150 Years of History
W.A. Bean & Sons
150 Years, 5 Generations, and 4 Million Hot Dogs Last Year
In 1860, the year his son Wesley was born, Albert Bean came to Bangor from East Corinth and set up shop as a butcher on Ohio Street. It was only a few years before his one-man operation would grow quickly into a slaughterhouse and a major meat wholesaler, on its way to 150 years of family-owned success.
At that time, 29-year-old Albert lived on Thirteenth Street, and later Wiley Court; his slaughterhouse was around the corner on Ohio Street, on land previously owned by other Bean family members. By 1891, Albert’s son, A. Wesley Bean, joined him, and the business became "A. Bean and Son." At that time, the company was one of 12 "butchers" listed in the Bangor City Directory.
In 1892, Albert began vending at Norombega Market’s Stall #7, advertising in the city directory that year that he sold "native beef, mutton and lamb." At that time, the 14-stall Norombega was where the big meat and fish dealers sold their victuals. One could look clear through from Franklin to Central Street. (Charles H. Rice, who would be a major competitor of W. A. Bean for the next 70-plus years, was one of the dealers there. See the sidebar for an interesting story of the C. H. Rice company, and its modern-day synchronicity with W. A. Bean and Sons.)
A. Bean and Son would leave the "butcher" listing in the directories to be listed as a "wholesale beef dealer" and a "provisions dealer" for several decades. By 1899, Wesley had taken over the company and moved from Norombega to Broad Street. Business was growing.
In 1912, Weiler A. Bean, Wesley’s son, was working for his father as a drover, driving cattle and other animals from the railroad yard on the Penobscot River to the Ohio Street slaughterhouse. Albert passed shortly thereafter, but 1918 was a special year: after decades making sausages, the company began making hot dogs, which would become a signature product still popular today.
By 1919, the company was officially "W. A. Bean and Sons," as Weiler and his brother Clarence were working for their father (as was one Miss Bernice Bean as a bookkeeper; family involvement was increasing). In 1918, Weiler negotiated the purchase of a new building at 47 Pickering Square, where the company would remain for years as a wholesalers. After Wesley died in 1934, the brothers continued working, even as hordes of Dust Bowl cattle were shipped from the devastated prairie lands to Bangor for slaughter.
Clarence died in 1941, but Weiler kept going. While traveling around the state purchasing cows and hogs, he’d built a reputation as a man who could estimate a live animal’s dressed weight just by looking at it. He brought cattle from all over, slaughtering most and pasturing some. He raised black Angus steers in a pasture on the Griffin Road, near his Union Street barn. The construction of Dow Air Force Base in 1940 changed that.
"Somebody came in downtown and said ‘The Air Force is in there, and they’re selling your hay,’" said Albert Bean, 83, Weiler’s son, who was named for his great-grandfather. The Air Force didn’t ask; just knocked the lock off the door and took the property under eminent domain. "I remember they didn’t pay him much for the land," Al recalled. "They assembled a whole battalion in that pasture over there off Griffin Road one day, and the cows all stood around and watched them."
Al joined the family business in 1947, and his brother Frederick joined a year later. Al was listed as a laborer in the city directories, but through his early years he spent most of his time on the road as a salesman for the company, while Fred worked in the plant and became general manager in 1968, the year the company relocated to its current spot on the Bomarc Road, and the year Weiler died. The company closed the slaughterhouse the following year, as the supply of animals for slaughtering had begun to dwindle in Maine.
Al’s six children have all worked in the family business. Elizabeth and Judith still work part-time. Dorothy worked there for a few years, and John did for 29 years. The youngest, Albert Jr., currently works there. And David is the president.
Fred retired in 2002, and he passed away on Oct. 31, 2009, at age 85. Fred’s contributions to the family business were many, but included such things as the popular red-hot sausage and the company’s spiral-sliced, honey-glazed ham.
"He was always looking for different things to make and different ideas," David said. "I guess I kind of took that over from him."
"A lot of our success in the last few years has been because David has kept an open mind," Al said. "He sort of expanded the range of what we might do — for instance, he got tied up with a company in Scotland and learned how to make haggis."
Haggis, made from sheep’s pluck and heavily spiced, is a Scottish staple; but nobody else is doing it in Maine. The company also produces tripe, once very popular but now truly a niche market for W. A. Bean. And the company has made hogshead cheese since the beginning.
"We’re always looking around, or thinking of different things we could be doing," David said.
Al said that business is always good at W. A. Bean for many reasons. The company has a long-standing relationship with Hannaford, its biggest customer, and similar relationships with many other customers. And the company continues to sell discount meat packages to customers at its retail counter at its Bomarc Road location. The packages are very popular with families looking to stock their freezers.
Another lucrative element is the shipping of meats across the country. "Holiday time is very big for mail orders," said David. "And of course we make not only hot dogs and sausages, but we make hams and all kinds of different products" including turkey, chicken, and beef.
But the most popular shipped item is at Christmastime: Fred’s famous — some say legendary — spiral-sliced, honey-glazed ham. "We make a better ham than anybody else," Al said. "We charge for it, but people would rather have ours than the cheap ones."
That attention to quality manifests in many ways, such as only producing natural-casing hot dogs and sausages — something the big companies don’t often do because of the human labor involved.
According to the Beans, the importance of having a meat wholesaler in Bangor can’t be overstated. "People are getting a better product and a fresher product from us because we’re right here making it," Al said. "We’ll make it one day, and the next day or two it’s going on the truck" to a Hannaford store or any of the many smaller stores it supplies.
A Family Legacy
After 150 years, will the company continue to surge ahead as a family business? David has a daughter, but she’s just 12 years old. "I guess there’s no way to predict at this point," David said.
However the company might continue, it won’t be easy for whoever takes the helm. "There’s a lot that goes into running a small business," David said. "There’s an awful lot of work to it, more than anything. A lot of time commitment."
"You have to be dedicated," Al added.
The meat business is one an average Joe can’t likely jump into; it isn’t a read-the-manual type of job. Never mind that the sheer volume might scare away an average Joe: In 2009, W. A. Bean produced four million hot dogs — that’s 400,000 pounds of them. And that’s just hot dogs; it doesn’t begin to count the 20 sausage varieties, or the many turkey, chicken, beef, and other products the company produces.
But in the grand scheme of things, W. A. Bean and Sons is a small operation, and that probably saved it from going the way of C. H. Rice, Jordan’s, and other long-time Bangor meat businesses. For now, the company stands proud in its epic, 150-year history as it moves always with the times and looking to the future. And it does so with many great distinctions, not the least of which is that this old Bangor company is the only remaining producer of hot dogs in Maine.
To see what W. A. Bean and Sons has to offer, or to place orders for shipped meats, visit www.BeansMeats.com or stop by the Bomarc Road location. Special thanks to Al Bean for his help with this article. Plenty of historical information was garnered from old city directories, courtesy of the Bangor Public Library.
Written by David M. Fitzpatrick - Bangor Daily News Special Sections Writer
This article originally appeared in a January 2010 issue of The Bangor Daily News