FREEPORT — He’s arguably Maine’s best-known native son, right up there with Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and horror writer Stephen King. To his customers, he was simply known as “L.L.”
But as outdoors outfitter L.L. Bean celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s still not 100 percent clear what the famous founder’s initials stood for. Was it Leon Leonwood Bean, as the company claimed for decades, or was it Leon Linwood Bean, as his grandson suggests?
The answer appears to be both.
Leon Gorman, L.L.’s grandson, said he was told that his grandfather was born Leon Linwood Bean and that it somehow morphed into Leon Leonwood Bean.
“There was some incident that happened years ago. I can’t remember what it was. They misspelled Leon’s name from Linwood to Leonwood,” Gorman, the company’s chairman, said. “L.L. was so taken by the new version of his middle name that he adopted it.”
His grave marker sheds no light on his middle-name preference; it says simply, “Leon L. Bean.” There’s no birth certificate, either.
In his autobiography, L.L. Bean talked about having a birth certificate, but no one knows where it is. Kim Sparks, town manager in Greenwood, where Bean was born, said a birth certificate can’t be located. And the state archives don’t have a copy, either.
“The town has lost it somewhere, along with quite a few other records,” said Blaine Mills, president of the historical society in Greenwood. “I’ve never seen it.”
Back in 1872, when Bean was born, only about half of Maine’s births were recorded, and the records were often kept in homes of the town clerks, and transferred from home to home, said Art Dostie, of the Maine State Archives. It wasn’t until 20 years after Bean’s birth that the state began keeping birth records in Augusta, Dostie said.
There is some documentation, however.
There’s a birth announcement written by L.L.’s wife in 1900 for another son that lists the proud papa as Leon Linwood Bean, but he’s listed as Leon Leonwood on his draft registration in 1918.
Leon Leonwood was apparently a name of his own invention. “He liked the ring of it. Everyone called him L.L., anyway,” Gorman said.
This much is known: Bean was born in the western Maine town of Greenwood, where he lived for a time before the family moved to a farm in Bethel, Mills said. His parents died when he was young.
Like many Mainers, Bean took an interest in hunting and fishing, and he parlayed his enthusiasm for the outdoors into a business with projected sales of $1.5 billion this year.
Bean’s business is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a giant Fourth of July celebration this week with fireworks, music and a parade, for which Gorman is the grand marshal.
The company got its start in 1912 when L.L. Bean obtained the state’s list of out-of-staters with hunting licenses, and sent mailings touting his rubber-soled hunting boot.
Ninety of the first 100 pairs sold were returned by customers after the leather separated from the rubber. But Bean managed to win goodwill by returning customers’ money. Then he borrowed more money, made improvements and sold more. He opened his store five years later in Freeport.
Over the years, Bean’s Yankee sense of values came through in his catalogs, in which he sold only items that he personally tested. His oddball choice of items reflected his tastes, like wooden duck decoys, Underwood Deviled Ham, horseshoes, and pipes and pipe tobacco.
After his death in 1967 in Florida, Bean was buried in Freeport’s Webster Cemetery.
As for Maine shoppers, they’re more likely to be interested in the inventory than the initials.
“Lawrence Leon Bean?” guessed shopper Rick Biskup, a Freeport resident as he stood next to a giant L.L. Bean boot outside the store on Tuesday.
His wife, Dru Sullivan, said she knew it was Leon something.
“I don’t know the rest of it,” she said. “We refer to it going to Bean’s, not L.L.’s.”