By all measuring sticks, L.L. Bean is a venerable Maine company. Heck, this year the Freeport-based retailer is celebrating its 100th anniversary in grand style.
But when the company started thinking about ways to celebrate that historic birthday, they didn’t have to look very far to find a couple of local companies with interesting pedigrees of their own.
Thomas Rod Company, where Steve Campbell crafts bamboo fly rods as the most recent owner/operator, turns 116 years old this year. And Shaw & Tenney of Orono, which makes oars, paddles and other wooden products, makes L.L. Bean look like a newcomer: It’s been in business for 154 years, since 1858.
With that kind of track record for excellence, it’s no wonder that products from both of those manufacturers are featured among the special 100th anniversary items that L.L. Bean has rolled out in celebration of its centennial.
Campbell has produced 25 limited-edition bamboo rods for the celebration, while Steve Holt, the owner of Shaw & Tenney, unveiled a special L.L. Bean paddle during a press event at his Orono shop. The paddles were crafted from wood salvaged from Quakish Lake by West Branch Heritage Timber. Some of that wood has been studied by scientists who say it is more than 500 years old.
Holt said L.L. Bean approached him late last fall to talk about the heritage product project, and after some discussions, he decided producing a Shaw & Tenney paddle was a natural pairing.
“As a small Maine company and with L.L. Bean as an icon, it made great sense for us,” Holt said. “It’s not something that we normally do. We’re mostly retail.”
Holt said Shaw & Tenney’s website generates a lot of business, but the majority of their trade comes from referrals from satisfied customers. We’ve been in business for 154 years and we’re known as an icon for our products,” Holt said. “If you want a solid, one-piece, high-quality paddle or oar, you’re eventually going to end up calling us.”
Holt said the company does a lot of work with laser engravings and sends products all over the world, with commemorative paddles can be found on walls as decorations as often as they are used in the water.
“A lot of our products are used more and more for non-traditional uses,” Holt said. “They’re in Fortune 500 boardrooms. You’re going to see a flagpole in a Steven Spielberg movie, [‘Lincoln’], that’s coming out this summer. Our pack baskets were in the new movie, ‘The Hobbit.’ We do a lot in the marine reconnaissance community, with military paddles.”
Holt proudly displayed one of the paddles at the January press event. Shaw & Tenney paddles are always beautiful. These are simply more beautiful.
“It has slightly different characteristics. I don’t know if there’s been a change in the cellular structure, but it does look different,” Holt said.
And because it’s a limited-edition item, Holt fully expects many of the L.L. model to follow many other Shaw & Tenney products and become pampered heirlooms, rather than utilitarian tools. The paddles will retail for $169.
“I would expect a fair number of these L.L. Bean paddles might end up on display. A lot of our paddles never touch the water,” Holt said.
Last year Thomas Rod Co.’s Campbell said it had been a 20-year dream for him, as a rodmaker, to craft rods that would be sold by the state’s foremost outdoor retailer.
“[I always said], ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to have rods in L.L. Bean?’ The most famous outfitter in Maine and one of the most famous rod-making companies from Maine, together? A perfect match.”
That match came to fruition after a few meetings between L.L. Bean reps and Campbell. Campbell and L.L. Bean officials announced a partnership that would do just that in June, and over the ensuing months Campbell made and delivered 25 special 7-foot, 3-weight models.
Those that haven’t already been scooped up by collectors are available for $3,495.
“It’s a true 1912 circa fly rod,” L.L. Bean senior product developer for high-end fishing said at the time. “I still felt that it needed to be [representative] of where the company was. When the company started, that’s the rod that you’d find on the market. And it just happens to take a ton of labor hours to produce that rod today.”
In June, Miller said he expected early sales of the rods — which went up for grabs on Jan. 1 — would be brisk.
“It should be a matter of minutes rather than months” for the rods to sell out,” Miller said as Campbell worked on another batch of rods for delivery to the company.
On Feb. 1 Campbell reported that Miller’s estimate might have been a little optimistic … but not much.
A week earlier, Campbell had received word that 14 of the 25 rods had been sold, in the first three weeks of their availability.
Fred E. Thomas founded the company in Brewer, moved his operation to Bangor, and eventually sold it to New Hampshire rod-maker Sam Carlson. Carlson, in turn, sold to Campbell in 1999.
Since then, the Brewer native has run the operation as a one-man business, first out of his home, and now out of a handsome workshop attached to his home. Rod-making is not a fulltime job for him now, but in June he said he held out hope that opportunities like the L.L. Bean project could help facilitate that.
“I’d have to have a pretty good idea that I’m going to be able to consistently sell 50 rods a year to quit my other job, but that’s what I’d like to do,” Campbell said at the time, estimating that as a full-time rod-builder, he could double his current output of 25 rods a year. “I’m pretty excited to see what happens. It’s hard to tell. The possibilities are endless, really.”