Mary Anderson: The outdoor industry’s original Renaissance woman


As a world traveler, mountaineer, and leader of a multibillion dollar company, Mary Anderson has done it all.

Mary Anderson, right. Photo courtesy of REI.

Mary Anderson, right. Photo courtesy of REI.

As the co-founder of REI, Mary Anderson could be credited with shaping the American outdoor industry into what it is today. Her contributions to the industry began even before the co-op moved out of the Andersons’ living room.

Anderson taught grade school in Seattle until the mid-1930s. She was always passionate about instilling an appreciation for nature in young people and brought students into the woods and fields of the Pacific Northwest to teach them natural history and biology.

Around that time, her husband, Lloyd, ordered an ice axe from a catalogue only to find it was a cheap knockoff. Fed up with low-quality gear insufficient for their mountaineering objectives, the Andersons started buying wholesale from Europe and splitting the cost with friends. As other climbers caught wind of the high quality, low-cost axes and crampons sailing overseas into the Andersons’ living room, the house filled with mail-order crates of gear and local climbers looking to buy.

In 1938, the Andersons officially founded their co-op and sold the first membership cards for a dollar each.

Because Lloyd worked full-time, Mary took over operations as the company grew. She stitched pima cotton into tents on her sewing machine, packaged food, trained new employees, and handled the logistics of ordering and delivering product.

She was also heavily involved with outdoor education nonprofit The Mountaineers and helped develop a technical rock climbing sub-group within the organization.

Mary taught both climbing and botany for the club and, with Lloyd, wrote one of the first climbing instructional manuals produced in the United States.

Mary's deep involvement with the climbing community at home didn’t keep her tied down. She traveled to Africa, the Pacific islands and South America and climbed mountains in Europe, Japan and Canada.

It’s no wonder she has her own holiday; on her 100th birthday, Oregon Governor Christine Gregory and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels named December 7 Mary Anderson Day in 2009. Each year REI gives out Anderson Awards to exceptional REI employees and the Mary Anderson Legacy Grant to fund organizations dedicated to introducing young people to the outdoors.

Mary retired in 1968, having nurtured her living room co-op into a company that had sold over four million dollars worth of product. This year, REI will turn 78, and Mary will turn 107. Both are still going strong.