Beyond Bean Boots: Freeport’s Shoe-Making History
Currently, Freeport is known as a shopping destination but was once known for its shoe manufacturing. Freeport’s origins as a “shoe town” began long before L.L. Bean conceived of his now famous hunting boot. In the early 1800s, shoe making was primarily a small cottage industry with shoes being made locally to be consumed locally. Maine started to industrialize with cotton and textile mills in the early 1800s but was limited to development along the major river systems. With the improvement of the steam engine, factories were no longer tied to waterways. But by the mid-1800s, a growing industrial economy created the demand for greater production of items no longer to be consumed locally but to be manufactured and shipped elsewhere. In Freeport, the industrial revolution came in the form of shoe manufacturing.
One of the first shoe manufacturing companies in Freeport was the H.E. Davis Shoe Company, owned and operated by the Davis brothers. Utilizing steam power, the Davis brothers opened their factory in Freeport village sometime around 1881. Edmund Buxton Mallet, Jr. built a large shoe manufacturing facility near the center of town soon after. In 1897 or 1898, Mallet built a more substantial brick shoe factory building adjacent to the railroad on the south side of West Street (the current location of the Freeport Village Square). The Mallet building was the home to many different shoe factories during its existence including A.W. Shaw, Cumberland County Shoe Co., Porter, E.E. Taylor, and Sears and Roebuck.
A second popular location for shoe manufacturing was the old high school. In 1928, the Lenox Shoe Factory moved into the old high school (the current location of the Hilton Garden Inn) and expanded the space with a north and a south wing. They were only manufacturing for a short time when the school and one wing burned on October 23, 1930. A new building was constructed on the site, where the R.J. Sawyer Co., and then the Small-Abbott Co., Inc. produced moccasins.
Recently, the Historical Society received a rack that had been used in shoe manufacturing. The rack, a gift from the John White estate, has yet to be connected to a specific manufacturer or factory in Freeport but research is ongoing. The wooden rack, approximately four and a half feet tall, is on wheels and has pegs on alternating sides, suggesting workers accessed the rack from both sides as it was moved about the factory floor.
The US shoe manufacturing market reached its heyday in 1968 and rapidly declined. This was reflected in Freeport when the Freeport Shoe Company closed its factory in the Mallet building in 1972, making it the fifteenth shoe factory to close in Freeport in four years. Loree Shoe manufactured in the Mallet building until 1980; the building was torn down shortly thereafter. Even the famous L.L. Bean hunting boot, originally manufactured in Freeport, is now made in Brunswick. Eastland continues to run a distribution center in Freeport but the shoes are no longer locally made. Freeport continues to evolve; it has changed from a “shoe town” to a “shopping town”. Today, most of the factory buildings are gone. The H.E. Davis Shoe Company building on West Street still survives and currently serves as the L. L. Bean Merchandise Pick-up Center and employee store. The Mallet Office building also remains and is again surrounded by a mass of buildings keeping Freeport’s economy alive.