L.L. Bean's back yard

Freeport: Beyond the town's biggest name is a shopping mecca, history and a ghost who breaks glasses.

August 22, 1999|By Les Picker | Les Picker,Special to the Sun

Few corporate names are so intimately woven into the fabric of a city that if you name the company, you know exactly where its roots are. Kodak and Roches-ter, N.Y., is one likely pair; DuPont and Wilmington, Del., another. But, for my travel buck, I'll take L. L. Bean and the charming town of Freeport, Maine, any day.

For generations, outdoorsmen have made the pilgrimage down Freeport's Main Street to visit the venerable L. L. Bean. I remember back in the 1960s and '70s, walking up the two flights of creaky wooden stairs a few times each year, stopping with my children to stare at the dioramas of stuffed black bears, pheasants and beavers recessed into the walls as you ascended.

The L. L. Bean of old is gone now, as is the sleepy town that Freeport once was. When you enter the L. L. Bean main store today, you step into the Magic Kingdom of retailing. The modern L. L. Bean is a happening, complete with a fully stocked trout pond, tents and the Maine woods equivalent of a cappuccino bar.

But, if your experience with Freeport is limited to a stop at L. L. Bean and a few other stores on Main Street -- like 4 million other tourists each year -- you're missing out on a charming New England small town adventure.

Freeport today

Twenty years ago, Freeport had the vision to leverage L. L. Bean's retailing presence and commitment to the town into a retail mecca. Walk north on Main Street (U.S. Route 1) and you'll encounter every conceivable name-brand factory outlet store, from Levis to Oshkosh, Calvin Klein to Maidenform.

During the summer, the streets of Freeport swarm with shoppers, some on a quick vacation stop en route to lakeside cabins or coastal vacation home rentals. Other shoppers come to Freeport to spend the day, while the true shop-till-you-drop die-hards log in a few days strolling from store to store, scooping up off-price bargains. Cars give way as families hurry to cross Main Street, often slurping a Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream cone in one hand and carrying a bag of bargains in the other.

By some estimates, about 75 percent of Freeport's visitors are concentrated in the four months from June through September, making the winter months an ideal time for the more adventurous shoppers. Streets are nearly empty, employees are less harried, and bargains may stay on the table longer than the 30 seconds it takes for you to turn around and get a second opinion from your spouse.

Directly adjacent to L. L. Bean's main mega-store is its newest creation, L. L. Kids. Whatever else you do in Freeport, don't miss this dream store, where kids rule. A trout stream in the center of the store gives kids an underwater view as brown trout swim lazily through a rocky cave. Upstairs, L. L. Kids offers more adventurous tykes a climbing wall, safely supervised by an adult specialist. You can try out mountain bikes on simulated trails. OK, maybe you can't, but your kids sure will.

On the bargain side, Bean's also maintains a factory outlet store two blocks south and east of the main building, where I've personally found many a bargain in recent years. As you head there, you'll be tempted by the likes of Patagonia, the Woods Face, Nautica and more.

The other Freeport

Beyond the shopping, another Freeport waits to be discovered.

History buffs, for example, can stand at the wide intersection of Main and Bow streets and imagine the horse-drawn sleds that made the turn toward the harbor, carrying the huge logs marked with the king's broad arrow that would serve as masts for England's sailing ships. The Freeport Historical Society offers a free walking tour guide of the town, explaining the many houses and commercial buildings on the National Historic Register.

One of my favorites is the Jameson Tavern, considered the birthplace of Maine. Here, in a beautifully restored house immediately adjacent to L. L. Bean's main store, officials met in 1820 and signed the final papers that separated Maine from Massachusetts. The house was built in 1779, and now is home to a fine restaurant in the front, complete with fireplace, and a tap room in the back that serves informal meals.

Be sure to ask owner Jack Stiles about Emily, the tavern's resident ghost, typically seen by children, although adults in town will swear they have felt her presence. "About 15 years ago a woman came into the restaurant," Stiles explains. "She was about 85 years old. She told us that her 4-year-old sister, Emily, had died in a tragic fire upstairs. When she tried to warm herself in front of the fireplace, her nightgown caught on fire."

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