What this country needed was a good hunting boot

A good friend is having a big birthday, and I hereby join in the celebration. I was born in Boston and shortly persuaded my parents to move to Maine, where they fetched me up in the town of Freeport with the amazing success you now behold. A neighbor in Freeport was a gentleman about my father's age named Leon Leonwood Bean, who conducted a haberdashery in the village in partnership with his brother Guy.

Leonwood was pronounced "Linwood," and in Freeport, Leon Leonwood was generally called Lin. And it happened that on my next birthday, my father gave me a Winchester single-shot .22 rifle. Hearing of my happiness, Lin Bean invited me to the shooting gallery in the basement of the Bean Bros. Clothing Store to shoot targets, learn marksmanship and gun safety, and enjoy the fellowship of the Freeport Rifle Club. In the archives of L.L. Bean Inc., you'll find a target I shot there at age 12, and for open sights off-hand that isn't bad.

I shot it soon after Mr. Bean had perfected his Maine Hunting Shoe and started his mail-order business. Saturday, L.L. Bean is having its 90th birthday party.

The five Bean brothers were born in Wild River Township, on the western edge of the Great North Maine Woods. They grew up hunting, fishing, and camping, and the day came when Leon, hunting meat for the table, came back with sore feet. It entered his head that what this country needed was a comfortable pair of hunting boots.

When he offered such a shoe by mail, he shortly added other items to his catalog – all of them for outdoor purposes. He wrote a book called "Hunting, Fishing and Camping." It had a vinyl cover so a rain shower wouldn't hurt it. If requested, he'd autograph copies with a rubber stamp.

As I grew older and began writing for a newspaper, I made my weekly call at his office and ran into many interesting stories there.

One day I found him at his desk surrounded by maybe 200 axes. Each had a tag on a string. He was about to add a camping ax to his catalog and had asked all the axmakers to send samples. Now the final selection was being made by those who chanced to come by. I picked the one I'd buy and Mr. Bean wrote my name on the tag.

At the end of the day, the ax with the most names won and appeared in the next catalog. Mr. Bean then gave the samples to townspeople, and I have the one he gave me.

Another day I came in and he had two pairs of snowshoes on his desk. "Take 'em along," he said. "Man up to Phillips wants to make me snowshoes, and these are his samples. They're better than those in the catalog, but how many can he turn out in a year? Last month, I sold maybe 500 pairs in Alaska alone! I sent him a check and my thank you." I used those snowshoes a good deal, and still have them.

Lin Bean, I think, never appreciated that he'd become a celebrity. He was always humble with the important. One day as I appeared in his doorway he called, "Come in, John! I got somebody here wants to meet you!" It was Eleanor Roosevelt.

I also met boxer Jack Dempsey and a popular Hollywood actor named Jack Holt. As I came into Bean's office that day, he was fitting Mr. Holt with a leather cap with lambskin fold-up earmuffs that was having a try-out that season. It never caught on, but there is a photo of Holt and Mr. Bean and the dog-sledge hat. Holt looks sheepish.

The Great North Maine woods of L.L. Bean's boyhood, which inspired his hunting boots and outdoor supplies, is gone. Today his catalogs run to many items that do not relate to hunting, fishing, and camping. Man changed the wilderness, and Mr. Bean had to seek new customers.

That said, I recall Mr. Bean best as a customer at my store. One evening he walked to our house, rapped on the door, and asked for me. He said he'd heard that I had tollers. I did – a nest of wild mallard eggs had been found, brought home, and hatched by a broody hen.

Unlike other wild ducks, mallards will domesticate, so I was keeping some as part of my 4-H poultry project. Back then, live birds could be used legally as decoys, or tollers. I did not hunt ducks, but I wasn't averse to letting Mr. Bean borrow a pair. He came to the duck pen with me and we stuck a duck and a drake in two old socks, which is the way to carry ducks, and off they went a-quacking.

After that, Bean came every fall until the state outlawed live tollers and he put wooden decoys in his catalog.

It might be that somebody will be interested that I was the first to exhibit wild mallards in a poultry show. The judges weren't sure how to judge them, but gave me a blue ribbon anyway.

Mr. Bean always gave me $1.50 per mallard. Ninety years ago, things looked good up ahead.

Note to John Gould readers

We are delighted to announce that Saturday, Aug. 17, has been proclaimed 'John Gould Day' in the state of Maine by order of Maine Gov. Angus S. King Jr. (For information on the 'John Gould Day' celebration in Rockland, Maine, e-mail: homeforum@csmonitor.com. Or fax: 617-450-7401.)

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