Dwayne West loves to hunt. And he loves the art of breaking down a deer — slicing away the layer of fat, cutting the steaks from the tenderloin, carving the chops from the ribs, working his way carefully around meat damaged by bullets. He recalls learning the trade, how he would have been happy to do the work for free. It’s not surprising that he makes his full-time living managing the meat department at Hannaford in Damariscotta. But it’s this seasonal family business that is his passion.
West Custom Cutting, at 126 McKay Road in Edgecomb, has been around since 1999. Dwayne West and wife Renee have made a going concern with the help of their children and grandchildren. Son John West has a place at the cutting counter next to his father. Renee and daughter-in-law Alicia oversee the operation, constantly in and out of the large walk-in where the quartered meat is stored. They carefully track each hunter’s deer, from tagging it at the pickup trucks that make their way down the driveway to placing the individually wrapped and labeled cuts into the freezers that line the walls of the processing shed.
John and Alicia West move into the small home in Edgecomb with their five daughters every November. They stay through hunting season to help out full time. Dwayne and Renee’s daughter Karen Chesebrough, with her husband and two sons, come down on weekends to lend a hand.
Even the grandkids take part in the work when they’re not playing hide-and-seek, exploring the woods out back, or just enjoying being cousins. SadieLynn helps box and carry the meat out to the pickup trucks. Alex and Addison like to stamp the paper that wraps the meat. Eleven-year-old Olivia is the most involved — she’s learning the intake process. Her grandmother helps her fill out the forms — where is the hunter from, where was the deer taken, what cuts of meat do they want. And she has taken on the task of salting the deer hides that pile up outside to preserve them until the tanner comes.
The business processes an average of five to 10 deer a day. They used to handle 13-14, staying up until 1 a.m. to meet customer demand. But eventually they gave in to exhaustion and the need for more family time and began having the hunters drop off the deer on a schedule.
Dwayne West is satisfied with his success. “People have so much going on — they don’t want to spend their one day off learning how to sharpen a knife and break down a deer. It can be an all-day project. They’d rather be hunting.”
West Custom Cutting is a tagging station as well. Hunters have only 18 hours after shooting a deer to get the deer tagged in order to comply with state law. They usually come to the closest place and Edgecomb is convenient to most of Lincoln County. Some hunters drive over an hour, even from outside the county, to get their deer tagged and cut at the small family business. About half of the deer tagged at the location are also processed there, according to West.
The Wests charge $1 per pound of hanging weight, and Dwayne West figures that a deer may bring in as much as 40% of that weight in edible meat. He likes the ground venison — its versatility. Many of his customers like the small steaks, perfect to take ice fishing. Jacob Braley, of Bristol, said, “I always have them do the select steak cuts, a few roasts for the crockpot, and the rest in sausage and burgers.”
Josh Lewis is the skinner for the business. He starts by shanking the legs, slicing the skin down the length of the leg and peeling it away. Sometimes he leans his body weight onto the hide as he works it down the leg and back of the deer. If the hunter requests a cape, he cuts from the back of the neck to preserve the head, but if not, he’ll take the easier route from the front. The head is removed, the legs are quartered, and he carries the filleted meat and quartered legs into the processing shed. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably a better death than they would have in nature,” he said.
Lew Kingsbury, of Nobleboro, brought in the first deer of the day. Kingsbury has hunted since he was young and bagged his first deer at 16, he said. It was a family tradition, but now he hunts alone.
“There was more time back then. And hunting was more of a necessity,” he said. “It used to be hard to find a place to park during hunting season, but now I can go days without seeing another hunter in the woods.” He liked it when there were more people about — “gets the deer going,” he said.
David McLain, of Bristol, dropped off the deer he tracked that morning. “He’s been hunting ever since he could walk,” wife Linda said. “The way things are, it’s good to have meat in the freezer,” she added.
“There are less hunters now,” Dwayne West said. “Less young people.”
Alicia West agreed. “It’s more of an inside than an outside generation,” she said. But Youth Day was Oct. 24, when kids 16 and under could hunt with licensed adults. Dwayne West’s grandson, Micah Chesebrough, 12, had a successful hunt this year.
Dwayne West still tries to get out for a couple hours every opening day. He and his family and his customers continue to keep hunting a beloved rural tradition in Lincoln County.