Oscar Cronk has had many titles over the years, worm digger, hunter, trapper, dog trainer, husband, church elder, and renowned maker of hunting scents; just don’t call him legendary.
“I prefer to think of myself more as being the last of my breed,” he said. The original Cronk of Cronk’s Outdoor Supplies isn’t thinking of retiring, although he admits to slowing down a bit.
On June 12, he’ll celebrate his 85th birthday. On the morning he sat down for this interview, he’d just returned from a 250-mile trip to his camp in Northern Maine.
“People ask me where it’s located and I tell them Clayton Lake, but my camp is actually 10 miles beyond that on the road headed towards Daaquam, Quebec,” he said. Cronk had the rugged 16 by 30-foot camp and a smaller utility shed built in 1980.
Cronk has called Wiscasset home since 1942 when his family left Aroostook County and moved to the coast, first to Bucksport, then Newcastle before settling down in Wiscasset when he was 12.
Oscar, who was named for his father, is actually Oscar Cronk Jr. He was one of five children. He has a sister, Evelyn Grover, who lives with her husband Robert across town on the Birch Point Road. He also had three brothers, now all deceased. Two of his brothers, Wilford and Milford, were twins. His other brother was Raymond Gudroe. Wilford Cronk is remembered for having started the Wiscasset Speedway in the late 1960s.
The Cronk home was a rambling farmhouse at the junction of the Old Bath and Stage roads in the western part of town. In those days that area of Wiscasset was still very much rural and wooded. Oscar Sr. found work as a steel worker at Bath Iron Works during World War II while his wife Susie stayed at home managing the household and minding little Oscar and his siblings. Rural living in Maine was challenging in those times.
“There was no electricity in our home when we first moved there,” Cronk said. “We had running water, but like a lot of other families back then no bathroom, just an outhouse out back.”
“You know, in the 1940s there were actually a lot more businesses in town. I’m pretty certain there were four grocery stores downtown and all of them were pretty busy. Saturdays then was when people did their shopping and Saturday night was when the town really came alive.”
Everyone worked in those days and young Oscar was no exception. He could be found during the spring and summer months working on the mudflats alongside his brothers digging marine worms that he sold to local bait dealers.
After finishing school he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Following a 2-year tour of duty he returned home and went back worm digging. Wiscasset was famously known then as the “Marine Worm Capital of the World,” because more worms were shipped from here than anywhere else.
“It was good work, worm digging, and I enjoyed being outdoors. If you worked hard, the money was good, too,” he said.
Cronk preferred digging sandworms to the higher-paying bloodworms. Something that might surprise people is that Cronk stuck with worming for 25 years.
“My brothers and I dug the mudflats all over Maine, including Down East. I think my all-time record was 3,500 worms on one tide.”
Like many of the other diggers, Oscar sold his marine worms to two Wiscasset bait dealers — the late Frank Hammond and the late Stanley Fairservice. “Back when I first started digging they paid something like $1.40 a hundred for sandworms.”
Around the same time Cronk started digging worms, he took an interest in fur trapping. He talked a neighbor, Lawrence Croxford, into taking him along on one of his trapping trips. Cronk remembered Croxford as a skilled woodsman and pretty good mink trapper. In the 1940s quality mink pelts fetched as much as $30 to $40 a piece — good money then. Mink pelts are still in demand today from foreign buyers, mostly Russian and Chinese.
Cronk continued digging worms along the coast during the summer and trapping “upcountry” in the winter. He said he began getting more serious about trapping and soon found himself traveling the forests of Northern Maine in search of mink, fox, bobcat, fisher, otter and beaver. Everyone learns from someone else and Cronk credits Vince Hincks for showing him many tricks of the trapping trade.
“The first time I went out with him was in 1968. I was his assistant and we were trapping beaver. We trapped in December, January and February in every kind of weather imaginable. At night we slept in his camp, which wasn’t very big. It didn’t have a lot of luxuries, but it kept us warm. I think we trapped somewhere around 150 beaver.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Oscar said. “Watching someone who’s experienced at doing something is a lot different than doing it yourself. I watched Vince skinning and made the mistake of trying to match his speed and put a few holes in the pelt I was working on. I learned a lesson from that, to work at a slower pace until I developed my own technique.”
Cronk met Edye, the love of his life, in 1960. They met at his brother Milford’s home. Not long after they were married, they bought the 2-story house on Gardiner Road that they still call home.
Around this same time Cronk thought he might like to give scent-making a try. He decided to go into business himself and bought out Ed Howe’s scent-making business, the Howe Fur Company, located in Coopers Mills.
It was Howe who owned the rights to the scent formulas developed by the legendary hunter/trapper V.E. “Wildcat” Lynch. Cronk said he soon realized scent making was lot more difficult than he thought. Not sure what to do, he turned to Walter Arnold, one of Maine’s premier hunters, trappers and the maker of Arnold’s Hunting Scents.
Cronk said Walter Arnold had learned the art of scent making from his father, Lon Arnold, a pioneer scent maker who made a living trapping beaver, mink and other fur-bearing animals along with hunting deer, bear and caribou. The Arnold family has been making scents and animal lures since 1870 and were well known and respected by hunters and trappers throughout New England.
“I wrote to him asking for his help and advice and was kind of surprised when he wrote back inviting me to come spend a week at his cabin in Northern Maine. We became very good friends and I learned a great deal listening to, and watching him. One day he offered to sell me his business.
“I often tell people that you need more than just formulas to make these,” Cronk said. “It takes a certain knack to get it right.”
It wasn’t long before Cronk began experimenting by making his own hunting, trapping and dog training scents. He field-tested everything he made putting his scents and lures through what he called “Cronk’s Outdoor Test.”
In 1971 he built a rustic store resembling a log cabin next door to his home on Gardiner Road. Edye often tended the store while Oscar was hunting or trapping. Oscar and Edye named their business Cronk’s Outdoor Supplies. Inside the walls were filled with a variety of hunting supplies, pack baskets, skinning knives, beaver and other animal traps and a large supply of scents and lures including the ones bearing his name. Among his original deer lures are Cronk’s “Buck’s Joy,” “Ruttin’ Buck” and “Cronk’s Master Deer Lure.” All are well known to deer hunters across the country.
Cronk won’t share any of his scent making secrets, but said he does his brewing in the spring.
“My own products have done very well for us over the years. They’re sold in Maine from Fort Kent to Kittery and carried by two of the state’s biggest wilderness outfitters, L.L. Bean and the Kittery Trading Post,” he added.
Mentioning L.L Bean brings to mind a mountain lion on display there in the store’s hunting and fishing department. Cronk shot the huge cat during a hunting trip to Colorado.
“I was 77 when I shot it and actually, if I remember correctly, it was just over the border in New Mexico; I think maybe near the San Luis Valley region. It was rugged country. I was hunting with a 44-magnum rifle and one shot was all it took,” he said.
How did it wind up at L.L. Bean?
“Well, Randy Brook who was doing their taxidermy saw it he thought it would look pretty good there in the store. They had been selling my scents and lures for many years so I let them have it for display.”
Does he think about retiring? No, he replied, but he may someday sell the formulas for his trapping scents.
“I don’t really want to retire. I’ve always believed you need a purpose in life.
“I’ve tried to take good care of myself over the years and really feel that I’ve been blessed by the good Lord in that regard. I’ve had a good life and experienced some wonderful and amazing things,” he said.
Cronk is up early most days often before the sun rises. He begins by exercising and stretching. A spiritual man, he devotes a portion of each day to Bible study.
“I learn something new every day from reading it. Someone told me once, if you remain a student you can learn something new all your life,” he said.