Looking back at L.L. Bean from Greenwood, “a town that no longer exists”

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2012 marks the 100th anniversary of L.L. Bean, Inc. As the company observes the milestone and remembers its founder, so too may several Oxford County towns in which Leon Leonwood Bean lived as a youth.

Much of the information about his early years is sketchy, but local historians have done their best to piece it together.

The disappearing town

When Bean died in 1967, a newspaper article noted the opening sentence that had appeared in his autobiography: “Greenwood, Maine, a small upper-Oxford town that no longer exists, was the first place the name ‘L.L. Bean’ ever appeared – the town clerk put it on my birth certificate on October 13, 1872.”

“We got quite a chuckle out of that,” said Blaine Mills, president of the Greenwood Historical Society.

As fuzzy as Bean may have been about the existence of his birth town, equally fuzzy was the Historical Society on exactly where Bean had come into the world – until the early 1980s.

That was when Mills happened to interview Florence Cummings Bailey, Bean’s niece and a resident of the Ledgeview Nursing Home in West Paris.

Mills’ mission at the time was to gather information from her about the Cummings family.

“At the end of the interview, I said, “You were L.L. Bean’s niece,’” recalls Mills. “She said, ‘Yes, I am. My mother [Inez] was his only sister.’”

Bean’s parents, Benjamin and Mary Swett Bean, had six children, of which Leon Leonwood was the fourth.

Mills asked Bailey if she had any idea where in Greenwood he had been born.

“She said, ‘Yes, he was born on Howe Hill.’ I said, ‘Do you know where on Howe Hill?’ She said, ‘No. All I can tell you is my mother had a picture of this huge boulder, right near the house, with the boys all on the boulder.’ She said they used to play on that big boulder.”

Bailey also remembered that Leon was about 2 when the family moved from Howe Hill to the village of Locke’s Mills.

Benjamin, a carpenter, built the Mt. Abram Hotel there, and the family operated it and lived in it. (The building, now gone, was located across from the former Round Pond Store).

“Florence told the story that they decided to put a root cellar underneath the hotel, after they built it,” said Mills. “It was ledgy, and they had to do some blasting. They told Inez it was her job to get Leon up off the floor and get him outside every time they got ready to blast, because they were afraid a rock might come up through the floor.”

Because Bailey was in poor health and tired from the Cummings interview, Mills got very little more information on Bean.

But he set out to try to find out what house Bean had been born in.

“After I interviewed Florence, I went down to South Paris and researched at the Registry of Deeds, and found that Benjamin Bean owned four or five parcels of land on Howe Hill.

“Then I interviewed three old-timers who grew up on Howe Hill. I interviewed them separately. I asked them, ‘Which farm on Howe Hill had a big boulder right near the house?’

The men all agreed, said Mills, that “it was the Archie Cole place. They said it was the only one on Howe Hill that has a big boulder near it. That was one of the parcels that Benjamin Bean owned. So we’re pretty sure we know the farm.”

The house was torn down in the 1960s or 1970s, Mills said, but a photo survives. The house was located near the intersection of Howe Hill and Cemetery roads, near Mt. Abram, he said.

Milton or Bethel?

L.L. Bean did not spend many years in Greenwood.

“I think he was around 6 when his father sold the interest in the hotel, and they moved over to Milton, where his father built a house,” said Mills.

Whether the farmhouse, located on Route 232, was technically in Milton Plantation may be in question. Mills said the Bean family and others in that area commonly referred to it as Milton.

But Bethel may actually have the claim on Bean for that portion of his life.

An 1880 Bethel census, provided by the Bethel Historical Society, lists Bean’s father, mother and, among their children, a “Leon A. Bean.”

Despite the apparent error on what would become a very famous middle initial, the census seems to have the right person – the boy’s age was given as 8, corresponding to his birth year.

Randy Bennett, BHS executive director, said a county atlas from 1880 also places the Bean homestead just on the Bethel side of the Bethel-Milton line.

Bean refers to trips to Bethel Village in his autobiography:

“The real big event of the year was in the Fall, when my father and mother went to Bethel Hill to get clothes, boots, and a barrel of molasses at Seal Rowe’s Store, for the winter. They always brought home a bag of candy and copper-toed shoes for the three youngest children, Guy, Ervin and me.”

Other towns

As a result of a family tragedy, two other Oxford County towns can also lay claim to Bean during his youth.

In 1884, when L.L. was 12 and the family was still living in Bethel, his parents died within four days of each other. The young Bean lived at first with a neighbor, according to his autobiography.

He also stayed with relatives in South Paris, Mills said.

It was while Bean was there that he went on his first hunting trip, with a cousin.

“We took a train from South Paris to Gilead and walked three miles to Hastings, where we stopped over night in a boarding house,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Bean soon moved to West Minot to live with another relative, and then lived and worked on a farm in Hebron.

He went on to attend Kents Hill Academy, studying a commercial course.

For years afterward, Bean worked at various jobs. His employment included stints at retail businesses owned by his brothers.

In 1911 he created his famous boots, and then, in 1912, established his company.

Local relatives

Leon Akers of Andover is the great-grandson of Inez Bean, and he was named after L.L.

Akers said he can remember, as a boy in the 1940s, going to Freeport to visit two of L.L.’s brothers. “I have fond memories of going down there and going to visit the factory,” he said. L.L. himself, however, was typically away on business, said Akers.

But as the business grew, Bean didn’t forget his relatives back in western Maine.

He would send “seconds” of his famous boots to Andover, where Florence Bailey lived. She distributed them to anyone she felt might need them, Mills said.

And, said Mills, “His first cousin, Lura Swett Day, had a stamp collection, and L.L. knew she did. He had clerks at the business cut the stamps off the mail that came in. They threw them in a box, and when the box got full, he had it sent up to Lura in Woodstock.” (Her son, Roy Day, still lives in Woodstock.)

Why then, despite maintaining a connection with relatives in this area, did Bean believe Greenwood no longer existed?

Mills has a theory.

“He mailed all over the world,” said Mills. “I think it was because the Post Office was ‘Locke Mills,’ and he figured there was no longer a Greenwood.”

Note: Jim Witherell, author of “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company,” will speak at the Bethel Historical Society this summer, on July 7.

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