FREEPORT — The story of L.L. Bean is one of retail success based on tradition and versatility.

Next week, the company celebrates its 100th anniversary with music, demonstrations, and what is promised to be the biggest fireworks display in Maine’s history.

And, as has been the case since 1951, the store at 95 Main St. will stay open all day and night throughout the party.

Born of founder Leon Leonwood Bean’s desire to make a better hunting boot, the company is a Main Street fixture, with new retail space literally wrapped around its original home base, while expanding its offices and distribution center throughout town.

With annual sales of $1.52 billion last year, and more than 4,900 full-time employees around the world, the company has maintained market prominence while projecting a local, small-business image.

“There is no separating Maine from L.L. Bean or L.L. Bean from Maine,” said Leon Gorman, the former chief executive who is now chairman of the board. Gorman is the grandson of company founder Leon Leonwood Bean, who began selling hunting boots in 1912.

Gorman said he faced a daunting challenge – to update products while maintaining the image his grandfather created – when he took over the company 45 years ago.

“The only concern I had was the passage of L.L.’s charismatic name when he died, which occurred in 1967,” Gorman said. “His personality was such a part of our heritage and brand. Could we survive his passing in our customers’ eyes?”

From bootlaces up, the company has expanded lines of apparel, tools, accessories and outdoor gear while hosting workshops, classes and demonstrations for customers.

“The brand is well suited to global markets because of the company’s core strengths – product quality, value, customer service and promoting the same healthy, wholesome outdoor lifestyle as we enjoy in Maine,” Gorman said.

Family ties

The family tradition at Bean extends beyond Gorman, to company employees.

Freeport resident Nancy Marston has witnessed and participated in many of the changes that created a modern retailer now selling more online than through its traditional catalogs.

“So glad I was there at the time, because I saw more things happen with that company than anyone now does,” said Marston, who retired in 1997 after 28 years at the company.

Marston said she reluctantly carried on a family tradition working at L.L. Bean: her mother, two aunts, an uncle and a cousin worked there before she applied.

“I didn’t want to work there because I knew everybody,” she said.

One aunt, Dot Marston, served as payroll mistress for almost 50 years. Nancy Marston said her aunt delivered cash to employees in envelopes with payroll deductions marked on the outside. Marston said her aunt recalled some employees quit when the company started paying by check instead of cash.

“She loved it because she got to see everyone in the company once a week,” Marston said.

Using catalogs, parcel post and an unconditional product guarantee, L.L. Bean built a company relying on local workers to stitch and make clothing and outdoor accessories.

By the mid 1920s, Bean employed 25 people earning $25 a week. Company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said about 2,500 employees currently work year round in Freeport.

Marston’s mother worked as a stitcher, her aunt delivered pay the old fashioned way, and Nancy said she arrived as the company was embarking on the road to the digital age.

When she started in 1969, Marston said, the company stored customer information on file cards. Marston knew how to operate a machine called a Flexowriter, which recorded information typed on ribbons and was being introduced for data storage.

“I was hired on Friday, went to work on Monday and didn’t leave for 28 years,” she said.

Marston later supervised order processing and worked in data processing before retiring. She was among the first of the office staff to move out of the Main Street retail base, to the corporate headquarters a quarter mile north.

“That was major, we weren’t in our building anymore,” she said.

The new methods of data processing Marson helped establish then moved into the digital age, and Internet sales began to increase. In 2000, online sales provided 15 percent of company revenues. At the end of the decade, online sales outpaced catalog sales.

Gorman said the methods for sales may have changed, but the goals remain constant.

“Our aspirations in customer service, for instance, are to be the best in our competitive area,” he said. “This has been true in the catalog business as it continues to be in our e-commerce business and our retail expansion.”

Gorman added he is looking forward to next week.

“I think the 100th anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to renew acquaintances among family and friends,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

L.L. Bean was already a Main Street fixture in Freeport in the 1930s.

100 years of L.L. Bean

Some L.L. Bean milestones:

1912 — Leon Leonwood Bean invents Maine Hunting Boot and creates a sales flier.

