L.L. Bean's Hometown

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 11, 2001

Off the sandy shore of Winslow Memorial Park, spring sunlight tips Casco Bays choppy surface with diamonds, while an Atlantic breeze plays in the branches of the fir, white birch, and oaks that border the beach. Just north of the park in a natural harbor, pleasure and working boats line a small wharf, and gulls linger near the Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster Co.

This is Freeport, Maine, (pop. 8,000). The largely rural town boasts rich clam flats, active lobster fishing, working farmsand one of Americas premier outlet shopping centers, interwoven with an architectural heritage that still dominates Main Street.

A short drive from the wharf, Main Street curves between brick-lined sidewalks and building styles that journey through history, from colonial to federal to Victorian. Shopping here offers everything from down-filled quilts to upscale clothing and fragrances, but the real magnet sits beside Jameson Tavern (where discussions were held in the early 1800s on the idea of separating Maine from Massachusetts). That retail flagship is L.L. Beans original retail store.

Since 1683, Freeports history has encompassed timber, shipbuilding, and shoemaking. In the last century, however, it has been inextricably linked with L.L. Bean.

Freeport has been home to L.L. Bean since the company was founded in 1912, says L.L. Bean spokesman Rich Donaldson. In a way, the company and the town grew up with one another.

The L.L. Bean era began in 1912, after Leon Leonwood Bean found a way to stitch leather boot uppers to rubber bases, resulting in warm, dry feet after a day in the Maine woodsthe popular Bean Boot. Locating a mail-order operation, then a retail store, in his home of Freeport was a natural choice.

Its an identity with Maine and all Maine has to offer in terms of outdoor recreation that was the catalyst and inspiration for L.L. Beans product line, Donaldson explains. Freeport is synonymous with Maine, which is synonymous with L.L. Bean.

Today, the store, literally, never closes and features outdoor gear and clothing, a café, an indoor trout pond, and opportunities to sign up for outdoor adventures. Freeport also hosts the companys headquarters, distribution center, and reserve warehousing, plus outlet and kids stores.

As L.L. Beans reputation began to blossom and they were becoming known across the nation as a quality retailer, that put the spotlight on Freeport, says town manager Dale Olmstead. The spotlight brought its own pressures, starting in 1982, when Dansk, a china and tableware company, moved into Freeport with a factory outlet, and the town became one of the countrys first outlet shopping destinations. In the early 80s, the retail store had 2 million visitors a year, Olmstead notes. By 2000, growth spurred that figure to 4 million.

Olmstead, an 18-year resident, says Freeport moved quickly to manage the growth of the town, thanks in great part to citizen participation and interest.

Freeport strengthened its land use planning and put in place a design review ordinance. We also hired a professional planner and strengthened parking regulations, he says. Carved and painted wooden signs (no neon allowed), new buildings built to blend with the existing streetscape, and the heritage building that artfully houses McDonalds Restauranttestify to Freeports success in preserving its character.

Olmstead says the towns relationship with L.L. Bean remains good, even though the companys growth and complexity make the process more formal than it was once.

Donaldson agrees. The company has worked hard to nurture and respect our role as a good corporate citizen, both in general and in Freeport specifically, he says. A company with such a large presence could be overbearing: were respectful and mindful of the constituents that make up Freeport.

With local attractions like Mast Landing Bird Sanctuary and the Desert of Maines dunes gaining profile, together with Freeports proximity to Portland, Olmstead expects the next decades greatest challenge will be managing residential growth, with an emphasis on preserving open space. What we faced in the 80s and 90s with commercial growth pressures, well face in residential pressures, he says.

Freeport, adds Olmstead, is already planning for the challenge.