How one of Freeport’s friendliest businesses, Bessie’s Farm Goods, was born, and thrives.
Kathy Heye and Deede Montgomery, co-owners of Bessie’s Farm Goods, first got to know each other 20 years ago while teaching a Title 1 program at Freeport Middle School. For over a decade they supported students in reading and math while also teaching life skills with tools ranging from a spinning wheel to a worm composting farm. Then a new principal told them they’d be moving into cubicles to teach reading remediation. “So we retired,” the friends, both 68, say in unison, looking at each other wide-eyed.
Not really. Early on in their so-called retirement they did some baking for the farmstand at Wolfe’s Neck Farm and one day, after they’d dropped off some baked goods, they had an idea: why not create their own farmstand? “So we drove home to Kathy’s house and started walking around the property,” Montgomery says. A spot in front of Heye’s home of Litchfield Road in Freeport seemed just right. “It was like an epiphany. We said ‘We’re going to build a building here.’”
When they told Heye’s husband John, the former chief financial officer of Maine Medical Center, he asked to see their business plan. Not having one, they took a course in starting a business. Montgomery recalls the instructor telling them that “best friends should never work together.” They laugh. “We’ve disproved that,” they say, their voices overlapping, as they often do.
Heye’s son Sam, a carpenter and horticulture student at the time, offered to help build the 600-square-foot cabin. “He was so patient and taught us everything, including how to use power tools,” Montgomery says. They used repurposed lumber and windows from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and worked daily through the winter to open in April 2009, with help from Montgomery’s daughter Grace. During the process, the women noticed chemistry between Grace and Sam, who started dating, later got married and now have a child, officially merging the two families into one.
The business is a tribute to the women who were role models to them in their youths. Montgomery’s mother Grace (known by the family as Granny) Ritchie, grew up as a “thrifty Yankee” in Rhode Island who knew how to do everything and save everything, reusing buttons, string, even tin foil. During Montgomery’s childhood in Medfield, Massachusetts, her mother taught her how to garden, knit, sew and cook, as well as how to enrich their vegetable gardens with manure from the sheep the family kept.
Heye’s role model was her Aunt Bessie, who lived on a farm on Green Lake in Michigan, where Heye and her siblings would visit and fish, swim and explore. “There was nothing Bessie couldn’t attend to and do,” Heye says. “They had a coal furnace and a wringer washer that she managed by hand. She was a thrifty but good cook and didn’t mind kids in the kitchen with her. She had fabulous gardens and we’d go for walks together and appreciate nature. A lot of the things that are important to me came from Bessie.” And so the store bears Bessie’s name. It’s also got a motto, printed on a sign on the wall of the store: “There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that two women can’t do before noon.”
The store is filled with things the two women like to make or grow themselves, as well as arts and crafts made by other Mainers. There’s a mix of wholesale priced items and some objects on consignment. At the back is a kitchen with a counter filled with homemade baked goods. A nearby freezer contains boxes of organic Maine blueberries, and a refrigerator is filled with homemade soups and shares for their 10–15 CSA members (capped to keep things manageable). They grow the CSA vegetables and flowers on site in raised beds and gardens and mix in baked goods, like Heye’s famous honey oat bread (a recipe she developed 45 years ago) or jams and other seasonal items. Montgomery knits, Heye spins and hand-dyes fiber from her alpacas and Angora goats. After her husband John passed away suddenly in 2015, Heye built a new house in the field behind Bessie’s and Sam and Grace moved into the old house. Montgomery and her husband Jack live nearby.
Bessie’s is open from April through December (Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Last year, they shortened their Saturday hours to allow for more time with family. Much of their “free” time is also spent buying, preparing and cooking food. They close after the holidays to be with their families and get caught up on their own crafts, but this year, continued making and selling soup to regulars who picked up $10 quarts at the closed store on a designated day. (With popular flavors like Heye’s African Groundnut Stew or Montgomery’s Chicken Noodle they might sell more than 50 quarts a week.) In season, Bessie’s is host to cooking classes, a weekly knitting circle, and community events such as apple pressing in the fall, a Mother’s Day perennial plant sale and a summer ice cream social. While Bessie’s profits have increased incrementally over the years (despite the scaled back hours), the women acknowledge it’s not enough to “pay the mortgage” and they’ve been fortunate to have financial and moral support from their families. They do about 50 percent of their business between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Between them, Heye and Montgomery have seven children and 10 grandchildren, many of whom live nearby. Montgomery’s daughter Lily, a horticulturist who farms in Bowdoinham, will be growing flowers and vegetables for the CSA as well as managing Bessie’s social media presence. Heye’s son Sam helps with the livestock and is talking about having a nursery on the property to grow and sell perennials. In the summer, her granddaughters from out West might be found running the cash register. “We have a big workforce,” Heye says with a grin.
Sometimes Montgomery’s friends ask when she’s really going to retire. She doesn’t have an answer for them. “In this big world that’s so hard, it’s important to have a safe place,” Montgomery says. “Why should I, when I’m doing what I love and we can adjust our time for family?” There is one thing they haven’t managed to accomplish. “Kathy and I had this vision when we started that we’d sit on the porch and spin and knit while people would come in and shop. I don’t think we can count on two fingers the times we’ve done that,” Montgomery says with a chuckle. But it’s good to be too busy at Bessie’s.
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.