On the wing with L.L. Bean

NOT too many of us, nowadays, can remember when the big outdoor mail order house of L.L. Bean Inc. was just plain Mr. L.L. Bean, but I can, and as a consequence I was invited to the big 75th birthday party staged by L.L. Bean Inc. to honor the formation of the company by L.L. Bean. I grew up in Mr. Bean's Freeport, Maine, and because I was acquainted with him I was expected to relate a few pertinent anecdotes that would send the company appropriately into its second 75 years. It was disconcerting to me to realize as the festivities began that Freeport will never be my Mantua, my Hannibal, my Stratford - labor as I will on the treadmill of my profession, Freeport will forever be the home of the Maine Hunting Shoe. Mr. Bean's party was a fine success, and we who gathered were escorted through the new distribution center that processes mail orders in computerized instantaneousness to keep the company well out in front. None of us had realized how huge Mr. Bean's business has become since the last time we looked. Mr. Bean was a large man and hearty. The outdoors that he loved and which was backdrop for his mail order success was the unspoiled Maine of the early 1900s, and his invention of the Maine Hunting Shoe was no more than a practical way to put adequate and comfortable boots on a true hunter who would walk in the wilderness all day in hard going. It was in 1922 that Mr. Bean approached me and wanted to do business. I didn't buy from him; he bought from me. Which brings us to Charlie Bailey.

Charlie was station agent and telegrapher at the Freeport depot of the Maine Central Railroad, and one spring day without relevancy to his job he went to Flying Point to dig himself a mess of clams. On his way back from the flats he flushed a nesting duck. He located the nest and carried the 10 eggs home in his hat. After he put his hod of clams in a cool place, he put the 10 eggs in the warmth of a broody hen that chanced to be ready in his henhouse. The mother duck had already done most of the work (duck eggs hatch in 28 days), so shortly this broody hen had 10 ducklings that went to swimming in the drinking fountain and drove the hen up the wall. The ducklings were mallards, and later that summer Charlie gave me a pair of them for my very own and I went into the mallard business.

In those days it was customary, and permitted, to use live ``tollers.'' Toller is the preferred Maine word for a decoy. The duck hunter would set his tollers in the water before his blind - two ducks to one side and a single drake to the other. Leather straps like falconry jesses led to small anchors, and the tollers could swim about somewhat but couldn't fly. Thus disposed, the tollers put on quite a commotion when wild birds flew over. The two ducks would cajole and entreat, desiring company, and the lone drake would berate them as brazen hussies. Mallards made the finest kind of tollers. Now that live tollers are outlawed, fake decoys take their places, and the hunter imitates the commotion on a sort of whistle that may be had from the L.L. Bean fall catalog.

Mr. Bean now said he would like to buy a trio of my mallards, as the season was about to open and he wanted to be ready. I took his $3, and from then until I finished high school I got his repeat order every year. The year 1922 was spent, and in February of 1923 the Freeport Rod & Gun Club held its annual supper-meeting with speaker. It was Mr. Bean's custom to buy a batch of tickets for this (25 cents apiece) and hand them to the boys he'd meet about town, hoping to encourage them to love the outdoors, and accordingly about a dozen of us boys were guests at his table for the evening. The speaker was Joe Stickney, chief game warden of the state fish and game department, and he presented his stereopticon slides of wildlife subjects. Joe was a wildlife biologist, a considerable photographer, and artist enough that he hand-colored his black and white glass slides. In 1923 the camera had its limitations, and the stereopticon lecture was still a fine way to adorn an evening. Joe's pictures were good, and his commentary held our attention. Then he showed a picture of a pair of mallard ducks which he'd caught during the flight at Merrymeeting Bay. The mallard drake is perhaps the most beautiful bird in nature, and Joe had colored him well. Joe said, ``Pity, but the mallard has never been known to nest in Maine.''

The hall was darkened for the picture show, so we boys couldn't look at each other to devise a rebuttal. Mr. Bean took care of that for us. His booming hullabaloo of hilarity rocked the hall. We boys took the cue and joined in. Bewildered Joe Stickney lost the thread of his lecture, recovered, and never knew what was so funny.

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