The Great-Great-Grandpa of Backpacks
By Gene Fowler
Camille Poirier arrived in Duluth, Minnesota, in the winter of 1870 with “my little stock of leather and tools.” The 32-year-old had learned the shoemaking trade in his native Canada. Like “almost every boy in lower Canada,” he wrote in his autobiography, Camille “had visions of the U.S. as a land of wealth.”
At the time Poirier arrived, Duluth, a port on Lake Superior, was reportedly the fastest-growing city in the nation. In a Fourth of July speech, one booster christened the spot “the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.” Though the boom slowed, area mining and timber harvesting revived local fortunes, and the French-Canadian immigrant Camille Poirier began to see his future in the region’s love of the great outdoors.
He saw that hunters, trappers, lumberjacks and others working under the north country skies needed durable equipment; so after considerable design experimentation, he patented the “C. Poirier Pack Sack” on December 12, 1882. His patent application described the invention as “a bag formed with a flap and provided with shoulder straps and head-strap for supporting and carrying the bag on the back.” In a 2014 post with photographs of an early Poirier pack, a London website called The Vintage Showroom observed: “In context, the Duluth ‘Poirier Pack Sack’ can be seen as the Great-Great-Granddaddy of modern day backpacks…”
In 1911, Poirier sold his company to the Duluth Tent & Awning Company, which set up in new quarters at 1610 W. Superior Street in Duluth. Known today as Duluth Pack, the company headquarters still reside in the 107-year-old building. And though the company now offers more than 175 styles of its packs, bags, cases and other products, the original Poirier Pack Sack is still available in the classic olive drab canvas and leather as the #2 Original Pack.
“We’re the oldest maker of canvas and leather packs and bags in the country,” says Andrea Sega, assistant marketing and public relations manager. “And everything is made by hand, right here in the good old U.S.A.,” adds her dad, Duluth Pack CEO, Tom Sega. “We’re very proud of that. We could make our products more cheaply overseas, but Duluth Pack is a great American heritage brand. We make heirloom packs and bags that come with a lifetime guarantee.”
Tom came by his company endorsement honestly. A longtime “road warrior” as a traveling salesman for paper mill machinery, he wore out a succession of luggage and bags. “You become something of a travel snob when you’re on the road that much,” he said. “You get particular about the bags you carry because you live out of those bags. I had a bad experience with an expensive leather briefcase falling apart. People told me about the Duluth Pack brand. So I bought one. And holy cow, it was built! I still have it 25 years later.”
Soon Tom was buying Duluth Pack gun cases, overnight bags and duffle bags. “When my kids were in grade school, I bought them Duluth Pack backpacks,” he added. “They’re grown now and they’re still using those packs.”
Tom was so impressed with the company that he contacted the silent partners in Fargo, North Dakota, and asked if they’d be interested in selling. “I said it’s a great company, but not enough people know about it,” he explains. “It took three years of continued talks, but I bought in as an operating partner on April 1, 2007.”
Boosting the company profile, Tom grew the business modestly through the recession of 2008. But as the nation’s economy began to recover, Duluth Pack really took off. The maker of the great-great-grandpa of backpacks had 21 employees in 2007, and today the skilled workforce has ballooned to 120. Expanding the company’s market reach, Duluth Pack products are available at haute outposts like Barney’s and the lifestyle chain Urban Outfitters.
Selling through hundreds of wholesalers that reach customers in Europe and Asia, the company hit its total 2017 wholesale sales figure this past July. Some high profile associations have also boosted the Duluth Pack brand. One day in 2009, Tom got a call from New York Times fashion writer David Colman.
“Where the hell have you been for the last 25 years?” Colman inquired from the Big Apple. “I thought you’d gone out of business.” The New York fashion maven explained that he had childhood memories of his family carrying “great big green backpacks” on hikes in Glacier Park. He said he’d always wanted to have one like it, but figured the pack maker was “lost in time.”
Then one day while researching a story, he stumbled across the Duluth Pack website. Excited, Colman suggested to Tom that they collaborate on a scaled-down pack design for more urban use. “So we sent him about a half-dozen prototypes,” Tom recalls. “And David said they were perfect.” It was decided the new city-geared product would be called the Scout. “Two days later our phones were ringing off the hook with callers wanting to know where they could get the Scout. David had written a story in the Times, and as soon as we could catch up with production, the Scout became our best seller.”
