photos, and production.