One of Loren Shuck’s favorite stories to tell is the one about the little old lady from Aroostook County who, in her younger years, would knock her husband around with a cast-iron frying pan in order to show him who was boss. At least, that’s what she said she did. The pan in question, which Shuck purchased from her at a yard sale a while back, has the dings and dents to indicate the possibility of such activity.
“She said she got it in a six-piece Griswold frying pan set she got for a wedding gift, and that was the only one left. Now, who knows if she really did hit her husband with it, but that pan is really old, and normally it would totally shatter if it got smashed around like that,” said Shuck. “Who knows? It could be true. It sure looks beat up.”
Shuck is known among Maine antiquers, yard sale fans and the small but devoted community surrounding all things cast iron as the Maine Pan Man. For the better part of two decades, Shuck has traveled the highways and back roads of Maine and New England in search of pans, cake molds, Dutch ovens, trivets, griddles, cauldrons, waffle irons, candle molds, stove grills and anything else that’s ever been made from cast iron.
“It’s gotten out of control,” said Shuck, a former law enforcement officer now buying and selling cast iron and other antiques full time. “I put those ‘American Pickers’ guys to shame. I can look through somebody’s stuff and know right away if it’s going to be good or not. I’m the yard sale king. I’m obsessed.”
In his garage at his home in Greene, which is about 10 miles northeast of Lewiston, there are boxes and stacks of cast-iron everything. Mostly pans, but also the biggest, heaviest Dutch oven you’ve probably ever seen, countless cake and muffin tins, and lots of other cast-iron items that haven’t been made by any cast-iron company for decades. He estimates he has more than 3,000 individual pieces of cast iron.
A part of his collection — around 500 items, plus an antique stove — will be on display at the annual Pine Tree State Sportsman Show, held at Sukee Event Center on Verti Drive in Winslow, which started Friday, March 18, and will run through Sunday, March 20. He only displays his collection once a year, because assembling and transporting hundreds of pans is difficult, time-consuming and physically strenuous. One large plastic container of pans easily weighs 300-400 pounds, if not more.
Shuck got started collecting cast iron in his mid-20s. He recalls trying some blueberry muffins a friend had baked in a cast-iron pan in a wood-fired stove.
“I looked at my friend’s stove and noticed on the back wall behind it there were many cast-iron frying pans and muffin pans,” said Shuck, a native of East Machias. “I thought that looked very impressive. I told my friend that when I got my first house, I wanted to do a display like that. He told me he’d been picking up cast iron at yard sales for years. I was told it would take me some time to find as many as he had, so the challenge was on.”
From late spring until early fall, Shuck hits the road with his tent and kayak and finds yard sales across the state. Though he also is a collector of antique guns, holsters, deer and moose antlers and other hunting and camping ephemera, his main goal is to find frying pans.
“I always go in, look around, and then ask the owner if they have any cast iron,” he said. “They’ll usually lead me right to it. Plus, I just love talking to people. I love telling stories.”
He has found everything from tiny pans made to hold a single egg to huge, 2-foot-diameter pans used to make massive breakfasts for 19th century Maine logging camps. His travels take him from Portland to the St. John Valley, where he stops at hundreds of yard sales that he looks up in newspapers and online. When he’s done, he finds a place to kayak, sets up his tent and roughs it for the night, ready to go to more yard sales in the morning.
Shuck isn’t a fan of contemporary cast-iron pans; most of them are made in China, and he believes they are of poor quality and he is concerned that they may contain lead. What he loves are the ones made in the 19th century or first half of the 20th century. Until the advent of nonstick pans and Teflon — which Shuck is decidedly not a fan of — a set of cast-iron frying pans was always a popular wedding gift. Cast-iron Dutch ovens and muffin and cake pans were standard issue in most kitchens. Cast iron still is used regularly today; many swear by it when cooking breakfast in particular.
The gold standard cast-iron company is Griswold, who made cast iron everything for decades. Other brands he collects include Wagner, Wood, Wapak, and two made right here in Maine until the mid-20th century: Portland Stove Foundry Co. and Wood, Bishop & Co. out of Bangor.
“They really don’t make them like they used to. There’s a lot of history in these things,” he said. “The thing about it is that if you take care of it, it’ll last forever. They just get better with age. The more you cook with it, the better everything will taste. I think food always tastes better in cast iron.”
Loren Shuck will have a number of cast-iron pans for sale at the Pine Tree State Sportsman Show, starting at $10. To set up an appointment with Shuck outside of the show this weekend, call 713-8123.