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The Beebe Company has a long and varied local history

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Silas Beebe is expanding his product lineup from just products for bicycle riders to tote bags made from a blend of traditional and modern materials. Durable canvas and quality leathers are featured in nearly all of his designs. When fifth-generation Portlander Silas Beebe is working on a new design, there’s one final step that makes the product complete. Beebe breaks out the stamping tool that his grandfather used when he owned the company, and imprints a crisp BEEBE’S into the leather. “I use the stamp on anything I hand make,” he says.

I can relate to the importance of that family stamp. Whenever I see an old black and white print of a Portland scene, I naturally flip it over, looking for the stamp of my father or grandfather — both photojournalists who collectively covered nearly a century of Portland’s history.

I’m sure that somewhere along the way, they both crossed paths with Silas Beebe’s family, who have operated the Beebe Company’s various ventures in Portland since 1884.

This isn’t a story about a company that developed a single product or retail establishment and ran it for more than a 100 years. Over its lifespan, the Beebe Company has been many things, and has been reborn twice since its founding.

In 1884, Charles Francis Beebe came to Portland from New York to act as an agent for a line of clipper ships serving the city’s burgeoning waterfront. The business evolved to supply the shipping and fishing industry with supplies, sold through Beebe Company stores in Portland and Astoria.

Between 1910 and 1920, the Beebe Company was selling hardware and construction supplies at a store located where today’s Saturday market stands. The business passed to Gerald and Kenneth Beebe and, during World War II, Silas’ grandfather, Robert Beebe, came into the business. Along the way, some of the family’s products were stamped with the company’s mission and slogan: “Outing Supplies. Eat, drink and be merry.”

Sometime after the war, the business was sold to a more distant relative and evolved again. With changes to the downtown waterfront, the shop moved first to the area at the west end of the Morrison Bridge and then to the foot of the Sellwood bridge. The company was involved in boat motors, ship chandlery and the construction of custom boats. Even now, people who have found and are restoring the Beebe watercraft contact Silas Beebe with photos of the boats.

Robert Beebe left the family business and went into the grocery distribution business until his retirement. Soon bored, he purchased a downtown hardware store.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - The Beebe companys location on what is now Naito Parkway. (Photo courtesy Silas Beebe)“He walked into a shop that was going out of business, and bought out the entire inventory,” says Silas.

Beebe had kept the rights to the family business name, and applied it to the store. He became a locksmith through a correspondence course, according to grandson Silas.

When Robert Beebe shuttered the Beebe Company at his retirement, he was again wise enough to retain rights to the company name. Robert Beebe’s son Spencer had other priorities to pursue, but encouraged his son Silas to take over the family business. Spencer Beebe went on to form the EcoTrust conservation organization. Silas too had his own goals, choosing instead to become an industrial designer.

Silas had been freelancing in industrial design since 2008, and by 2012 decided that he had some product designs that he wanted to bring to the market himself.

“I could see that there were some product design ideas that I had that felt like the right product at the right place at the right time,” he says. Portland is popular

throughout the world, as is cycling, he says, adding “ ‘Made in the U.S.’ means something to people again.”

His first ideas centered around bicycle accessories for the use and protection of a rider’s smartphones and tablets. He decided early on to seek manufacturing partners in the United States.

“We still have the manufacturing capability to do this type of product in the U.S.,” he says.

After a time exploring the right branding, he discovered that it was right under his nose. The Beebe Company name was brought back, and applied to the fledgling company.

“It made a lot of sense to reconnect it with a historic Portland brand, a family brand,” says Silas, “These roots really mean something.”

The products that now carry the Beebe Company family name are unlike anything they’ve sold before, although they fit under the traditional family idea of “outing supplies.”

Silas Beebe has developed a line of stylish and useful products that blend traditional, durable materials with modern features to solve today’s problems.

“This intersection of old and new is very interesting to me,” he says. He’s not trying to build products to meet the current fad, instead labeling his products water and trend-resistant.

Most popular of the company’s new U.S.-made innovations is a bicycle-mounted cell phone holder. Crafted out of rich leather, it’s blended with modern materials to connect and protect a smartphone to the bike’s frame, enabling a rider to use the device’s navigation system or listen to music. The Thurman bike phone holder is available at Portland’s Canoe and Boys Fort stores for about $60.

Other products include a bike-mounted storage bag that fits neatly into the center of the frame and a stylish purse that attaches to a bike’s handlebars. For urban commuters, the company sells a pant cuff strap created from local leather.

Beyond cycling, Beebe’s product line is expanding to include items as varied as a firewood carrier and an airport security-friendly belt. A new canvas and leather tote bag features an easily accessed pen holder and dedicated space for your cell phone — so you don’t have to go digging into the bottom of the bag.

“I’m adding products all the time,” he says.

Beebe designs the products, many of which are then manufactured locally by the Last U.S. Bag Company in Vancouver. Leather comes from Oregon Leather Company in Old Town.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Each of the Beebe Companys product labels shows a bit of the companys legacy. The type used to spell out the company name is from the firms original letterhead. “I love to give my business to local Portland businesses,” Beebe says.

With that kind of support from their local peers, maybe one of those businesses will become Portland’s next 100-plus year old company.

John M. Vincent is a third-generation Oregon journalist. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @OregonsCarGuy on Twitter. He welcomes your suggestions for this column.

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