THROUGH THE WOODS: L.L. Bean

We children were very fortunate to be born into a family of readers. The bathroom always had a stack of nursing journals and the latest Readers Digest. Other standbys were numerous farm magazines, and catalogs, in particular the L.L. Bean catalog from Freeport, Maine. My grandfather, “Gramp,” was a great hunter, farmer and outdoorsman and he would pore over these catalogs and comment on items he thought looked wonderful and I considered him someone to listen to.

Our family got by and had to be careful with money, so an expensive item from a catalog had to be carefully considered. One of Gramp’s best and older friends had been a guide and commercial hunter, and he swore by the quality of Leon Leonwood Bean products and was usually dressed from head to toe right out of their catalog. He was a dapper gentleman with a darkened line of a pencil mustache, was very particular about looking good, and had excellent guns and dogs. As a country girl I learned a lot from being taken along when these two men went out in the fields. Even Frank’s dogs had L.L. Bean collars and name tags. Back in the 1950s the catalog listed a limited number of items and they were the ones that old Mr. Bean had personally selected and tested himself. You knew that it was the best and that if it wasn’t right, you could send it back. So along with my grandfather I too aspired to the treasures in the L.L. Bean catalog.

My grandmother would listen to us, and Gramp and I would be absolutely delighted with the Christmas presents she had chosen. These gifts were very practical items and one of Gramp’s favorites was a pair of lamb’s wool lined kangaroo leather boots. He spent a lot of time out in the cold during the winter and these boots were very warm and had good non-skid soles for walking on ice. That kangaroo leather was amazingly tough and didn’t scuff or wear.

One year she gave me a pair of Mr. Bean’s signature hunting boots. These are the ones with the gum rubber chain patterned sole sewn in a waterproof design to sturdy lace up leather uppers. And they were in the darker brown elk color, which I liked. They were insulated and the best, warm, practical boots ever. I walked many hundreds of miles in them in complete comfort before I finally wore out the soles. If you mailed them back to Maine they would put on new soles for a reasonable fee.

Another nice thing about these boots was their relatively light weight. I wore those boots riding horseback, snowmobiling, chasing cows in winter snow, and wading across streams. I still have them in my closet. There aren’t too many products that can claim such a long and useful life, and I could probably hand them down to some of the family’s youngsters.

When I got out on my own, I made several trips to Maine to see the store. It was terrific back then. You felt like you were going into a real country store and there was a pot-bellied stove in the main room. It felt and smelled woodsy. One summer I bought a dark green Mad River canoe with L.L. Bean on the sides in white letters. My friends and I had many adventures in it from paddling the St. Lawrence River to exploring and camping at numerous lakes to fishing the Stockport Creek. Another time I came home with a subzero sleeping bag and a 3-man tent that accompanied me to Alaska. All items as usual of excellent quality.

Over the years the old, limited catalog and store changed. Mr. Bean was gone and the brand was under new management. The company became a shopping destination for non-hunting more urban types looking for clothing and household items. Products are still good but for a broader audience. If old Mr. Bean came back I don’t think he would recognize too many things, and I am not sure if he would be entirely pleased. Although it is still a good store and we enjoy getting the catalogs, I really liked the wood stove, limited items and the sportsman feel; it was a special place and I miss it.

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