5% of Net Proceeds This Month Donated to Heart of Dinner
In June, we published an initial list of 70+ Black-owned wedding businesses. As part of our ongoing efforts to highlight and promote Black-owned businesses, we’ve started this series featuring individual vendors.
As you drive past apple orchard after apple orchard, hoping one of the trees craning out over the road doesn’t deposit a Granny Smith on the hood of your car, you can’t help but wonder if you’ve gone too far. There’s no way you’re still twenty minutes from Portland, or that there can be a full blown wedding venue tucked away in such a beautiful corner of the Maine countryside. And yet, after one final consultation of Google Maps and a decision to turn around after the next bend, you come upon Caswell Farm and Wedding Barn.
And it’s gorgeous. Tucked behind a white New England-style house lies the repurposed barn/venue - behind that, an expansive field just waiting for a party. At the end of the field? The farm itself, a fenced in (hungry deer abound in Maine!) mecca of veggies and herbs. The property has been in owner Catherine Caswell’s family for generations: “My grandfather bought this place back in '36, for like $500 or something ridiculous, something that he never actually even paid off - there was still a debt on this land when I took it over.” When he passed away and her father decided to put the farm on the market, Catherine leapt at the opportunity (from Alaska, where she was living at the time): “I always wanted to farm. I always saw myself coming back to Maine - we'd spend our summers here as I was growing up, and it just made sense. When I first got here, I was 26, I had a van, and that's it."
The farmer's life was not *exactly* what Catherine expected: "I turned out not to be a great farmer. I thought that environmental science and botany meant that I knew how to farm. It doesn't.” Catherine started working in restaurants in Portland (she had owned a bakery while living in Alaska), while continuing to supply local restaurants with the veggies she was growing herself. Portland, Maine is a foodie city - a forerunner of the farm-to-table scene that has continued to win numerous awards for its cuisine. Also a popular tourist destination, Portland becomes a mecca during the summer for travelers hungry for lobster rolls and lighthouses. In recent years, the lobster rolls have been elevated (Eventide's brown butter lobster roll served on a steam bun comes to mind) - and the tourists just keep coming.
The food and beverage industry in Maine is a tight-knit one, so when Labor Day hits and the tourists go home, restaurant workers take their first breath of the summer. To celebrate, Catherine began throwing a harvest party for industry folks in early September. Bonfire, food, and drinks in a beautiful venue with friends - sound like a wedding?
Eventually, one of her friends had a similar thought and asked Catherine if they could trade vows at the barn. Catherine said yes, and the rest is history: “We already know how to have a party. This was not ‘let's start a wedding business’ - it just made sense. It seemed very natural, we were good at it, and the space was perfect for it. So in a lot of ways, that's how this all started.” Catherine explains that the pivot from party venue to official event space was a natural one. The bonfire (recently expanded) is the same pit that used to host Portland bartenders and chefs. Catherine loves food, people, and good times - she's perfect for the job.
Catherine explains that Caswell’s authenticity is one of the things that’s made the venue so successful: “We didn't move here from some other place in New England and buy a big farm and start renovating it for millions of dollars and then put a gorgeous sign up front. We've been here. These are roots. This is home.” One thing led to another, and Catherine now owns three businesses: Caswell Farm (the venue), Barn and Table Catering Company (more on that later), and The Bar Association (a mobile bar service, that yes, Catherine says receives calls for legal advice a few times per year). In twelve years, Caswell Farms has become one of the most desirable wedding destinations in Maine - they’re already booking into 2023.
Being at Caswell feels like you’re part of a family: “I don't know if it's as much a wedding business as just a celebration and a gathering business - you know how to bring people together and how to feed them because that's on our minds anyway...That's what I love about this business - it's one of their happiest day and they're sharing it here. The energy is everywhere and it's fantastic. It's always felt right for this space.”
One thing that remained even as the space itself has pivoted: the focus on food. The meal, planned and prepared by head chef Brian Kowtko, is still the crown jewel of a Caswell wedding. And those vegetables you’re eating? Grown within a hundred feet of where you’re sitting. Caswell has taken the farm-to-table concept, flipped it on its head, and finished with a backhandspring, making what can only be described as table-to-farm-to-table. At Caswell, your wedding feast gets planted, grown, and watered specifically for you.
Brian sits down with engaged couples the winter before their weddings and menu plans with them, determining exactly what it is they'd like to eat on their wedding day. From this initial conversation, he maps out what needs to be grown for those specific meals and passes it along to farm manager Kristen Walker, who plants specific plots for the menus the couples have dreamed up. Getting married Labor Day Weekend and want to serve peppers as an appetizer? Kristen will dedicate a corner of the vegetable garden to your shishito dreams. Brian’s favorite part of the wedding day is the final execution of this meal, when candles are lit, guests seated, and the forks first hit the plates, “where I get to see the vision that they've been talking to me about for the past year and a half.”
For Catherine, her favorite moment comes earlier in the evening: “the clapping after the ceremony is like a gunshot at the beginning of a marathon. It’s this moment that’s just: ‘this is the beginning of it.’ It symbolizes so much - the evening and the service that we're doing - but really the rest of their lives. And that absolutely sends chills down my spine.”
Catherine, Brian, and Kristen all live on the property, eating vegetables and making improvements (the three had a lengthy side conversation about carrots that actually taste like carrots - I didn’t know exactly what that meant, other than that these people are SERIOUS about their food). But don’t be intimidated by their expertise - it’s one of the most welcoming spaces I’ve ever been in. By the time I left the venue, I was laden with husk cherries, wax beans, cherry tomatoes, squash...the list goes on. Long story short: I now know what a carrot that tastes like a carrot tastes like.
