Friday, December 14, 2018

Before the memory fades: Ralph Griffin – the apple man of River Road

By Walter Lunt

Kay Soldier, the late Windham historian often posed the question, “Whatever happened to all the characters?” She was referring to certain townies that were, by most people’s standards, unusual, eccentric or quirky. Such characters were more visible and obvious back in the decades of the mid-20th century. One individual who fit Soldier’s definition of “a character” was Ralph Griffin, the so-called Apple-Man of River Road. He was best known for selling corn and apples and for paying his taxes with small change -  more on that later.

The well respected "character", Ralph Griffin
Griffin was a well-known Windham personality who sold vegetables and fruits in front of his white farmhouse just south of the Dundee Park Road. Also known as Red, or Pop, he was a fixture at that location for over 50 years.

Born in 1902 in South Portland, he left school early to help support his impoverished family of three brothers and two sisters.

“I’d do “gypsy work,” he explained, “my father was alcoholic, and he’d dig up money I hid in the back yard. I used to go to rich people’s houses and (collect) milk bottles – you got a nickel deposit for each one.”

Griffin continued to work at odd jobs until his mid-20’s, saving “every penny” along the way. In 1930 he joined the U.S. Coast Guard as a machinist’s mate. He described his duty during World War II as “chasing German U-boats all over the North Atlantic.”

Griffin swore off all banks and written contracts after losing all his savings in the stock market crash of 1929, adopting a “pay as you go” philosophy for the rest of his life. He bought the 40-acre farm on River Road in Windham in 1935; to avoid a bank loan, he made monthly payments in cash to the previous owner.

Griffin soon had cows, sheep, chickens and a multi-acre vegetable garden. He had married Aimee Irene (Loring) in 1932; they raised five children.

“Old Pop was a taskmaster,” according to his son Merrill, “he would leave all of us a week’s worth of chores before shipping off (on his Coast Guard duties).”

Griffin rarely returned home from his Coast Guard base alone. He observed that several of his younger shipmates would drink and fight on weekends in Portland. One was known as “the scrapper.” Griffin brought them home to his farm. “I had to keep them out of trouble.” They worked in his garden, enjoyed home-cooked meals and experienced a measure of family life.  The Griffin family photo album shows these men in later years, married and settled down, and still visiting the Griffin farm.
At his apple stand

Before long, the multi-acre garden was producing more food than the family consumed. He opened the farm stand at the end of his gravel driveway in the early ‘40s. “I need the extra money to pay my (property) taxes,” he would tell his customers. And he was known for chastising the town and its various boards and committees for “spending money they don’t have.” Griffin always spoke his mind at the annual town meeting, usually on financial matters.

In later years he bought a farm tractor and new pick-up truck. In both instances he insisted on delivery so that payment could be made by counting out cash on his kitchen table.
The familiar vegetable stand consisted of two card tables, several wooden boxes spilling over with corn or squash and the open back of Griffin’s green truck. Whether stopping or not, every third or fourth passing vehicle would honk. Griffin would wave, often without looking up. Along with instructions on how to best prepare the food they were buying, customers would be treated to some philosophical and political banter. “I loved talking to Pop, but I never stopped unless I had at least an hour to kill,” said one.
Among his favorite topics, Griffin would muse, “If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.” Or, “Five things have ruined the world: selfishness, greed, suspicion, notoriety and television (he would often substitute other vices, but the number, five, never changed).” On preparing corn, “Put ‘em in cold water, husk them and put them in a bag in the coldest part of your icebox (refrigerator). Don’t cook them any longer than five to seven minutes. Add a little sugar – makes them tender.” During a lull in customers, Griffin would sit in a plastic lawn chair, waving to passing motorists.

Apples were his mainstay. Many residents and out-of-towners remember the red apple-shaped signs with white lettering posted on both sides of the driveway. He was proud of the quality and variety he sold: Macs, Baldwins, Snows, Red and Yellow Delicious and Miltons (a cross between a Mac and a Snow). Because there were no visible apple trees on the property, he would often be asked, “Where do you get your apples?” He would always answer, “Up country – I select them myself.” This was truthful. A family member once accompanied Griffin “up-country” to collect several bushels of apples. It was a huge apple orchard operated by an accommodating farmer; Griffin inspected the bounty carefully as one would examine gem stones. On the return trip, the passenger was sworn to secrecy as to where they had been.

Heading to town hall to pay his taxes - in coins
The years following W.W. II were good at the farm on River Road for the Griffins and their extended family. Ralph and Irene enjoyed hosting picnics at a riverside get-away spot on the eastern edge of his “back-40.” The strip of property was owned and controlled by the S.D. Warren Co. Always one to avoid legal written agreements, Ralph had secured verbal permission to set up camp there many years earlier. He and the family had cleared the area, built a small camp and dock and hauled sand for a beach and swimming hole. In 1966, however, S. D. Warren agreed to donate approximately 25 acres of its land bordering Dundee Pond and the Presumpscot River to the Town of Windham for a public park. It was the same piece of land Griffin had prepared and used for almost 30 years. Griffin protested what he called “the land grab” for two years, asserting squatter’s rights and claiming the park would be costly to taxpayers. His name became a household word as he spoke passionately at town meetings and wrote letters of protest to newspapers and town, state and U.S. officials. Then Senator Edmund Muskie responded, “…this is a local matter which should be settled between you and the Town of Windham.” Senator Margaret Chase Smith went a bit further by inquiring at the U.S.
Dept. of the Interior, but finally conceded that the town’s application for a park development grant had been handled properly. The rest, she stated, was a local matter. Despite Ralph’s continued efforts to oppose the park and his ongoing feud with the Windham Planning Board, the town’s first picnic and swim park, Dundee Park, opened in the late summer of 1967. In a final gesture of good will, the town granted the Griffin family a life-time pass to the new park. A move characterized by Griffin as “salt in the wound.”

Ralph Griffin again achieved town-wide fame ten years later. The town had undergone property tax revaluation. Griffin’s taxes skyrocketed. That year, the farm stand failed to produce enough revenue to cover his taxes. For the first time, he was forced to use his savings. He was determined not to pay without fanfare. Griffin filled empty milk cartons with small change earned from his roadside vegetable sales. Call it a sense of humor, or defiance – Griffin notified the local press, proceeded to town hall and blanketed the counter with coinage; to be exact: $100 in pennies, $250 in quarters, $150 in dimes, $10 in half-dollars and four one-dollar bills. He’d made his point.

The town responded by prohibiting the practice, so the following year Griffin paid in one-dollar bills.
Following many months of declining health and home health care, Ralph Griffin died in 1996, age 93, just days after being told his cash savings had run out and he’d have to go to a nursing home. He’d been adamant about never resorting to that.

Full disclosure, Pop Griffin was this writer’s grandfather. This is written as a special tribute from his family, and as a special memory to all who knew him.

To this day, people approach members of his family to recall the memories and say things like, “Hey, I knew your grandfather, he was quite a character, wasn’t he.”  

This was the final installment of The Historical Record for 2018. This special series of Before the Memory Fades will resume in January.

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