'Tis the 90th anniversary of the Maine Hunting Shoe, and the business and fame that it brought to my boyhood neighbor Mr. L.L. Bean. I hear sales are good in dear old Freeport, Maine, although the town has, I think, but one person living there now who also lived there when I did. Here's my 90th birthday yarn to make the anniversary a complete success:
The biography of L.L. Bean on video, produced by Jeff Dobbs and voiced well by good Jack Perkins, does not include mention of Raymond Stowell, an oversight proving only that Raymond is lost in the years. When Mr. Bean first mailed a catalog, Raymond was his buyer and also a dependable adviser who kept the business from making many mistakes.
Raymond was a World War I veteran, and had been gassed. His brother John died in Raymond's arms, wounded in battle, and the Legion Post in Freeport was the John Arthur Stowell Post. As buyer, Raymond also pulled the string when L.L. wanted to trap shoot, and on the committee they washed dishes together after a Masonic supper. Raymond was more than just a buyer.
The volume of mail for Bean was huge, and required many clerks. Orders were routed in one direction, anything else was screened and passed along for attention. Whatever was left went to Mr. Bean and he'd give it to Raymond Stowell. One day he said, "Here, Ray, let's see what you can do with this one!" It was a personal letter, handwritten, to Mr. Bean from the artist George Petty.
If you don't remember, Mr. Petty painted those "girlie" pictures for Esquire magazine, and was known across the country for them. Mr. Bean didn't know who he was, but Raymond said he'd heard the name.
The letter read about like this:
Dear Mr. Bean,
You make footwear for everybody except us golfers. Why don't you offer a good golfing shoe? Enclosed is my suggestion. When you make such a shoe, this is my order for two pairs. Foot tracing enclosed for size.
The enclosure was an oil painting of a pair of shoes, done with every talent of the artist, as if Da Vinci were back to redo "La Gioconda." L.L. said, "That's the most beautiful work of art I ever clapped an eye to!"
There was no problem about making Petty's shoe. Raymond sent the letter and the painting to the Bay State Shoe Co. with a note, "Can you do? If so, make me two dozen size 10-D. LLB." The Bay State people were already making Bean several other specialty items. So within a week came a box with two dozen Petty golf shoes, and Raymond asked L.L. how much they should bill Petty for two pairs.
Mr. Bean cogitated. He said, "I suspect price is no object. He's going to show these off and brag that we made 'em for him a-purpose. Would you think 50 smacks too steep? Tell you what: Bill him at $25 a pair and say this price is special to him if we can use his name. Send a release form and postage."
I knew nothing about any of this while it was happening, but heard about it soon afterward. I went into the Bean building and Raymond called to me from his little office. He used to say his office was so small he had to step outside to turn around.
The Warren Block on Freeport's main street, which Mr. Bean bought as his first factory, had a vacant third floor that used to be a theater. It had a full-size stage with dressing rooms, orchestra pit, seating, and a ticket office by the main and only door, which was at the top of the three-story outside stairway. But now the seats were gone, the stage was storage space for leather, and the ticket window was Raymond's office. If you did business with Raymond, you talked through the little round hole in the glass. He called to me through the little round hole and said, "If you're 10-D, gimme $3." I gave him $3. He said, "Go tell Jim Cushing to give you a pair of shoes."
Jim was in charge of the Bean shoe department. Jim said, "Size 10-D, eh? Same size as George Petty!"
That was the summer when you'd see a Freeporter on the street in nifty golf shoes he couldn't afford, and you knew his size was 10-D. Raymond Stowell was a 10-D. It was a beautiful shoe and I wore mine for years and didn't play golf but I never knew if Bean put Petty in his catalog.
Remember, this was long ago, but he did tell me once upon a time, "The best shoe made can be made for $3." Perhaps I should add, "If you know Raymond Stowell."