The Shoemaker Who Gave L.L.Bean’s Myth the Boot

The book arrived by mail, a couple days after I’d spoken with its author by phone, accompanied by a letter. “Dear Chris,” it began. “Thanks for listening to my drivel yesterday. No, it wasn’t a robo-call. It was real. In my research for info about Mr. L.L. Bean’s iconic, legendary boot, I came across information that set me back on my heels a bit. It seems that their flagship product, the Bean Boot, was not invented … by Mr. Bean.

“As this book will show you,” the letter continued, “it had been around for a while and was being manufactured by a few other companies in New England. In spite of all the Bean Company’s ads and hype, L.L. Bean did not invent it. This may be something of note or not.”

“I am a former Mainuh, born in Brewer, Maine in 1934,” the missive ended. “From that info, you might conclude that I may not be around for too many more years. I have come to the same conclusion, so please don’t dilly dally too much. (Only kiddin’ Mistah man.)” 

It was hand-signed by Bud Simpson and included his home address in Logan, Ohio — a tiny city about 40 miles southeast of Columbus. “P.S.” it said at the bottom. “The only really pertinent info is in Part 3. Save you some reading.” 

Self-published through a company in Columbus, Mr. Bean’s Boot is, by no coincidence, the size of a standard sheet of typing paper. Its 76 pages are glued between a full-color, paperback cover stock, and there are many color and black-and-white images throughout. Simpson — hell, let’s drop the pretense and just call him Bud — dedicated the book to his “loving and much-loved wife, Margo Elizabeth Simpson,” who passed away last year, and to his daughter, Denise, “without whom I might be in a mental institution right now instead of writing this fascinating new book.”

Bud further dedicates Mr. Bean’s Boot to three former colleagues at shoe factories in Maine — where much of Bud’s working years were spent — who gave him job opportunities and taught him the trade. We meet these people and many others in the first two parts of the book, during which it’s clear this old codger just couldn’t resist shoehorning a load of personal stories into a volume ostensibly about L.L.Bean, a company Bud never worker for. 

With the rapaciousness of an attention-starved energy vampire, Bud drags us through his work history in Maine, California, New Hampshire and Ohio, as he follows an ever-shrinking number of career opportunities in a once-proud domestic shoemaking industry decimated by corporate greed and off-shoring. Part One also offers more details about past footwear manufacturing processes than anyone not employed at Roy’s Shoe Shop (celebrating 100 years in business this year!) will care to know.  

Part Two is more fun, comprised of humorous anecdotes from the factory floors, including a memorable visit to Bangor by basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, who needed his size 17 or 18 shoes custom-made, and some entertaining bits about Doc, a “hand cutter” of shoe patterns who ran a flop house in Old Town and collected rent on Friday mornings with a baseball bat and a .38 for backup. 

Sure enough, in Part Three, Bud gets down to business documenting his case against L.L.Bean’s claims that its signature Maine Hunting Shoe is, as the company puts it in marketing materials, “an original,” a “revolutionary idea,” “innovative” and “novel” in “concept.” Bud proves it was none of those things. 

L.L. Bean’s big idea was to make a boot with a rubber bottom and a leather top, or upper, thereby inventing outdoor footwear that’s waterproof and comfortable. According to company lore and its founder’s own account, the idea for the Maine Hunting Shoe struck Bean out of the blue in 1911, after he returned from a hunt with feet damp and sore from leather boots that leaked when wet and stiffened when dried.

But as Bud notes in his book, Bean himself didn’t claim to have “invented” his iconic boot. He was just exceptionally good at marketing his products to out-of-staters and catering to his customers.  

A triple-stitched boot advertised in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. image/Mr. Bean’s Boot

Bud found copies of outdoors magazines and retail catalogues from the first decade of the 20th century — including National Sportsman and the famous Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogues — in which boots nearly identical to Bean’s were advertised. Ads placed in National Sportsman by William E. Barker, a Boston shoemaker, as early as 1904, indicate that rubber-bottomed, leather-topped hunting boots were being made and sold “for over 11 years” by then, which would technically make them a 19th century innovation.

Bud doesn’t claim that Bean ripped anyone off. There’s no evidence, for example, that L.L. read National Sportsman, though it seems likely the driven young entrepreneur had come across the Sears catalogues that revolutionized modern retailing. Still, those catalogues contained hundreds of pages crammed with tiny pictures and descriptions of nearly every commercial product then imaginable. 

