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Opportunity knocks

The blacksmith of my youth never put shoes on a horse, wouldn't have known how, and would have taken umbrage had you brought a nag into his smithy. He was a curious artificer and cunning worker in metals, although not the first, and had a long career that seemed always to be unjointed with the times. Charlie Dunning had learnt his trade in the shipyard during the twilight of sail, and suddenly the world had no desire for the things he made - like mast rings. The steamboat was taking over. Then he went to making tools for the granite quarry, just about the time Maine granite was bowing out. Charlie made sled runners and he made tires for cart wheels, and the truck and the tractor were poised. He made tools for cutting ice, but the electric refrigerator was on the way.

It was along in there somewhere that I made a moose sled and took it to Charlie's shop to have him iron it. The moose sled was used by the professional game hunters who kept the Maine lumber camps in fresh meat - these fellows were known as meatmen. Until Maine passed a law forbidding any game on a lumbercamp table, they went for deer, caribou, moose, and bear - and also fish - and they devised these sleds for bringing the meat back to camp. The original moose sled was made entirely of wood and was held together with pegs. It could be dismantled, tied with a string, and carried until needed. Later the moose sled became the wintertime substitute of the summertime wheelbarrow as a utility vehicle in forest and on farm. When ironed, with braces and runners, it no longer came apart, and was sometimes called a hand shark. I found Charlie sitting in idleness whittling a pine nothing with a crooked knife, and he was delighted to have something to do. He made all the braces and the two runners, as well as all the nuts and bolts, on his anvil, giving me an excellent five-foot sled that we used for many years - and charged me five dollars. Meantime, he showed me some ornamental iron work he had been doing, and I admired several door knockers.

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They were truly beautiful in design, as well as having the hand-wrought touch. One had a lighthouse with an anchor hinged so it made the strike. Another was a horseshoe, and a small sledge hammer knocked on an anvil. One had a thistle and another a fleur-de-lis. Charlie had been making these off and on, to cheat the time, and they were for sale except that nobody knew Charlie was making them and he hadn't sold any. He thought maybe one should fetch four-fifty. I gave him four-fifty and took the one with the horseshoe and anvil. Charlie said he'd fire up the forge in the morning, and should have my sled ironed by Tuesday next.

I took that door knocker uptown and showed it to a friend of mine who was named L. L. Bean. At that time L. L. was trying to convince the world it needed his 16-inch Maine Hunting Shoe at four-fifty, postpaid and with a free can of leather dressing, so he was interested that Charlie thought he could put out a door knocker at the same price. The door knocker was nothing L. L. would be interested in, at least at that time, but he made a suggestion. Why not send one to Macy's in New York, and see what they said? Maybe they'd put Charlie in business.

I did that. I composed a letter stating the case - blacksmithing left its practitioners with idle time, and Charlie had taken up door knockers, pricing them in various styles at four-fifty apiece. I called attention to the craftsmanship and the artistry. And I had an immediate and enthusiastic response.

A buyer wrote that the door knockers would have to be packaged in cardboard boxes, for which Macy's would supply labels, and should be shipped in wooden crates, F.O.B. rail freight. At the agreed price of $4.50, Macy's would take 150 gross in assorted styles, and purchase order would follow.

I showed the letter to L.L. Bean before I took it to Charlie, and L.L. just about laughed himself off his chair. Charlie didn't laugh. He read the letter, read it again, folded it, laid it on the anvil, picked it up to read it again, and then he said, ''Gracious!''

CharlieY you see, had worked a year and a half to make seven door knockers. That letter was still tacked to the door of his shop when the building was torn down in the 1930s.

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