Featured Articles

Grounds to Grow Roots

•   by Sarah Teach   •

bartlettsHilary Newell & Pete Smith

Fate blended their lives on someone else’s blind date. It was April of ’83, and they were about to graduate from Penn State at University Park. One of his friends had the hots for one of hers, but the sentiment was not reciprocated. The unenthusiastic girl offered her admirer some pacification: “Fine, I’ll go out with you, but only if I can bring my friend Hilary.” To keep the numbers even, her date brought his friend Pete, and the foursome hiked up the nearby Mount Nittany. For better or for worse, the couple on the date was indeed a match made in hell; but by the time they made it back to the bottom of the mountain, Hilary Newell and Pete Smith were inseparable. Thirty years after that beautiful spring day, they still navigate life hand-in-hand as they work toward shared goals at the same island fixture, Bartlett’s Oceanview Farm.

Two years after that fateful blind date, Hilary and Pete, now married, were both busy at Olson’s Greenhouses near Taunton, MA. With a degree in Agricultural Business Management, the vibrant Hilary was in the sales department and green-thumbed Pete was using his horticulture education in the greenhouse. One day, a woman strolled into Olson’s on a buying trip for her family’s farm on Nantucket. “Dorothy Bartlett,” she introduced herself. When Mrs. Bartlett mentioned that her family needed a good farmer for their greenhouse operation, two sets of ears perked. “It was a great growing opportunity for Pete,” recounts Hilary, adding, “The Bartletts had this brand new, state-of-the-art Dutch glass, gutter connected greenhouse.” The young couple took Dorothy Bartlett up on her offer for an all-expenses-paid visit to the island. And like so many other washashores, Hilary and Pete loved Nantucket from the moment they stepped off the boat. The Bartletts put the couple up in a little beach cottage near Cisco, gave them a van to use during their stay, and took them out to dinner at the Mad Hatter, giving them an indelible taste of life on Nantucket. “After we left,” says Hilary, “We were driving in to work [at Olson’s] that Monday and we just looked at each other and said, ‘What are we doing here? We want to be back on Nantucket!’ So we thought we’d give it five years.” Their eyes meet and they both shrug before breaking into laughter. “Twenty-eight years later,” a grinning Pete affirms with a swift dip of his head.

For those who have gotten “sand in their shoes,” it comes as no surprise that the couple stuck around. After all, Dorothy Bartlett and her crew had given them solid reasons to stay. Hilary and Pete were the farm’s first year-round employees that didn’t carry the last name Bartlett. “We really felt like we got to be part of the family,” muses Hilary. “We even lived right on the farm for 11 years, back when there was an indoor pool. In the wintertime, our house was so cold that we made it a goal to go swimming every other night. It would be snowing,” recalls Hilary, gazing upwards, “and you could float on your back and see the snow through the glass roof.” “And,” quips Pete matter-of-factly, “We won’t mention how we used to turn the heat up.” Instead of scolding him, his wife grins impishly and says,    “Yes, we definitely had some good times living on the farm.”

In 1989, the couple welcomed a son, Rob, and three years later, Rob’s little sister Ellie. Not long after, the family opted to build their own home just down the road from the farm. “By the time we got [to the island],” says Pete, gesturing at his surroundings, “most of the building and development had already been done.”    Hilary adds, “A lot of people talk about the good ol’ days on Nantucket and how the island has changed, but,” she says, leaning in a bit and not once breaking eye contact, “I don’t think the island is spoiled. There are so many undisturbed places; thank goodness for the conservation organizations. And,” she shakes her head,    “You know what? Every one of those new houses needs a garden; the people in those houses need the services offered by Nantucket businesses.” Pete agrees, offering a reminder, “We get this place to ourselves for nine months out of the year. What’s to complain about? Plus, some of the best friends we have here are summer people.” The duo concurs that the seasonal aspect of their work isn’t merely tolerable; it’s enjoyable. “You know the woman who always wants the hollyhocks,” Hilary exclaims, and Pete adds, “You might not know her name, but you know exactly what she’s at the farm to get. That’s rewarding.”

But of course, there is a special kind of magic reserved for the camaraderie felt among year-round islanders. Pete offers his perspective: “By August, you all sort of glance at each other with unspoken looks.” His eyes dart back and forth exaggeratedly with the tacit message, “‘Are we done? Is it over?’ That’s what keeps people here, that sense of community.” Brows knitted in reflection, Pete continues, “People that choose to live here year-round tend to seek the simpler life. They’re more concerned with what they see outside every day. For me,” he says, extending a palm in one direction, “I’d rather live in a shack in a beautiful place,” (he extends the other palm), “than live in a huge mansion in an ugly place.”    He shrugs. Hilary chuckles at her husband’s illustration then admits, “Nantucket attracts a fair number of…” she pauses as she chooses the right word, “Quirky people. But it’s those quirky people that make it so very interesting to live on Nantucket. That creative spirit’s allowed to be expressed here, so you’re freer to be yourself.”

Despite harboring deep love for the island, Pete and Hilary sail from their safe haven whenever they can. “Bartlett’s has given us the opportunity to travel extensively,”    says Hilary. “As much as we love it here, it’s great to get off-island and remember that there is in fact a world outside of Nantucket.” Holding fast to the forward-looking roots of the farm, Pete in particular frequents European trade
shows in order to stay ahead of the curve in the world of growing. “A very rich part of our job has been meeting people from all over the world,” says Pete. “Just like they say, we are far, far more alike than we are different.”

“It’s been a rich life,” says Pete, nodding slowly and glowing with a hint of a smile. He tilts his gaze and holds up a hand as he begins to tick off fingers one by one: “It’s been challenging.” He bows
his head; down goes a finger.”Fascinating.” He looks back up, raises his eyebrows and lowers another digit.    “And,” he concludes with a smile and a sigh, “a lot of fun. We’ve really been a part of the growth of this business, and we’ve appreciated the freedom we’ve had to make decisions within the business. When you go to local restaurants and you see the Bartlett’s name — something you grew — on the menu, you feel like what you’re doing matters.” After a brief silence, Hilary nods and adds quietly, “There’s nothing phony about what we do.”

They lock eyes and between them passes an aura that seems to be only understood between the two of them. Through embracing all parts of this quirky little island, these two washashores found a place to call home.

Articles by Date from 2012