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WILTZ: Who was Eddie Bauer?

Roger Wiltz poses with his Eddie Bauer vest and his record book gemsbok. (Photo courtesy of Roger Wiltz)

Whenever I leave to go on an international junket, one particular item accompanies me on every trip. It’s a vest I “inherited” from my late brother John. I’m thankful that I took the time to see just how functional that vest was when it was given to me by Barb, my sister-in-law. The vest is comfortable, rugged and light in weight. Because of price, it is something I never would have bought for myself. When it came to clothing, my brother had a lot more taste than me.

When I leave the house for the first leg of a long trip, the vest goes on and stays on until I reach the bedroom or tent at my final destination. It is then worn throughout the hunt. Whether you see me posing with a gemsbok from Namibia or a red stag from New Zealand, I’m wearing that vest.

The vest contains a wealth of concealed inner and outer pockets that are tightly closed with quality zippers. In these I stash my passport, cash, airline tickets, important papers and pill bottle. The vest also makes my wallet pickpocket proof. With due respect for Cabela’s, L.L. Bean or Bass Pro, they won’t meet the quality of my Eddie Bauer vest. I will also admit that I miss my brother and wearing something of his is comforting as we had such great plans for our retirement.

Was Eddie Bauer a real guy? What inspired the Ford Motor Company to co-brand a special series of SUV’s with Bauer 20 years ago? My search for Eddie Bauer led me to two magazine articles, “Down is up!” by Terry Wieland and “The resurrection of Eddie Bauer” by Brian Lynn. Wieland’s article appeared in the Vol. 37 Issue 7 of Gray’s Sporting Journal, while Lynn’s appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Shooting Sportsman. Both are first-class magazines.

During the winter of 1935, Bauer sat against a tree on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Hypothermia inched through his body as he slowly drifted toward eternal sleep. His clothing was soaked to the core and offered no resistance to the penetrating cold. His final conscious act was firing three shots into the air. His fishing partner heard the shots, found his partner and ultimately rescued him.

Bauer, motivated by his near-death experience, went on to revolutionize outerwear with a patented goose down jacket that resulted in government contracts. It propelled Bauer from his highly successful regional outfitting business to a global stage.

When Bauer had his brush with death, he had already been in business for 15 years. His Seattle sport shop often had the carcasses of elk and deer sprawled on the front sidewalk. On the day after Labor Day, a sign usually appeared on the front of the store.

“Eddie Bauer has gone hunting. Back Feb. 1.” These trips tested his entire product line. Bauer could hunt and fish, and his customers came to trust him implicitly.

A late 1920s grouse hunting excursion changed Bauer’s life forever. In a neighboring camp, Bauer met Christine Heltbord. Her enthusiasm for shooting, hunting and fishing matched or surpassed Bauer’s. She was also a trap shooting champion. They married in 1929 and shared a lifetime of interests until her death in 1986. Eddie died two weeks later. Their union brought a feminine flair to Bauer’s business that made them pioneers in women’s outdoor apparel.

As previously mentioned, Bauer’s brush with death led to the development of his world-class outerwear. He needed to produce an alternative to wool. His uncle had told him tales of the Russo-Japanese War where soldiers endured brutal cold while wearing outer garments interlined with quilted goose down. In 1936, Bauer introduced the country’s first quilted goose down jacket — the Skyliner. The Skyliner’s patented quilting held the down in place, and the Skyliner became an overwhelming success.

In 1942, the Army requested cold-weather sleeping bags of Bauer. This led to a Ducks Unlimited effort to collect goose down. Bauer’s greatest move was the production of goose down flight suits for the U.S. Army Air Forces. The suits had to meet two requirements. They had to keep our flyers warm for three hours in negative 70-degree temperatures, and they had to be buoyant enough to keep a flyer with 25 pounds of gear afloat for 24 hours. Our airmen became believers in the Eddie Bauer name.

The Eddie Bauer line has had its ups and downs since World War II. In 1948, Bauer took on a partner, his good friend Bill Niemi and success continued. In 1968, the Bauer family sold its interest to Niemi and Bauer retired. General Mills bought the company in 1971. This brought about a shift to fashion wear. Then 1988 saw the sale of the Eddie Bauer name to Spiegel, a women’s wear mail order firm. In 2003, Spiegel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2005, Spiegel creditors took over the Eddie Bauer name. In 2009, the Eddie Bauer name was purchased in a bankruptcy court by its new CEO Neil Fiske.

With Fiske, an ardent sportsman at the helm, the new company is returning the Eddie Bauer name to its original roots. Mountaineering and hunting gear is being developed and tested. In 2012, Eddie Bauer launched a 42-piece line that caters to upland bird hunters and competitive shooters, including pieces such as the Skyliner jacket and the Mabton Flats upland jacket and vest. Based on the advertisements I’ve seen in high quality magazines, Eddie Bauer will return to its former greatness.

Without a doubt, Bauer’s international success was derived from his recognition of goose down’s insulating ability. Bauer outfitted expeditions to Mount Everest where the climbers wore Eddie Bauer parkas. Add the South Pole and Central Greenland to its credentials. Bauer didn’t use just any down. He demanded northern goose down from birds picked in the mid-winter, and his customers knew it.

For Eddie Bauer to return to its former status, I’d like to think of exclusive shops with the very finest in attire, a gun department stocked with the likes of Krieghoff arms, optics built by Zeiss, fly and spinning rods crafted by G. Loomis, cedar-strip canoes with hand-crafted paddles and goose down sleeping bags good to negative 85 degrees. I don’t know that the gun shop will ever return, but I do know they will target their original clientele — adventurers, explorers and hunters.

If you get nothing else from today’s column, remember the three shots Eddie Bauer once fired in rapid succession. It is an international distress signal, and it could save your life. See you next week.