In the 1902 edition of the Sears catalogue — printed a decade before Bean sold his first boot — Bud found a drawing and description of a “Lumbermen’s Over … made of best quality of pure gum rubber. Top of boot oil grain leather…” By 1908, the catalogue was advertising four different styles of Lumbermen’s Overs to customers worldwide, including boots with improvements like insulation and triple-stitching to keep the rubber and leather parts together — a feat Bean initially struggled to achieve several years later. 

The Lumberman’s Over advertised in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. image/Mr. Bean’s Boot

I e-mailed the company last month with some questions, including whether they’d been aware that similar boots were being sold years before Mr. Bean’s, and if they planned to amend their claims regarding the “revolutionary” originality of the Maine Hunting Shoe. They responded with this: 

“After returning home from another hunting trip with cold, wet feet, Leon Leonwood Bean sought to solve a problem that he believed had not yet been effectively addressed [emphasis added]. That endeavor not only launched an iconic company, it also inspired a purpose that endures today: to enable everyone to enjoy the restorative power of being outside. More than 110 years later, L.L.’s original triple stitch design of The Maine Hunting Shoe still holds up to the elements and is as popular and beloved as it has ever been.” 

So that’s all we got: some weasel wording inserted into the same marketing message the company’s disseminated for decades. Their website still claims the boot was a “revolutionary idea” that “changed footwear forever” and so on. (The triple stitch, as just noted, had already been used on the pre-Bean rubber-and-leather boots. Furthermore, keen-eyed Bud has since discovered that, for untold decades, Bean was actually using a single-stitcher and just rotating the boot around three times, as evidenced by pairs with varying distances between lines of thread. Bud told me he e-mailed the company last month to inquire about this and was told “they started stitching their boots with a triple stitch machine in the year 2000.” Also, Bud observed, the “rubber” bottoms of Bean boots are, arguably, more plastic than plant these days.) 

Bud’s big discovery is “something of note,” but what do we do with this knowledge? Why is this tidbit of cobblery trivia significant, beyond being yet another embarrassing example of corporate P.R. bullshit?                                    

If you read between the lines, so to speak, the answers to those questions can be found in Parts One and Two of Mr. Bean’s Boot, as well as in Bud’s first self-published book, a memoir titled Mantawassuk: The Cove, which came out in 2010, and which the author also kindly mailed to me last month. 

Coupled with what we know about L.L.Bean’s business practices, Bud’s accounts of his early years exploring the Maine outdoors and toiling in the state’s long-defunct shoe industry show just how disconnected the company’s values are from those of the workaday Mainers who’ve actually built and supported the business for over a century.  

Down Along the Cove 

Unlike Mr. Bean’s Boot, with its awkward structure and clunky prose, The Cove is a beautifully realized book that deserves a spot on the shelf among Maine’s best nature writing. 

On the back of this hardcover book, Bud makes a point of saying, “This story is not an autobiography. … The stories told in these essays could possibly have been experienced by any boy with an insatiable desire to learn about nature and its creatures. However, this particular boy had an incentive far beyond a child’s normal curiosity about nature. These small adventures offered him temporary escape from a life of poverty.” 

True to his word, Bud keeps the book focused on the titular inlet, where Johnson Brook met the Penobscot River in his hometown of Brewer, across the river from Bangor. I use the past tense, met, here because, as Bud explains at the end, a series of hurricanes in subsequent decades so altered the cove as he knew it in his youth that it’s not the same place at all. If only the same could be said for the level of poverty in communities like Brewer that once supported factories making footwear, leather and textiles. 

During the Great Depression there were seven Simpsons surviving in a “two-story frame house” on North Main Street that was “mostly frame … not much house,” Bud quips in the first chapter. In addition to Bud and his brother, Trevor, who accompanied him on many of these adventures, there were three daughters, an alcoholic father whose life was unraveling just as Bud’s was beginning, and his sainted mother, Stella, pictured on the book’s cover holding a dead fox and a rifle next to a strung-up deer. Stella was a small but strong woman who “carried heavy burdens of poverty and abuse throughout her too short life,” Bud wrote in the dedication for The Cove.

The house had no indoor plumbing until Bud was well into his teens. It was wired for electricity, but the power would often be shut off due to lack of payment. Water was hauled in metal buckets from a spring on someone else’s property over a hundred yards away. Just doing laundry was, to put it mildly, a real bitch

“The only barrier between the severity of the Maine winters and the interior of the house was a one-inch layer of wood and a tattered layer of tarred paper,” Bud wrote. “At night after the fires in the wood stoves had expired and the last embers had died, the cold of the winter nights, like icy little demons, would steal through the many cracks and crevices in the exterior of our house. In no time at all, it got to be nearly as cold inside as it was outside.”

