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By Stan Quinlan (for the Old Orchard Beach Historical Society)
If you had asked someone about Edward B. "Ned" Clemmens back in the mid-1800's, they could have filled your ears with tales of one of the most interesting characters ever to grace the streets of Old Orchard, as it was known in those days. He was a seer without peer, the first to envision Old Orchard as becoming "one of the most famous watering places in New England, even in the nation." Not only that, he was called "half-hermit, half-epicure." Eventually, he became known as "The Hermit of Old Orchard Beach."
Originally from Philadelphia, PA, where he was born in 1810, Ned had been a stage actor, traveling with the notorious Phineas T. Barnum. He was a man who could quote the dramatic and the poetic. As a result of his travels throughout America, he could enlighten followers with his tales of the the American scene. He was an accomplished musician, with the flute his instrument of choice.
An unlucky-in-love Ned had a wedding engagement cancelled by his betrothed, leaving him heartbroken. Thereupon, he cancelled all of his theatrical engagements and came to Saco, Maine, in the early 1840's.
His next venture was to open some bathing rooms under the Thornton House. Much to Ned's dismay, Thornton House burned down. Undeterred, Ned opened more bathing tubs in the Cataract block.
Ned Clemmens decided to come to Old Orchard in early summer of 1845. He capitalized on his geniality, described by some as "a man of infinite jest and most excellent fancies," by becoming the first to open a hotel in the town, then becoming the first to serve up what would become known as the "shore dinner," the first to open a bath house, and the first to provide a place of entertainment in the town.
Next up, Ned created an exhibit of natural history specimens in a small sea-side rooming house he furnished himself. He called this place Old Orchard Retreat or, as he sometimes referred to it, "The Astor House."
It was situated on the site of today's "Palace Playland." Unfortunately for Ned, local Old Orchard businessman E. C. Staples opened a highly-successful house for boarders nearby, leaving Ned once again lacking success in the hotel business. Ned eventually ended up living alone in the Old Orchard Retreat, thus earning the moniker "Hermit of Old Orchard Beach."
He even tried his hand at renting bathing suits to his customers at the Old Orchard Retreat. Sadly, the suits were made of skimpy material, not suited to withstand the forces of the Atlantic Ocean.
Legend holds that Ned and a friend were in his Old Orchard Retreat when a storm came up, carrying the Old Orchard Retreat, Ned, and his friend out to sea, forcing them to swim for their lives back to shore.
Continuing his shoreline theme, Ned began to work with "victualling and oysters," serving "shore dinners" and holding clambakes on the beach. Among Ned's legendary featured victuals was turtle soup, which turned out be "mock turtle" soup. Because of a lack of cooking utensils, Ned often cooked every meal ingredient in the same utensil.
Ned eventually became a newspaper man, too, publishing the Goose Fare Guide and Old Orchard Bellows, a four-page guide and bellows for spreading his grandiose views of the future of Old Orchard as a tourist attraction. With an eye toward making a profit, Ned's newspaper had thirteen out of sixteen pages devoted to local advertisements.
Ned Clemmens died June 28, 1865. Continuing the "Hermit of Old Orchard" theme, there are no known written records of Edward B. "Ned" Clemmens' final resting place. He is believed to be buried under an elm tree in Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Saco, Maine.
"Historical Sketches of Old Orchard Beach and the Shores of Saco Bay," by J. S. Locke, Boston: C. H. Woodman & Co., Publishers, 1884. Interview with Daniel Blaney, Old Orchard Beach, ME: June, 2012. "Eastern Journal," Biddeford, ME: July 17, 1856.