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ROGER WILTZ: Herter's added color to industry

If you're 50 or older, you might remember when Herter's opened a store in Mitchell. That store would pale in comparison to today's Cabela's, but back then it was a very big deal. I still have plastic ammo boxes, fishing lures and reloading components purchased in that store where every product was "World's Finest."

When the Herter's empire collapsed, Cabela's bought out the remaining inventory. Today, Cabela's still uses the Herter name on some of its products.

A Waseca, Minn., native, George Leonard Herter started the business we know as Herter's when he took over the family dry goods store in 1937.

Like the origin of Cabela's, he began a mail order fly-tying business out of the store's second floor. After a 1942 gas explosion burned the business to the ground, George rebuilt and changed the focus of the business to sporting goods.

The massive Herter's catalog with its red, yellow and black cover sported a unique coat of arms. The center was a shield with crossed rifles. In the X formed by the rifles are fish hooks on either side with a duck on the bottom and a sheathed knife on top. A fish and sailing ship touch the top of the shield.

The shield is flanked by an elk on the left and a fish-tailed horse on the right. The legend beneath the shield reads "Tenacious for Quality." I suspect George designed it. I certainly enjoyed reading his catalog.

George Leonard Herter was the ultimate character. He was brilliant, creative, bombastic and eccentric all at the same time. In spite of his braggadocio (he perceived himself as an expert in everything), he never allowed himself to be photographed.

Herter's claims for his products were outrageous. For example, he claimed his Wasp Waist Sonic Bullet actually increased in velocity after leaving a rifle barrel.

I like this one from his famous Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices. In the recipe "Spinach Mother of Christ," he added the following comment: "The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach. This is as well a known fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago."

Herter went on to tell us that on that first Christmas eve in the stable, Mary had spinach for supper. Whew!

Herter pushed copyrights to the extreme. If you fish, you probably know the Mepp's Spinner is a product of France. When Herter copied the lure, he called it "Herter's French Pepp's Lure." This sounds like more than a little infringement to me.

The Great Outdoors Industry was pioneered by George Herter and Cabela's, Bass Pro, Gander Mountain and L.L. Bean owe much to the man. In the beginning, duck decoys were a major part of Herter's business, and the manufacture of these decoys provided many jobs in Waseca.

With the decoys came guns, scopes and ammo that could be sold through the mail in a much simpler time. He sold camping gear, waders and game calls of all kinds including the famous "Raccoon Death Cry" call. George's idea to include instructional 45 rpm records with his calls was both original and brilliant. Today his elk calls are still coveted by hunters.

His clothing, fishing and archery equipment were not to be outdone. And then there were boats of wood, aluminum and fiberglass. He guaranteed that his "El Dorado Rocket Chrome Fiberglass Runabout" was the fastest in the world. Its fins rivaled those of Plymouth and Cadillac. "Husky" brand snowmobiles were a Herter's exclusive, and much of the camping gear wore the Hudson Bay brand name.

As I alluded previously, George Herter was a prolific author who considered himself an expert on everything. He wrote of fly-tying and reloading ammo. His Professional Guide's Manual covered trophy preparation to making "healthy mud soup." The guide's manual was endorsed by the North Star Guide Association, a non-existent group conceived in Herter's imagination. Other volumes included The Truth About Hunting in Today's Africa to name a few.

His writing knew no boundaries. He wrote of raising children, surviving a hydrogen bomb holocaust, beer and wine making, successfully living with a woman and even gynecology. What a piece of work this George Leonard Herter!

What happened to the Herter's empire? He tried to do too much too fast. His ill-advised expansion program included stores in Mitchell, Glenwood, Minn., Beaver Dam, Wis., Olympia, Wash., and Crystal, Minn., during a time of double-digit interest rates that I remember well.

Today, many older farmers can tell you about paying exorbitant interest rates during a time of fluctuating hog prices. Many lost their farms. Like them, Herter's was forced into bankruptcy in the early 80s.

Today's wealth of information came from the story "A So-Called Shooting Dollar" by Tom Delaney. It appears in the August 2011 Coinage magazine. George also minted his own Herter's sterling silver dollar coin. Why isn't that surprising?

The flooding of our Missouri River has fostered some almost bizarre fishing opportunities. We'll look at some next week. Hey, don't forget your East River Deer applications.