“Breakfast was always very simple, usually toast and cocoa, when available,” Bud recalled. “I have no recollection of ever going into a store to try on new clothes as a child. We were not the only kids in the neighborhood to wear hand-me-downs, but it seemed that we were the only kids who wore only hand-me-downs. … I didn’t really mind the hand-me-downs too much, but sometimes we got the hand-me-downs that had been handed down to other kids in the neighborhood. It doesn’t do a young ego much good to wear the jacket Jimmy wore last year and Johnny had worn the year before. It seemed as if a good jacket received immortality of sorts in our neighborhood and was reincarnated on the backs of many.”

Beyond these details, The Cove offers little about life inside those four thin walls, though Bud notes that he also fought off boredom by drawing at home, a hobby he’s continued to this day, in addition to nature photography. His only true escape, as he noted, was into nature. 

Bud’s father taught him the basics of fishing, but that was about all he had to offer his son in that department. Lacking a pole, young Bud used branches. Lacking a hook, he once sharpened and bent a piece of wire, then figured out that pounding it flat made it stronger. Lacking a barbed fish spear, he made his own, sans barbs, with a broomstick. Lacking spear or rod, he learned how to sneak up on suckers and grab them from behind, and how to brain fish with a well-thrown rock. Lacking a raft, he made one with logs. Lacking a canoe, he made his own by pouring hot wax over cardboard so as to make it “waterproof” and fashioning these “boards” into a boat (it actually worked great until he grazed some rocks).               

The moral here: you don’t really need anything L.L.Bean sells to “enjoy the restorative power of being outside.” 

“It may sound as if the Simpsons had it really bad in those days,” Bud wrote in The Cove, but added, “I suspect that we may have gotten more fun out of life than most of our friends who were better off than we were.” Not to mention invaluable personal qualities like patience, perseverance, self-confidence and ingenuity, none of which can be bought in a store. To the contrary, the consumerist approach to nature championed by L.L.Bean and its ilk implicitly claims people need its products to survive and thrive in the wild. Ask Maine’s native people how valid that argument is.   

Let’s Go Eat the Factory      

“A customer is the most important person ever in this office — in person or by mail,” L.L. Bean once said, according to a bio on his company’s website. 

That’s a nice sentiment, and focusing on customer satisfaction was key to Bean’s early success. But there are two sides to the business equation, and the other side, the workers producing, distributing and selling the goods, should be equally important to the boss. In the apparel industry — and L.L.Bean is, primarily, a clothing company — this equation is especially lopsided. Poverty-wage foreign factory workers are exploited to produce clothes and footwear cheap enough to keep fashion-obsessed, budget-conscious customers coming back for more every season. Meanwhile, truckers, stockers and cashiers in the U.S. make barely enough to keep warm in the winter.    

Part One of Mr. Bean’s Boot gives us a personal view of the deindustrialization that wrecked much of Maine in the second half of the 20th century, as Bud tries to bootstrap himself into a decent-paying position in a shoe industry moving the actual work of shoemaking overseas. He bounces from one factory job to the next, picking up skills and stories along the way, but never enough salary or security to last. 

In the 1990s, when Timberland closed its factory in Bangor, Bud was compelled to leave his beloved wife — who’d earned a social work degree in her 50s and begun her “dream job” assisting needy clients — and move to New Hampshire, where the company had an office. Its popular boots were being made in the Dominic Republic. Bud rented an apartment in Hampton Beach for $400 a month and drove home to see his family on weekends. “I didn’t sleep well for quite a few weeks,” Bud recalled in the book. “The loneliness was the worst part.”   

Bud’s long quest for a shoemaking job equal to his skills and interests finally compelled him to move his family to Logan, Ohio, where he took a position with Rocky Shoes and Boots, headquartered in nearby Nelsonville, with factories in the Caribbean. The fears and frustrations Bud endured are typical of the tens of thousands of Mainers forced to abandon their families and communities by the corporate capitalist imperative to perpetually seek cheaper labor and less stringent regulations.     

With few exceptions — including some Maine workers who make its signature boots — L.L.Bean has followed its competitors out of state and overseas, to the places offering the lowest level of worker rights and compensation. Bud sent me Bean’s official 2022 Factory List, and to their credit, there are more factories based in the U.S. on the list than those based in any other country. But most of the overseas factories (which combined well outnumber domestic suppliers) are in China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Mexico and Central America. 

Dennis Kamprad, who runs the consumer-awareness site Impactful Ninja, notes in a review of Bean’s policies that though the company talks a good game regarding fair-labor and sustainability practices, “there is little to no information provided by L.L.Bean for its consumers to inform themselves about supply chain policies and practices.”      

