The Byer Manufacturing Company was founded in 1880 in Bangor, Maine by a Russian immigrant family as a maker of slippers and textile products. In 1925, the company relocated to a century-old frame building in the village center of Orono, Maine. The central portion of our building was originally built as a Catholic church and later served as a movie theater and community center. The site, at the confluence of the Stillwater and Penobscot Rivers, had been the location of a large sawmill in the early 1800’s The original church structure was gutted, reinforced for industrial used and expanded in traditional New England fashion over the years by the Byer family and today has 33,000 sq. ft. under roof.
After the move to Orono, the company continued the stitching operations and expanded into small metal stampings and the manufacture of wood frame folding cots. WW II and Korea found the company committed to expanded cot production as well as the cut and sew of a wide range of canvas products for the war efforts. In the 1950’s, the company’s focus returned to consumer products with the production of knapsacks and duffels as well as continuing to build cots for the military as well as civilian uses.
With the third generation of the Byer family nearing retirement age, company ownership passed to me and my wife in 1985. New ownership brought new energy with the expansion to new cot models and the introduction of a range of traditional wood frame camp furniture. For a number of years, the company was the only domestic source of wood frame folding cots and camp furniture. Concurrently, the cut & sew activities continued and expanded with the introduction of proprietary designs of totes and other canvas products as well as contract sewing of products ranging from soft luggage to seedling bags for reforestation.
In the late 1990’s, the changing American marketplace made it increasingly difficult to pay a living wage to our Maine workers and offer products at retail prices the consumer would find appealing. Our survival was in doubt. 1999 brought the beginning of a transformation when I was in Cologne, Germany in support of the European distributor of Byer Camp Furniture who was exhibiting at the Spoga Trade Fair, the outdoor furniture show for Europe. At that show, I happened upon a wonderful line of colorful Brazilian hammocks brought to world markets by Amazonas of Munich. That chance encounter opened our eyes to the opportunities and inevitability of sourcing products offshore. A few hammock samples brought back in a suitcase have expanded to an ever broadening assortment of products for the outdoors. Today, we offerthe wonderful hammocks and hanging chairs from Brazil and China; strong aluminum frame cots and stools from China; and Pangean wood camp furniture from the Vietnam. 2006 brought the introduction of birding products from Byer and today we offer an expanding line of bird homes and feeders from China and Thailand.
We are no longer producing in Maine, but we are producing economic benefit for a host of stakeholders around the world, including those of us still working happily here in Orono. I personally visit most our producers and as these words are written, I have made plans to visit a small wood products factory in Nowy Targ, Poland where our new laminated hammock stands are produced. In my travels, I have found the people in the factories are typically happy, healthy, and often have the best job in their town or region. Languages and cultures can be very, very different, but the common thread in these trade relationships is the opportunity for betterment for every person involved.
Byer of Maine is today a very different company, sourcing products from far corners of the world. All of us here are proud to come to work in the morning at a company that has survived a remarkable transition and the most challenging financial times of our generation. Different as we are, we remain seriously committed to the text that appears under our name…