The Merchant of Maine: L.L. Bean is Born

For the first 39 years of his life, few people ever thought that Leon Leonwood Bean would amount to much. He floated from one undistinguished job to the next, and had little in the way of formal education. Instead, Bean was a young man happy to retreat to the woods, whiling away his time hunting and trapping instead of reading books. But it was Bean’s love of nature that would eventually become what is today a thriving multimillion dollar business. Named one of the Wall Street Journals Top Ten Entrepreneurs of the 20th century, Bean turned his passion into the internationally successful outdoor clothing and equipment company L.L. Bean.

Bean was born on October 13, 1872 in Greenwood, Maine. His parents, Sarah Swett and Benjamin Warren Bean were farmers and horse traders. But the young Bean would not get to know either of them very well. When he was just twelve years old, his parents died within four days of each other. Bean, along with his five siblings had all of a sudden become orphans.

After their parents’ death, the six youngsters were sent to live with relatives in South Paris, Maine. It was there that Bean would develop his early entrepreneurial skills. He began selling steel traps, which earned him his first income. He then moved on to working on farms, hunting and trapping animals. When he was just 13 years old, he killed his first deer and sold it for a profit. Despite enrolling in a semester at Hebron Academy and taking a commercial course at Kent’s Hill Academy, Bean’s real education came from his time spent in the outdoors.

Bean discovered that he was a natural born salesman, but nevertheless found it hard to stay in one place at once. He began drifting from one job to the next, selling soap door-to-door and doing odd jobs here and there. When one of his older brothers, Otho, offered him a position as a sales clerk in his dry goods store in Freeport, Bean accepted. Earning a salary of $12 a week, Bean began selling overalls to workers. It was a decent living for Bean, but he still found it hard to spend all of his days within the confines of a store.

Bean wanted to be in the outdoors, hunting and fishing in the Maine woods. Indeed, the more time he spent in nature, the more he knew that was where he belonged. And yet, he discovered a problem. He was spending so much time in the outdoors that by the time he returned home from one of his expeditions, his feet would always be sore and soaking wet. It was the only drawback in what was always an otherwise wonderful experience for Bean.

And so, he set out to solve that problem. With a little ingenuity, Bean began designing a lightweight boot that would protect his feet from the elements. He envisioned his boot to have a rubber sole and a leather top, and took his idea to the local cobbler to have the top and bottom stitched together. The result was the Maine Hunting Shoe, a revolutionary new product that became a must-have for all outdoorsmen. With that, Bean knew he was on to something big.

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