This welcoming ethos expands to their couples as well: Catherine told me her number one piece of advice for couples is to ask as many questions as they have. She insists there’s no such thing as too many questions, explaining, “We know that you've never done this before!” She is also generous with recommendations of other local vendors: “Word of mouth means a lot in this industry. For example, if you were to come here, I would be able to tell you exactly who are great choices for a photographer, for flowers. Use the resources that you have once you've clicked with somebody and start this process, and continue to use them for advice and referrals, because they're going to give you the best suggestions.”
And Brian’s #1 suggestion? A wedding planner or day-of coordinator so you’re not the one sweating over last minute changes and adjustments, insisting that “it’s the best gift you can give yourself. You can take so much stress off of your plate just to have somebody else that's thinking of all these things and coordinating all these things. When your ceremony is now 20 minutes later than you thought it was going to be, I don't have to come tap you on the shoulder and say, are we pushing dinner back 20 minutes?” Catherine agreed that a planner is a gift to your mental health, adding that “it's also somebody who can bring you water when you're in the conversation with Aunt May that won’t end, and you're going to go to the next conversation and the next one and the next one, to be able to really stay in those moments and not have to break away for anything. You're going to be able to tell them that you want another 15 minutes in your cocktail hour because you just haven't said hello to everybody.” These people are wedding pros, and they know how to throw a party.
2020 has thrown a bit of a wrench into parties at Caswell, as most of their 2020 couples have had to postpone or cancel due to COVID-19. Each and every cancellation was difficult for Catherine to navigate with her couples, explaining that, due to the significance of a wedding and all it represents, “I was in an emotional relationship with 20 couples.” A few couples pivoted to microweddings and kept the venue for later in the season, but the vast majority moved their wedding day.
What to do with Julie and Chris's English peas for the appetizer they dreamed up with Brian? Open a farm stand! Catherine and Caswell pivoted agilely this year to make sure all of their delicious vegetables would be eaten. Kristen started selling veggies to wholesalers and restaurants, and they've increased the frequency of their wood-fired pizza nights (yes, Brian built the oven himself with the octogenarian mason down the street) to a weekly event for locals. And the neighbors flocked to Caswell, grateful to get out of the house, try some delicious pizza piled high with veggies grown 100 yards away, and drink a beer in the great, socially-distanced outdoors.
Catherine spoke about how, in this way, this unexpected season actually presented an opportunity for Caswell Farm to connect with its community: “For years, weddings and celebrations were private events and people were coming in and coming together - while very joyful and I love doing them, I realized I wasn't really seeing my neighbors. I wasn't seeing people right around me, and this pandemic really brought them into our door yard. I've gotten a lot of stories about, 'Oh, I knew your uncle,' or 'we used to play basketball here,' or 'you know, old Willard [Catherine’s grandfather], he’d drive this tractor in the middle of the road.' I never would have known - this guy would have driven by the house for the rest of his life and looked in and thought, ‘Oh yeah. Willard - he used to drive the tractor down the road,’ but I never would have known that story.”
Catherine is a Black, female owner of three businesses, and she was generous enough to talk about her experience as a Black business owner in Maine. She shared her perspective both as a woman - how people visiting couldn’t quite believe that she had actually built all the tables herself, insisting that there must have been somebody who actually put the nail in the boards - and as a Black person: “When I first started the bar company, I'd be out bartending - and these are people that I had created contracts with and had discussions with either on the phone or a million emails. When the wedding day comes, and they're approaching the bar to say hello and thank you, there have been a lot of times that they have a hard time realizing that the person they talked to was me. I'm standing next to somebody, my eyes are up, I'm ready to say hello. And they still go to Leah, who’s my manager, and say, ‘You must be Catherine!’ I'm like, why? She's bent over loading, I'm the one who's looking at you, because I know who you are - I know you're the bride, I know you're somebody in the wedding party. I'm looking to engage with you because I know you need something.”
She went on to explain that even her own son took on assumptions from the outside world - he assumed that she didn’t have a job, and when she corrected him and an employee explained that Catherine was in fact her boss, he replied that “boss is a boy’s word.” As Catherine described, “I was just doing what I was doing and never really had the conversation. But the outside world gives him the idea that a boss is a man.”
Maine is the nation’s whitest state, and Catherine talked a bit about the community in which she lives: “Like I said, I don't think there are any overt problems that I'm having around here. I'm entrenched in this community, but I'm very much the minority. I know everybody in town, because I'm constantly getting building permits and I’m part of the planning board and part of the local government and so forth. But it's an interesting time and there are very few people of color in Maine. In the wedding industry, I think it would be very interesting to know what it's like for people of color to consider coming here to get married. Would they choose not to come up here? It’s beautiful, but would they be like, ‘I just don't see my community here.’”
Catherine chooses to put a photo of herself on her website to make sure her identity is clear in advance: “I made a statement with that and I found that my wedding community was like, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Trust me, the first time somebody comes into your dooryard, stops and looks at you, and you know what that look is, you're going to make sure that that doesn't happen again.’ There's nothing like giving a tour to somebody who doesn’t want to be here because they just realized the person they've been talking to is Black. My face is right up there, so you know exactly what's going on. And there's also pictures of various same sex couples - you're going to see it all because that's how we roll here. And if there's at all a problem, this isn't the place.”
Visiting Caswell was a magical day in a difficult year, and Catherine, Brian, and Kristen welcomed me into a space pulsating with memories of celebrations of the past and those yet to come.
As part of our series highlighting Black-owned wedding businesses, we’ve chosen to donate to a different charity with each post. Catherine and the team at Caswell recommended Little Jubba, a part of Liberation Farms, Maine, which seeks to “provide new American farmers access to, and culturally-appropriate resources for, the means of sustainable food production for themselves, their families, and their communities.”
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