Their Love of Cast-Iron Cookware Spans Three Generations
The King family collects hard-to-find Maine-made bean pots, skillets, and more.
By Virginia M. Wright Photographed by Greta Rybus
Seventy-odd years ago, Barbara Elward jotted a recipe for bean-hole beans in her journal, noting adjustments for whichever cast-iron pot her husband, John, might bury in the ground atop a glowing bed of embers:
Wood, Bishop — 8 lbs dry beans. Use 1 c molasses. Large Noyes & Nutter — 6 lbs dry beans. Use ¾ c. Small Noyes & Nutter — 3 lbs dry beans. Use ½ c.
Of course, there’s more than that to baking beans in a fire pit for 12 hours, but the Elwards, who lived in Mattawamkeag, didn’t require detailed notes. Their bean-hole beans were a family tradition, born of the 19th- and early-20th-century cast-iron cookware John started gathering when he was a young man working at a logging camp near Moosehead Lake. The round-bellied bean pots bore the names of two Bangor foundries that had closed a few years before the Elwards married in 1943. John liked them for their practical utility and simple beauty.
These stove foundries were Maine’s largest makers of cast-iron cookware.
From Mike Zubik, of Passadumkeag Iron, a buyer, seller, and restorer of vintage cast iron.
Removing rust: Soak the piece in equal parts water and vinegar, followed by seasoning in a 300-degree oven.
Removing baked-on carbon: A couple of hours in the oven on the self-cleaning cycle might nix this black gunk. Or try electrolysis, a service Zubik begins offering this spring. See Zubik’s collection at Central Maine Antique Mall, 1372 Union St., Bangor. 207-732-3533.
A COLLECTION OF COLLECTORS
Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association members from across the country will gather at the Black Bear Inn in Orono August 19 to August 23. The program includes an auction; flea market; show and tell, when members share unusual finds; and “table top topics,” when experts in specific aspects of cast-iron cookware collecting share their knowledge. Scott Nadeau, of Hampden, is expected to display some of his extensive collection of Maine cast iron. Membership is $25 per person or $30 per couple.
The couple baked their last pot of bean-hole beans for the 1997 wedding reception of their grandson, Ben King, and his bride, Lynn, then gifted the newlyweds with the cauldron. After John and Barbara died (in 2004 and 2014 respectively), their descendants inherited the rest of their cast-iron ware, as well as their interest in collecting it. Ben’s brother, Ryan King, and his wife, Sarah Faragher, display about 30 pieces in their Stockton Springs home — bean pots, Dutch ovens, lid lifters, roll pans, skillets, even horse tethers (weights with rings that deliverymen used as portable hitching posts). Ben and Lynn have a similar collection in their Orono home. Ryan and Ben’s mom, Debbie King, doesn’t go antiquing herself, but her collection has grown nonetheless, thanks to Christmas and birthday gifts — another family tradition.
In the realm of cast-iron collecting, where some enthusiasts amass hundreds, even thousands, of pieces, the Kings’ assemblage is small, but their personal connection to it sets it apart. Also unusual is their focus on Maine-made ware. Maine foundries sold to a local market, so there never was a lot of it compared to products from national foundries like Pennsylvania’s Griswold Manufacturing and Ohio’s Wagner Manufacturing, which are sought by collectors nationwide. Maine pieces are increasingly hard to find. When Sarah and Ryan first started collecting 20 years ago, they picked up a Wood, Bishop & Co. skillet for $20 at a yard sale. Recently, they saw a similar pan with a $90 price tag at an antiques store.
So, what’s the appeal of antique cast iron? “It’s beautiful and made to last,” Sarah explains. “Plus, it’s much lighter and smoother than the cast iron on the market today. We have an 1889 skillet that we use every day to make cornbread, gingerbread, toast, and whatever we’re having for dinner.”