Millard Hassan had his 15 minutes of fame. But his life hasn’t changed. He still works seven days a week bending steel into tines for the worm hoes and clam hoes that first brought him to the attention of the world outside Lincoln County.
Time seems to stand still at the Newcastle Repair Shop, despite the large clock that hangs from a shelf and marks the minutes as they pass. Among the framed collection of photos is a yellowing newspaper clipping featuring the shop and its owner looking almost the same as they do today.
Hassan has told his story on television shows like “Bill Green’s Maine” and the National Geographic show “Filthy Riches.” But Hassan never sought attention — it came to him.
Clam diggers and worm diggers knew his reputation all along. And his name is still shared among the working men and women in the shellfish industry who need a well-made hoe to turn the mud in tidal flats.
Hassan was born on a road that bore his name, Hassan Avenue in Newcastle, and he has lived in the town for the entirety of his life, 78 years so far. The Newcastle Repair Shop has been a fixture in the town since 1977.
Hassan’s father dug worms, and Hassan followed in his footsteps digging blood worms and sand worms, most often at Cod Cove in Edgecomb. Hassan said digging worms can make for a decent living.
In the 1960s he earned about $300 a week digging in the marshes and rivers. “It was a lot of money back then,” he said. He got paid $2 for 100 worms and said on his best day he dug 1,925 worms. Prices have gone up since then, and now can range from $35 up to $60-$65 for 100 worms, Hassan said.
Hassan dug worms year-round, despite the weather. He described wading through the snow to get to the mudflats. Worm digging is tide driven so he was often up at 2 or 3 a.m. “I used to hate working half the day in the dark and half the day in the light,” he said. “I felt like I’d been dragged through a knothole.”
The experiences stuck with him through the years. Hassan remembers being a kid of 10 or 12, losing his footing in the mud and his father upending him in the icy water to rinse away the thick layer of mud.
Hassan said he’s gone underwater just about every season he’s dug, including three or four times in winter. One year he stepped out of the boat into shallow water. He should have been fine but the wind was so strong it blew him back under the boat.
One time, while digging at midnight, Hassan walked across what he thought was a slick of mud, only to find out it was a slick of ice. He broke through and wound up in 6 feet of very cold water. Hassan said he knew he had to get to safety quickly so he dumped the water out of his boots and then hiked a mile and a half to where he had parked his beloved 1956 Chrysler New Yorker.
When he turned the ignition the car sputtered in the cold. Hassan said he punched his foot to the floor mat and didn’t let up until the engine finally turned over. “I didn’t care if the car blew up just as long as I got warm,” he said.
Hassan digging worms became his way of life. “All I’ve ever done is dig worms,” Hassan said.
But he occasionally tried his hand at other jobs. He was a laborer for the Woolwich-based general contractor Reed and Reed Inc., and he hung chicken carcasses on the line at Lipman Poultry in Augusta.
Hassan described a short stint at a grain mill in Augusta, loading 100-pound bags of grain into a chute, earning $37.11 a week.
“Sometimes the bags were frozen and you had to pound it up to get it down the chute,” Hassan said. “Then if you missed one bag, there would be three or four on the floor. They put them through so fast.”
He didn’t like it. He went back to digging worms.
Hassan said he taught himself everything he knows from auto repair and auto framing to wood turning, welding, and brazing. Forming clam hoes and worm hoes was born out of his own need for good implements to dig with, and he earned a reputation for the tools he made.
A worm or clam hoe, which is sometimes referred to as a rake or fork, is a multi-tined tool with a short wooden handle used to turn over mud on clam flats. Many local clam and worm diggers depend on Hassan for this tool of their trade.
Hassan currently charges around $120 per hoe, depending on the details. While most hoes are five or six tines, a customer recently asked Hassan to make one with nine.
“I put a certain curl in the tines, then add a bar, and then the bridge,” he said. Wooden handles fill a sawdust-covered rack in his crowded shop, waiting to be fitted to the finished tines.
Hassan said it takes a couple of hours to make a hoe, and he usually manages to complete one or two each day. He uses spring steel and can tell at a glance if a roll of steel is good. “I like to bend it more than it needs,” he said. “Then I pound it back to better temper the tines. I take my time. I try to do a good job.”
Hassan has spent 43 years bending and brazing steel and using knowledge born of experience to make quality tools for the worm diggers and clam diggers who seek him out.
Thousands of hoes from Florida to Maine have been crafted at this tiny shop in Newcastle.
(Do you have a suggestion for a “Characters of the County” subject? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Characters of the County.”)
The article “At 76, Newcastle man still bending steel for handcrafted hoes” on the front page of the April 1 edition identified Millard Hassan as being 76 years old. He is 78. The Lincoln County News regrets the error