It’s quite a story. For more than half her life, Roxanne Quimby lived a minimalist life, off the grid, with none of the comforts most of us take for granted. For the second half of her life, Quimby has been a study in contrasts, moving from poverty to great wealth.
Quimby considers herself an artist, but she is one of the nation’s most successful businesswomen. She is a conservationist, but she also is reviled by many individuals and groups that trumpet the conservation cause in Maine. Without doubt, Quimby is our state’s most controversial woman. And all because she wants to create a 70,000-acre national park in the North Woods, adjacent to Baxter State Park.
Now Quimby’s story is about to be told, in its entirety, by Maine author Phyllis Austin. Once a State House reporter for The Associated Press, then environmental reporter for The Maine Times, Austin is a relentless, focused, hard-working journalist who spent many years working on Quimby’s biography. She got a lot of cooperation initially from Quimby, but eventually lost it.
“Queen Bee,” published by Tilbury House Publishers in Thomaston, will be available in mid-June as a jacketed hardcover, with maps and photos. By way of disclosure, I am in the book, first as a severe critic of Quimby, later as an admirer. You’ll have to read the book to figure out which was the right reaction to this fascinating, and often confounding, woman.
Without question, Quimby is to be admired for building a small business, Burt’s Bees, into a huge company that she sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. We value business people and stories like this, so she deserves a lot of credit and praise for this part of her life.
And the Burt’s Bees story in this book is really interesting. She was very clearly in charge, from start to finish, going through many managers and workers, sometimes managing with Tarot cards and intuition. There’s a lesson here for our political and business leaders, too, as Quimby moved her business to North Carolina when Maine’s state government failed to treat her fairly or work effectively with her to grow her business. But that’s not the controversial part of her life.
With her hundreds of millions of dollars achieved from the sale of Burt’s Bees, Quimby purchased land in the North Woods, much of it adjacent to Mount Katahdin, with a goal of conserving the forests and preserving its wildlife. Her stance against hunting, trapping and motorized use of her property alienated many (including yours truly), but her decision to try to designate her lands as a national park stepped up that opposition ten-fold. And that story can’t be completely told in this book, because it is not over.
I particularly enjoyed the personal story here, from her marriage to George St. Claire to her relationship with Burt Shavitz, to the lives of her twins, Hannah and Lucas. It has been a real pleasure over the last few years to get to know Lucas, an avid sportsman now in charge of his mother’s national park project. Yes, Quimby turns out to be human, with an ex-husband, two kids and lots of friends. I also liked the fact she admits in the book that she made significant mistakes along the way, something that finally convinced her to turn over the national park project to Lucas.
While this book will help you understand Quimby, I wish each of you could spend some time with her — especially those who have been so critical of her. Not because it might bring you to support her national park, but because it would allow us to have a reasoned, friendly, and thoughtful discussion about that project. When Austin first met Quimby, she says, “I found her unpretentious, likeable, funny and surprisingly open for someone so controversial.” I agree with Austin on this.
I also think Austin captures the Quimby that I know in this description, in the book’s Epilogue: “Roxanne Quimby is a unique presence in the north woods. As a former back-to-the-lander, she knows from experience how vital nature can be in people’s lives. As a businesswoman, she knows what jobs mean to communities. As an artist, she is stirred by the beauty of the northern forest. As a Thoreau acolyte, she wants to pay her dues to nature for having made her money manufacturing consumer goods.”