Colman says the Scout gives a fashionista “equal cred in New York City or in Glacier Park.” An inspiration for a second product repeated the consumer craze.
“David got the idea to modify the pack with a gusset four or five inches deep,” Tom explains. “We sent him a few prototypes that we called the Scout Master Pack, and the same thing happened. David wrote about it and people went crazy. The phone started ringing, and we had to say, ‘Wait! We haven’t made the product yet!’”
A 2017 collaboration with another Minnesota heritage brand, Minnetonka Moccasin, produced similar results. The limited edition products featured two moccasins and two bags that combined Duluth Pack’s olive canvas with Minnetonka Moccasin’s suede and sheepskin. “One of the sets sold out in 48 hours,” says Tom.
High-profile media appearances and celebrity associations have also boosted the Duluth Pack brand. Each contestant on NBC’s 2011-2012 reality TV show Love in the Wild sported the company’s Wanderer Pack. The great-great-grandpa of backpacks appeared as a question on TV’s Jeopardy game show late last year, and a week later Andrea Sega saw the descendant of Poirier’s Pack Sack on the silver screen when she attended the Los Angeles premiere of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Actor-comedian Kevin Hart carries a No. 4 Original Duluth Pack through much of the film. At one point, to avoid jumping in the river to tangle with a hippo about to chomp down on another of the film’s characters, Hart says, “I’ve got a backpack on. You don’t get in the water with a backpack. Everybody knows that.”
(Note to Hart’s character, Moose Finbar: The No. 4 Original is rugged enough to survive the water. Everybody knows that.)
Platoons of celebrities have been spotted with Duluth Pack products in real life, including Ed Sheeran, Black Shelton, Mumford and Sons, Maroon 5, Ellie Goulding and Dave Matthews Band. “We often gift packs to artists who perform at Duluth’s Xcel Energy Center,” says Tom. “When I went to the Center to give Blake Shelton a shotgun case, I saw him about 50 yards away, talking to a bunch of people. He’s an avid hunter and when he spotted me, he came running over and exclaimed, ‘Dude! I get gifted stuff all the time, but this is awesome!’”
Celebs and civilians alike appreciate the “Made in America” traditions of Duluth Pack. All the leather utilized in company products is sourced from tanneries in Wisconsin, with orders placed annually and delivered in periodic releases. Though the state’s leather industry has declined somewhat from its strength in the early 20th century (when Milwaukee was the world’s largest leather manufacturing center), it remains an important component of the region’s economy.
Many Duluth Pack products—totes, haversacks, wallets, portfolios, purses, gun cases, book bags and more—are also available in bison leather, which is raised in North Dakota and tanned in St. Paul. “On a bison hide, the grain is multi-directional, like an OSB board,” explains Tom. “It evolved that way to provide thermal protection. It’s a sturdy and robust leather, but it’s also more supple.”
Though the manufacturing of Duluth Pack products has now spread to four local buildings, the century-old factory offers tours on Wednesdays and Thursdays. (Call ahead for availability, 800-777-4439) While in Duluth, you’ll also want to visit their lone brick-and-mortar store at 365 Canal Park Drive, which is designed like a cabin in the woods. And as noted above, the company’s products are also available at other retail outlets around the globe.
Customers who buy Duluth Pack products without visiting Duluth, still feel that personal connection to a handmade item. Along with the DP logo and the American flag, each Duluth Pack product comes with a tag that identifies its individual maker. And you can virtually “meet” the maker of your Duluth Pack item on the company’s website.
Tom describes their market as a “niche.” The handmade, Made-in-America, lifetime-guarantee quality of Duluth Pack products makes them a little more expensive than some other manufacturers. But if you really want to spend some money on a Duluth bag, one optimistic vintage item seller offers a Poirier-era Pack Sack on eBay for $66,000.
Contemporary Duluth Pack offerings won’t set you back anywhere near that amount. They’ll just make you feel good. “Our products help people get out and experience the great outdoors,” Tom says. “It’s a place to let go of day-to-day things and have fun. Whenever I’m out there, I feel that I’m in my happy place.”