CARIBOU, Maine — What began as a quarantine project for a Caribou man has catapulted his collection of antiques into a sort of video stardom.
The Old Iron Inn in Caribou is aptly named for Kevin McCartney’s treasure trove of hundreds of old, unique irons. Now, he is sharing his lifelong interest with people across the world through his recent series of YouTube videos: “Kevin Talks Irons.”
“Everyone knows me for my science work at the university, the solar system project and the Northern Maine Fair,” Kevin McCartney said. “But I have this backstory that often surprises people.”
McCartney — who owns the inn with his wife, Kate McCartney — is a professor of geology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. He spearheaded the solar system model project which features planets spaced apart at scale along Route 1 between Presque Isle and Houlton.
When he was away from the inn, he said guests would often ask about the many irons on display. Kate McCartney formulated the idea to start making informative videos to show guests.
The video project would not have happened without the COVID-19 pandemic slowing life down for nearly everyone.
“If the pandemic hadn’t hit, I would’ve been in my office at the university almost every day of the summer, as I always am,” Kevin McCartney said.
Kate McCartney films the videos at the inn. The couple had no video production background, so they experimented for several weeks. On June 14, “Kevin Talks Irons: The Premiere” went live on his her YouTube channel.
As of Thursday, videos on the channel have racked up about 5,000 views. The premiere alone has 681 views, and their second most popular video, “Let’s Go Fluting,” has more than 400.
Fluting irons were used to press fluted ruffles on cuffs and collars and are among his favorite irons, Kevin McCartney said. After viewing their uploaded videos on both hand and machine fluters, a viewer emailed him asking for a demonstration.
He had never seen these irons in action, so he contacted fellow members of an iron club. Enthusiasts told him fluting has not been done in 50 years, which prompted the McCartneys to film a live demonstration.
“You get some fabric, cut it in strips, figure out the starching process, and starch it. We experimented and spent about three days with it, and we showed how it was done with about three different fluters,” Kevin McCartney said.
The resulting video has been among the channel’s most successful.
“That video went right into the stratosphere because nobody had seen that before,” he said. “So now we’re getting more into these kinds of questions that people hadn’t thought of before.”
Kevin McCartney has had an interest in irons since he began collecting them in high school, amassing 20 to 30 irons at that time.
“I was a collector of collections. I collected fossils, which led to me being a geologist, along with coins, stamps and matchbooks — you name it. And then one day I was in an antique shop and came along an iron, and then I saw another iron, and they were very inexpensive,” he said.
“And when Kate met me, the decor of my apartment was old irons,” he said.
The two met while studying in Florida. They moved to Maine for one, and then another one-year job. When he received a request for a third year, Kevin McCartney requested a tenure track.
“And that’s when we started looking for houses,” Kate McCartney said. “I had spent a semester in England and the way I traveled was by staying at bed and breakfasts. I mentioned that to Kevin a long time ago. It stuck with him, and he said ‘We’re going to open a B&B.’”
The Old Iron Inn was originally built in 1913, and the couple have owned it for 28 years.
Kevin McCartney still collects irons, but more like a curator would, filling gaps in categories and searching for irons that could lend themselves to new and interesting videos.
“It’s sort of a narrow focus, but there’s an enormous amount of variety within that subject,” he said. “There’s as wide a diversity of types of irons as there are guns and automotives. There are so many different technologies, history, and variations from country to country. It’s practically infinite.”
Kevin McCartney adds humor and an historical context to the videos, and uses his skills as an educator to make the videos interesting for viewers.
“[Irons] were an essential part of how we lived for a very long time,” he said. “Once upon a time ironing was something that you did, or someone did for you, every day, because it was the way you advertised yourself. You wouldn’t even think about going outside without that crease. It was a way that people read others.”
They have no plans to stop creating videos anytime soon.
“We’ve got enough material to be doing this for years,” he said.