Mr. Bean's new venture turns out just ducky

Should you visit Freeport, Maine, today, as thousands do every day, you will find nothing left of the quiet, coastal village in which I happily grew up so long ago. In my time, Marshy Coffin was shucking clams and peddled clam juice, Bill Moody was picking fresh crab meat, Old Man Lavers had the mail boat to Bustin Island, and L.L. Bean (walk-over shoes and sweet-orr work pants) had begun collecting names for his mail-order catalog.

When I was 10 years old, Mr. Bean and I were partners in the mallard duck business. That needs explaining. Mr. Bean was a dedicated duck hunter, which I never was. I grew up mallard ducks as juvenile 4-H project manager, and Mr. Bean came around to buy my ducks as tollers. Live decoys were then lawful, and he paid me $1.50 a bird, which was some old good in them days. Mr. Bean would select a pair and use them at his waterfowl "camp" at Merrymeeting Bay. I'd keep my breeders and then caretake his ducks until he wanted them.

Today, I realize you'll have to hunt some to find anybody at L.L. Bean, but in mallard days, Mr. Bean's office was prominent and fairly public. He'd left the gents' clothing business with his brother Guy and was building up his mail sales in the Warren Block across the street, where his office on the second floor was reached from an outside stairway. The building had a play-acting theater on the third floor.

Mr. Bean had one secretary, Hazel, who sat just outside his office, and everybody else around about cut, stitched, finished, and fitted lacings to his Maine hunting shoes. Hazel was a queen without a throne, and as receptionist she just nodded if it was a personal call and anybody in Freeport would walk right in.

But if Mr. Bean was "engaged" with the governor, his broker, or maybe Senator Hale, Hazel's admonishing finger warned us off. When we went back later, we always asked L.L., "Who was that?" Mr. Bean never believed that people came to Freeport to see him!

I got a note from Hazel one day and went in to find Mr. Bean surrounded by 27 axes. There they were, 27 of 'em, leaning against the wall, handles up at attention, and Mr. Bean looking at some trout flies George Soule had tied for the photographer. They would be in the spring catalog. "Come in, Johnnie," he said, "Pick out an ax!"

He had decided his catalog needed a light ax for camping purposes. Not a utility ax, you see, but one light enough to be carried in a pack bag or basket, and sturdy enough to work up campfire wood on the trail. Also light enough to be mailed, as Mr. Bean was careful about pounds and ounces and parcel post zones and "What be I goin' to get from it?"

The exhibition of axes was to decide which ax would go into his next catalog. He had written to every foundry he could find out about, saying he was about to put a light "boys' ax" in his catalog, and would they submit a sample they felt would suit his requirements? This was interesting, because none of his assembled samples was made in Maine, where the New World lumbering ax was invented.

The heavy, stiff-handled ax used in Europe was unsuited for harvesting pine and spruce in North America, where a lighter blade needed a flexible shaft with a "snap" to it. The Pilgrims found this out in 10 minutes.

The New World choppers needed an ax that would bounce all day and not discombobulate the shoulders. But Mr. Bean had found our leading axmaker, Snow & Nealley in Bangor, indifferent to his purposes. They had sent no sample.

Now, as his cronies, decoy fanciers, and rifle buffs came in for regular forenoon howdies, Mr. Bean would ask them to "heft" the samples and tell him which was best to go into the woods on a picnic. Mr. Bean was to sell many axes, as selected by fellow Freeporters. I picked one that would not only cut wood but would drive tent pins, gather Christmas greens, chop onions, and so on.

Thus, the all-purpose Maine Camp Ax went into the Bean catalog, and Mr. Bean said he was astonished at the great number of orders from Alaska. Afterward, Mr. Bean gave the samples away, one by one, to his chums who came in every day to assist him with nagging corporate decisions.

He didn't give me the one I selected, because too many others had picked it, too, and that's the one he stocked. But he did give me a camp ax. I still have it, but over the years I've worn out six heads and 13 handles. I should give it to Freeport's historical society.

Did I ever tell you about the time L.L.Bean and his brother Ortho were going up to Goddard Brook to "try out" a trout fly George Soule had just invented? As they were getting into the automobile, loaded down with angling specialties from the Bean catalog, Ern Morton, the Freeport Tax Collector, happened by, and he called, "Got your fishing licenses?"

And by the George Harry, neither one had a license! They had to wait until Town Clerk Bob Randall came to open his office, and Ern's timely reminder about a license probably spared L.L. Bean the unpleasantness of a fine for angling without a license.

The next morning, Ern Morton got a free pair of Maine hunting shoes and a personal letter from Hazel signed by L.L. Bean. (Town Clerk Bob Randall was also justice of the Freeport Municipal Court.) But I already said Freeport was then a good town for boyhoods.

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