Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Rice Nature Preserve

On May 24, I had exactly one hour to spare for a hike, and I knew of one place close by where I could get great views both east and west—if I hiked really quickly and didn’t spend too much time taking photos.

The Rice Nature Preserve can be accessed at the end of Highmoor Drive in Wilbraham. In 2004, the Minnechaug Land Trust worked with the town to purchase this property with the help of private fundraising and funds from the Community Preservation Act.

In May, 2005, at a town meeting, the vote was nearly unanimous to authorize the purchase of the 150-acre parcel for the town.

Feel free to print out a trail map (sometimes there are maps available at the sign, sometimes there aren’t). The most direct route to the views is the Highmoor trail to the Rachel Phelps trail to the Sunrise Peak trail

After being on the Highmoor trail for a few minutes I see the Under Peak Trail on the right, which also offers a roundabout way to the Sunrise Peak trail. However, today, time is of the essence, so I stay on Highmoor. Besides, the Under Peak needs some maintenance—it looks like a haven for ticks! I trudge on.

Below is a westward view of the valley as I head to the top of the Wilbraham Mountain range ridge. You can usually see the downtown Springfield skyline from here, but it’s not apparent in the photo today because of the hazy conditions.

A 90-acre parcel beyond the peach trees in the photo was put under an Agricultural Preservation Restriction, protecting the land from development while allowing it to be farmed by the Rice family. The peach orchard (pictured below) is over 100 years old.

Well, I’d love to dawdle, but I’ve really got to hump it to get to the eastern views at Sunrise Peak. With much determination and sweating on a muggy spring day, I am now close to the eastern lookout. See the rock ridge pictured below? The views are just beyond this landmark.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to climb this cliff to get to the view! It’s unclear from the trail markings, but all you have to do is take a right, and then a left for a more gradual climb—unless you want to grab some rock and give yourself a challenge.

Either way, you’re rewarded with another great view (below).

Well, I hear thunder in the distance, it’s starting to sprinkle, and I have exactly a half-hour to get back to my car. I’m right on schedule, so I’m not going to dwell on the view too much. It’s time to kick into high gear!

I stop at a bench dedicated to the former landowners…

…and get one last view before heading back into the treeline. At least the rain stopped.

I ran into Jesse Rice, who is nearly 90 years old, in November of 2007 at the Rice Fruit Farm store across the street. I wanted to let him know how much I enjoyed hiking in the preserve, but he was rushing to see his son, Wayne who had suffered a heart attack.

“They air-lifted him to UMass Memorial in Worcester,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “He isn’t doing too well.”

Wayne died a short time later. He had run the Rice Fruit Farm store, a town institution, and its future was in doubt. His daughter, Amy, continued to run the store, but it closed for good in March.

Jesse plans to continue to harvest apples and peaches from the orchard and sell them at the annual Wilbraham Peach Festival in August. He is open to proposals to reopen the store, but so far there haven’t been any takers.

Although Wilbrahamites continue to flock to the quaint Village Store down the road for meals, the Rice Fruit Farm store will be missed. Known for its cider donuts and muffin tops, it was a slice of small town Americana that we took for granted. And now it's gone.

Amy posted the following message on Masslive.com's Wilbraham forum:

"For a few good years, my father, sister and I had a decent go of things. There is little money in farming, but we were content in just making it work. There were good days and bad days....and even worse days....but, we were a team. I spent every evening closing up the store with my dad. Together, we would try to tackle whatever new problem inevitably popped up. It was a wonderful time, a life we loved."

"But, as some of you may know....Dad got sick in November 2007 and was gone from us within a few weeks. I guess you could say....the farm never recovered the loss of Wayne. My sister and I certainly haven't. So....to the Town of Wilbraham and beyond....I'm sorry. I tried. Nothing (aside from losing Dad) has ever been as difficult as having to close those doors."

"I was born and raised on that farm, grew up in that store, learned about people and manners and common courtesy from my grandmother as we worked over peaches. I can only hope someone would like to try to step in and continue a business similar to ours in that building."

"This girl's heart broke when she lost her daddy. The passion I shared with my dad died with the loss of him. So, yes....the economy sucks, the business is out of money....but that is not the reason it had to be. Wayne was a quiet man...but to anyone who knew him....a powerhouse. He was the strength of all of us. Miss you desperately, Dad....and I'm sorry."
"I have no idea what the business could be sold for. As my grandfather still owns everything, someone would need to "lease" the store from him, as my Dad and I did. As I work on trying to straighten things out, I will undoubtedly need to find a lawyer to assist me. Between the properties, the business, the buildings, etc....there are way too many branches on this tree! Legally, even farming becomes a complicated mess! Currently, I am just not up to facing all that too. Time will tell, I suppose."

—Amy C. Rice

“Wayne was a spiritual, but not a religious man,” read his obituary. “He always considered the orchard his church.”


Alan Whitney said...

I grew up in the acres but in the development that went in in 1970 just north of Wilbraham Road near the Wilbraham border (down at the end of Glenoak)...I had been to the rice store as recent as 5 years ago and remember it as one of the two we would frequent down that way...the other being a plce south of there on the east side of the road.

I will miss it.

Hell's Acres said...

Hi Alan,

Thanks for reading. Some updates: Jesse Rice died in November of 2010.

A pediatric dentist by the name of Robert Matthews bought the 87-acre Rice Fruit Farm and has expressed interest in continuing to grow apples and peaches, but he angered a few locals by putting up "no trespassing" signs on the woodlands adjacent to the Rice Preserve. People (including me) had grown accustomed to hiking on this land, but apparently thieves were raiding the orchards.

The Tinkham Road home of Wayne's wife, Tracy, burned in September of 2011, but she has stated that she wants to rebuild there.

There has been talk that someone bought the store and plans on reopening it, but I haven't read anything official.