Our Founding Father – History on Camille Poirier and Duluth Pack
Duluth Pack was founded in 1882 by a French-Canadian immigrant by the name of Camille Poirier. He was a well-respected man with an inspiring story. This story began in Montreal and ended in Duluth, MN, USA. The hardships of Camille Poirier, perhaps, more importantly, his overcoming of adversity and creation of his life and legacy, exemplifies the American spirit and hope in the most dramatic ways. That legacy lives on through Duluth Pack. This is his story; this is our story. Let’s start at the beginning.
Camille Poirier was born in the year 1839 on March 3, in Montreal, Canada. To put it in a quick perspective, that’s over 180 years ago. The family was not wealthy, his mother died while he was very young, and that resulted in an upbringing by his uncle. From the age of 7-9, Camille received general education outside of an official facility. He grew up in a rural area and worked hard on a farm until the age of 14. At that point, Camille decided to try his hand in the trade of shoemaking, specifically with leather, and the decision would shape the rest of his life.
According to his autobiography, he worked there for three years, 15 hours a day, for a yearly wage of $10. About another year passed, he had received certification to be a shoemaker in his own right, where he made $6 a month. These long days and little pay led Camille to join many others in pondering the idea of America, seemingly as a land of opportunity, wealth, and freedom.
He moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, around the age of 20. At that time, he could not speak any English. The lack of language led him to work, which he was rather unsatisfied with. He worked labor-intensive jobs such as bricklaying and wood chopping and ended up having wounded his leg severely with an axe. The injury left him using crutches for over a year and would affect him for the rest of his life.
This, for the most part, sums up the experience Camille Poirier had when he first came to the United States. Coming to America brought unexpected challenges that made him question his decision. He stayed for 3 years then returned to his homeland in 1860.
The return to Canada, as Camille stated, was an uplifting and rejuvenating experience. He got married in 1862, he and his wife had 2 children before she died, tragically, in 1864. Camille was left once again poor and crippled, but he always had a dream and a vision. At that time, he worked 12-hour days for 75 cents. Having learned some English, he decided to embark on another journey to the United States. This time, he came to Minnesota.
Things started to change for the better when Camille arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1865. He stated he was “greatly surprised” by his wages of 2-3 dollars a day in St. Paul. His position evolved into being named a foreman of a successful shoe shop. He eventually purchased a 120-acre plot of land, where he intended to return to his farming roots and potentially settle down. But in 1868, he remarried, and in 1869, revisited his dream to make a name for himself. He began prospecting locations throughout the state in which he could conduct a successful business.
In 1870, the same year Duluth officially became a city, Camille left St. Paul, his wife (temporarily), and the shoe shop, en route for Duluth. In February, amid a Minnesota winter, he took with him a fellow shoemaker and a small stock of leather as he set forth on yet another journey. They traveled a new road until they reached Hinckley, then to Superior, where he took a boat over to Duluth. It was a grueling cold 4-day trip to Duluth but there well worth it considering the opportunities.
Upon arrival in Duluth, there wasn’t even a road built. The ship and mining industry was still on the fringe of taking off. Camille Poirier began to establish himself as a businessman. He made a name for himself in the city of Duluth as he opened a small shoe store, the first and most successful in town. Over time, the store witnessed tragedies caused by fires, his shop burnt down twice, and he lost most of his stock and money. Poirier had to start from scratch all over again. He mentioned in his writings that his creditors were good people and took his word that he would pay them back, and he did.
He innovated a new way to make money for himself by collecting water in large hogsheads from Lake Superior, boiling it, and selling it to Duluth’s citizens for clean drinking water, becoming the (self-proclaimed) first water corporation in the city of Duluth. As the operation got rolling, he hired a lead man to collect the water, proving to be unreliable as he stole $400 worth of water money and took off. Camille sold his company and stuck to the shoe and boots business (for now).
As he continued his shoe store operations, Camille Poirier noticed a shortage of dependable packs for travelers in Duluth and beyond. At the time, Duluth was developing, and people were beginning to explore further north as far as the Boundary Waters near the Canadian shield. Camille, being a craftsman, decided to work with canvas and leather goods. On December 12, 1882, Camille patented the “C. Poirier Pack Sack.” The Duluth Pack, as it began to be called, was born. The patent included a “pack strap” called a tumpline, which is a strap that is placed slightly on or above the forehead and makes carrying a large pack easier, as well as a square/box shape that could fit comfortably in a canoe. The design was critical because canoeing and portaging was the best way to navigate north of Duluth, and a pack carefully designed for that purpose would become extremely popular for the early explorers. The pack’s design was also utilized within the mining, timber, railway, and port industries – when working men carried heavy loads on their backs. The 59-liter pack came in the Olive Drab colorway that we still use today. The original design is sold on our site to this day and can be found here.
Two years later in 1884, he opened a wholesale and retail business in canvas goods. At some points, he employed more than 25 people. The company sold goods to fishermen, lumbermen, and explorers of all sorts seeking reliable outdoor equipment. In 1895, Camille Poirier discontinued his shoe business and decided to focus on his wholesale store, Poirier Tent and Awning (later Duluth Tent and Awning). Camille was also the St. Louis County Commissioner from 1890-1894.
Camille Poirier sold his business in 1911, which has further evolved into the Duluth Pack of today. That year, we moved into the same manufacturing building we use today, on 1610 W Superior St. For 30 years, Camille Poirier conducted business in Duluth. Throughout the 20th century, the brand shifted towards recreational functions for camping, traveling, and other styles that are still historically handcrafted in the city Camille began. Duluth Pack began selling bags to the first Abercrombie & Fitch store on Madison Avenue in 1917. That created many of the durable day-to-day staples that we carry in our line today, as well as auto-mobile packs for travel.
Camille Poirier died in October of 1919. His life was well purposed, an innovative businessman, devoted Catholic, father of 8, and husband to his wife Margaret, as well as an active member in his community and town. He was a great man that built a legacy through his hard work and good doing. Primary information including important dates and events in this post came from Mr. Poirier’s autobiography written in 1914. To this day, Tom Sega, Duluth Pack’s President and CEO, pays respect to Camille and cares for his burial site.
The Duluth News Tribune wrote an article upon his death, Oct.17, 1919
“Always kindly, scrupulously honest in his dealings and though, never unjust, never unfair, with a heart that denied to no one and to no right cause, Camille Poirier has closed a life lived in an Arcadia of his own making. To know him was to respect and admire him and almost to envy the serene peacefulness that rose above physical ailment or outward misfortune. He was, too, a man of force of character, of decided opinions and independence…As a businessman, as a friend, as a citizen, as one who always helped, he has left everything he touched and everyone he met the better and happier. Such a man hardly be said to have died.”
What Camille Poirier did to achieve was groundbreaking and trendsetting. He set the bar high in terms of work ethic and staying true to who he was, a good man. His various journeys and perseverance through hard times ultimately shape our brand today. Camille Poirier founded Duluth Pack in 1882, and now, we continue to remember our roots and appreciate the things and people that make Duluth Pack special, as well as the quality of product and experience that we give our customers.
We are incredibly proud to be in business in the city of Duluth, Minnesota, continuously handcrafting leather and canvas goods in the USA since 1882. Duluth Pack is the oldest canvas and leather pack and bag manufacturer in the United States of America. Time has allowed us to hone our craft and remain loyal to the core values of the company: quality, premium products, handcrafted in the USA since 1882, with a lifetime guarantee on craftsmanship and hardware.
Camille, our founding father, we honor you. Thank you.
– Your friends at Duluth Pack