For example, the company’s Supplier Code of Conduct “strictly prohibits the use of forced labor of any kind,” Bean said in a statement in 2020. But that statement, and Bean’s subsequent decision to stop sourcing textiles from China’s Xinjiang region, came after damning news reports of Uyghurs forced into slave-labor cotton factories, not as a result of its own due diligence or the integrity of the shadowy third-party auditors big companies like Bean use to try to cover their ass whenever worker abuses in faraway lands come to light. 

Sure, foreign factory workers get the short end of the stick, but Bean is committed to its local workforce and its hometown of Freeport, right? If actions do speak louder than words, the answer to that is a resounding no. L.L.Bean’s dedication to its people and place is contingent upon how much public money it can blackmail from local officials terrified by the prospect of its departure — a threat Bean higher-ups have repeatedly made, and undoubtedly will again. 

In the late ’90s, Bean wanted to expand its flagship “campus” in Freeport and made it clear to town officials that they were prepared to leave if they didn’t get a big tax break. They ended up with a tax-increment-financing (TIF) deal that put $3.4 million back into their pocket, plus $2.4 million of Mainers’ money for “infrastructure improvements,” Maine Times reported. 

In 2020, they pulled the same shit, extorting nearly $10 million from town coffers via a new TIF agreement for the $110 million expansion of their corporate headquarters. As before, the deal was struck under duress, with Bean leadership openly discussing the prospect of leaving Freeport if they didn’t get corporate welfare. Bud sees these hardball tactics from the perspective of a Bean worker who’d have to uproot their life, leave their home, pull their kids out of school and somehow find new housing in this impossible real estate market if the company made good on its threat. “Do these Maine employees mean nothing to them?” he asked me in an e-mail. I didn’t have to answer that question.  

As we reported in August of 2019 (“The Hidden Poor of Freeport, U.S.A.”), beyond the retail beauty strip along Main Street, Freeport has many families like the Simpsons of Depression-era Brewer struggling to feed and warm themselves. The local food pantry could do a lot of good with $10 million. 

This past spring, the supposedly cash-strapped company announced a $50 million project, called The Freeport Experience, to “makeover” its retail campus, adding the kind of privately owned and controlled amenities — like an expanded Discovery Park — the tax-poor town can’t afford to build and maintain as public spaces. The new corporate HQ, for instance, includes a 900-seat conference and events center that outside organizations can rent (when Bean’s not using it, assuming they approve of the program), and there’s a free health clinic and fitness center in the building, but only for current or retired Bean employees. 

Bud Simpson, as pictured on the back of The Cove.

“It’s a filthy, unethical way to do business,” Bud told me in an e-mail when I asked for his thoughts on Bean’s TIFs. “When I worked for San Antonio Shoe in Pittsfield, they tried the same thing. No tax break, then it’s back to Texas we go. Most of SAS’s shoe factories were located in small towns all over the U.S. — poorer states, not in Texas. That way they could pay low wages and people had no choice. The only jobs in town were at the factory.”

If there’s any hope of improving the lives of the people who make what we wear, of holding retailers accountable for the values they profess to possess, we have to start looking beyond the shine to the shoe itself — past the hype and marketing myths and into the grim reality of factory work worldwide. 

Bud’s anecdote about Wilt Chamberlain’s mid-blizzard visit to a Bangor shoe factory speaks, in its roundabout way, to this point. While the star was yukking it up with the fellas on the factory floor, “I could sense that some of my co-workers were beginning to feel a little inferior because of the seeming non-importance of their jobs in comparison to the overwhelming importance of sports,” he wrote in Mr. Bean’s Boot. “Then a vision came to me. In my mind, I saw Wilt the Stilt walking across the parking lot to where his vehicle was parked … with no shoes on!

“I began to laugh,” Bud continued. “[M]y boss asked me what was so funny. ‘Well,’ said I, never one to hold back an important thought like this, ‘Looking out there got me thinking. What if suddenly everyone in the world was standing outside in a blizzard … and suddenly all the sports man has ever dreamed up and all the shoes ever made disappeared from the face of the earth at the same instant? What would be the most important thing people would want; sports or shoes?’

“The room got very quiet for a moment or two. My boss looked embarrassed; my co-workers looked embarrassed. … I thought for a moment that this would probably be my last day working there.

“Wilt broke the silence and pointed a long forefinger at me,” the chapter concludes. “‘Is this the man who’s going to make my shoes?’ He started laughing and all was forgiven. He reluctantly conceded that, possibly, shoes and shoemakers might be as important as sports and athletes.”         

Bud Simpson writes a curmudgeonly column for the Logan Daily News. His books are available via online retailers, but try to order ’em from your local bookstore first. 

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