FREEPORT — A cabinet stocked with old hunting boots is locked air-tight. Like a morgue for outdoor gear, each one is tagged and sealed. Some have rubber soles that are so hard they feel petrified, others look gently used.
The archives at L.L. Bean are like a Smithsonian to this beloved Maine brand.
In a white house, a block from L.L. Bean’s mothership in downtown Freeport, Ruth Porter tends to this collection of goods that span the company’s 101-year history.
Fly fishing kits from the 1960s, bandana shirts born in the 70s, and plaid, wool hunting jackets are all maintained with care. The shopworn wooden chair that founder Leon Leonwood Bean sat in until his death in 1967 is next to a White Sewing Machine. That’s the tool Gertrude Goldrup used to sew the first Maine Hunting Boots.
This vault is not open to the public but kept as a repository of the past filled with seeds for the future.
Designers peruse the collection looking for inspiration. At some point, these items will be displayed throughout the 200,000-square-foot store. They may appear on the company website or in books such as “Guaranteed to Last: L.L. Bean’s Century of Outfitting America.”
What started as man seeking a better hunting boot has grown into a billion dollar corporation with 5,000 employees and stores in 19 states. To keep its integrity and Maine-ness intact, an archive was established in 1987. There are thousands of items in this three-dimensional company scrapbook, and the collection grows daily.
“This sleeping bag just arrived,” said Porter, pointing to a brown bag wrapped in plastic on the floor. “It must be from before 1934.”
Like an archeologist on a dig, Porter, who has worked for the company for 36 years, cross references the items customers send in. She figures out what catalogue they first appeared in, and adds it to the database. Then, using white gloves, she finds a home for the item in the temperature-controlled room.
“She is tireless and passionate,” said Mac McKeever, senior public relations representative for the company.
Growing up in Freeport and shopping at L.L. Bean with her father in the 1960s, Porter knows that this company was founded on honesty, integrity and products that last.
“I do not consider a sale complete, until goods are worn out, and [a] customer [is] still satisfied,” L.L. Bean said in 1916.
The archives attest to that. Porter handles every item, from a pink pot holder that someone fashioned out of a pair of L.L. Kid’s jeans to a framed image of hiking boots made with colored beans.
“It’s one of those stories that makes you say ‘wow, look at what a customer did?’” said Porter.
She said that when an L.L. Bean product has outlived a family or its use, it doesn’t end up at the Goodwill but often returns home.
“I can’t tell you why they do it. They have such an affinity with the company, and they decide they are going to send something back,” she said. “In all of my years, no one ever said why they do it.”
But arrive they do.
Porter’s favorites are items sent back by grandchildren of grandparents who were loyal customers of L.L. Bean.
“The grandkids would send the articles back with stories and photographs, sending the item ‘home’ to L.L.Bean. Sweaters, vests, shirts, jackets,” she said.
Why return perfectly good gear?
McKeever said it’s to be part of the mystique that this company created over a century ago.
“Maine conjures up this natural beauty and aura,” he said. “We wouldn’t be the same company we are today if we started anywhere else.”
He quotes a politician who once asked: “‘Is Maine Maine because of L.L. Bean or is L.L. Bean L.L. Bean because of Maine?’ I believe the latter is true. That feeds people’s appreciation of the products.”
Customer Charles H. Gray so loved his shoes, he wrote a poem, “My Bean Boots,” and sent it back to Freeport with his trusty pair in 1992.
Today, Gray’s poem sits in a heritage box. It’s an ode to an inanimate object that trudged through the woods and world with him like a loyal friend. Throughout the icy Yukon and underneath the Northern Lights, they kept him warm and safe step by step.
And that’s what they were meant to do.
L.L. Bean’s “guarantee to last” compact was born with the Maine hunting shoe.
“[L.L. Bean] received an order for 100 pairs and 90 failed. True to his word, he replaced them and made good on his promise; he revolutionized outdoor footwear,” said McKeever. “We’ve done a good job instilling customer confidence and comfort in the products.”
Among the possessions in the archives, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and the 1930s New York Yankees and a cap bearing Ted Williams’ signature, would appear to have more value than a potholder. But not to Porter.
“We treat it all like it’s gold,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s someone sending in a T-shirt that his mother made when they were 6 years old. It’s all very important.”