1924 — Maine Duck Hunting Coat introduced, company employs 25 people, each earning $25 per week.

1938 — First lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits Freeport store and buys a trout knife costing 75 cents for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1944 — First canvas tote bag introduced. Removed from inventory a year later, it was reintroduced in 1965 as the Boat and Tote bag.

1951 — L.L. Bean begins 24/7 service after a chance encounter leads to a sale at 3:30 a.m.

1960 — Red Sox slugger Ted Williams offers to buy company after his baseball career ends. The offer was declined.

1971 — Company extends 100 percent guarantee to cover all new and used products.

1982 — Backpacks designed for young students introduced.

1990 — Twenty climbers from the U.S.A., Russia and China reach the summit of Mount Everest in an expedition sponsored and outfitted by L.L. Bean.

2000 — Online sales are 15 percent of company sales, and increase in the next decade to surpass catalog sales.

Bean by the numbers

• 18 retail stores and nine outlets in New England, Mid-Atlantic and Illinois.

• $1.52 billion in sales for 2011.

• 4,900 year-round employees, 2,500 in Freeport.

• Ranks 18th on Top 5oo list of Internet retailers.

Sidebar Elements

The boot outside the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport was built to commemorate the company’s 90th anniversary. The 100th anniversary celebration will include live music, fireworks, product demonstrations and a Fourth of July parade on Main Street. Main Street will also be closed July 7 for a street festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

L.L. Bean’s retail stores in Freeport are centered at its traditional Main Street location, but have been expanded to include separate home and outdoor areas with room for product demonstrations and workshops.

Strike up the bands, break out the trophies

FREEPORT — Red Sox and rockers will be a part of the centennial anniversary celebrations at L.L. Bean from July 4-7.

A schedule of the Hometown Anniversary Celebration activities includes a 7: 30 p.m. concert on July 4 by country musician Jo Dee Messina and a 7:30 p.m. July 7 show by roots rocker Chris Isaak. Both free shows will be held in Discovery Park off Main Street.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 5, former Red Sox star Rico Petrocelli and mascot Wally the Green Monster will visit town with the World Series trophies won by the team in 2004 and 2007.

On July 4, the 35th annual L.L. Bean 10K road race and fun run precedes the 10 a.m. Fourth of July parade. On July 7, there will be a street festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the celebration will be capped with what is billed as “the greatest fireworks display in Maine history.”

Neighbors question fireworks plan

FREEPORT — It is billed as the largest fireworks display in the history of the state, but L.L. Bean’s plans for the July 7 celebration worry some residents on the west side of Interstate 295.

Susan Campbell, who owns a Hunter Road farm with her husband, Joe Carroll, said she has gathered almost 100 signatures on a petition asking the company to avoid using Pine Tree Academy on Pownal Road as a firing site for the display.

“We don’t want them to cancel it, we want everyone to enjoy them,” Campbell said, adding her immediate concern is that the noise from the display may frighten the four horses and 10 cows she and her husband keep on their property.

L.L. Bean plans to use the academy and a Morse Street site near Main Street to launch the fireworks.  Company spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said plans have not changed and the company continues to work toward a solution with Campbell and her husband.

Campbell said one animal – a 30-year-old pony named Katie – is particularly prone to panic and anxiety attacks caused by noise. She said she is afraid the horse may not survive the prolonged display the company plans.

Last month, when the company tested fireworks at Pine Tree Academy, Campbell said, her cows “stampeded for the barn.”

After the test firing, Beem said the company decided against using 10-inch shells for the display, but will launch 4- and 6-inch shells at the academy.

While Campbell contends the smaller shells can be fired from Morse Street so the whole display is launched from the other side of the highway, Beem said the company intends to use the academy site based on consultations with local and state fire officials.

The company offered to provide transportation to move Katie, but Campbell said the pony might have panic attacks in a smaller trailer, and a larger livestock trailer has not been found.

— David Harry

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