A Mission of Good Will, Part II: Back to the Land

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Each month, I’ll be writing a blog about the unique history of Good Will-Hinckley, and how George Walter Hinckley’s mission still resonates today. Click here to read Part I of the series.

A few years ago, around the time that the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MeANS) was considering a new agriculture program, we started asking prospective students a question we’d never asked before.

“Do you know where your food comes from?”

The answer was almost always the same—and often framed as a question.

“The grocery store?”

It was this disconnect that inspired us to launch a new curriculum to teach students the basics of subsistence farming. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see MeANS students sowing seeds, tending to crops, harvesting their bounties and canning produce for the winter. These students are learning how to run a one-acre farm—which, if properly tended, is enough for a family to live on.

The program has become one of MeANS’s most popular offerings. Like the land on which the academy sits, however, the role agriculture has played in the growth of Good Will-Hinckley (GWH) has a story of its own—one that goes all the way back to the beginning.

From the ground up

In 1879, 10 years before founding GWH, George Walter Hinckley launched what many believe was the country’s first boys camp. In the words of George Hinckley, the camp was intended to be “consciously devoted and organized for the physical and moral development of those enrolled.” (Chronicles of Good Will Home: 1889-1999).

Harvesting the Good-Will Hinckley Farm in the late 1940’s

Held on Gardner’s Island on Rhode Island’s Point Judith Pond, the camp became a proving ground for many of Hinckley’s most firmly held beliefs: about the healing power of the outdoors; about the value of hard work and structure; and perhaps most crucially, about the importance of creating well-rounded individuals.

Central to all those experiences, Hinckley believed, was farming.

So when Good Will Hinkley was launched in 1889, the first structure to be raised the following summer was a barn. Much of the food consumed at GWH was grown on site. Students raised livestock include chicken and cattle. They grew and preserved crops for the winter. The Chronicles are rich with anecdotes of daily life on the farm.

Feast and famine

Indeed, in the early days of GWH, farming wasn’t just a useful teaching tool; it was necessary to the health of the residents—and the viability of the entire Good Will project. Being the son of farmers himself, Hinckley understood the vital importance of being able to grow, harvest and preserve one’s own food, especially at a time when refrigeration was still in its infancy.

A Good Will-Hinckley student outside the chicken coop

As George Hinckley noted decades later, “The two hardest years… at Good Will… were the two when something had gone wrong in the farm department.”

One of those years was 1913. Following a particularly disastrous harvest, Hinckley hired a man named Fred Pollard to resurrect the farm. Pollard would pass away less than two years later, but his son-in-law, Walter Price, soon took up the mantle.

Together with his brother Reginald, Price ran one of the biggest farms in Maine—and made it even bigger. By 1930, the GWH farm was producing 84,000 quarts of milk, 4,400 pounds of beef and 2,700 heads of cabbage, supporting not just itself, but the surrounding area as well.

Back to the land

The size and scope of the farm would vary dramatically over the decades. There were some years when the farm didn’t operate at all, most notably during the 1960s, a time when many feared GWH would have to be closed.

Despite these challenges, GWH—and the farm it still supports—have persisted and flourished. Today, we’re honoring the hands-on approach established by George Hinckley, both through traditional trades like forestry as well as emerging fields like sustainability and alternative energy. In each of these growing areas, we encourage students to be engaged, self-directed learners, just as George Hinckley envisioned. Like him, we understand that character is cultivated, not taught.

Some might argue that an agriculture program—or trades so rooted in the past—aren’t the best use of resources. But small-scale farming is on the rise, and Maine is a leader in this regard. What’s more, at a time when people are becoming more detached from the natural world, we can’t imagine anything more fruitful or character-building than connecting our youth to the land they live on.

Greenhouse, present day
Student on the farm, present day

At MeANS, we use a small farm—complete with fields, barn and greenhouse—to teach students the principles of sustainability. They tend to goats, chickens and rabbits, grow vegetables, maintain equipment and run a farm store as part of our entrepreneurship program.

We’re not just teaching kids the basics of farming; we’re teaching them how to budget and run a household. We’re instilling good eating habits and the pride of being able to feed one’s family.

If Hinckley were alive today, we think he’d be proud of the curricula we’ve cultivated—all thanks to the seeds he helped plant more than 130 years ago.

— Rob Moody, Executive Director, GWH