George Herter and a pal once covered their hunting boat with mirrors so ducks wouldn’t see them. It sank from the weight.
After growing up on the shores of Clear Lake near Waseca, Minn., Herter mounted a Depression-era ascent in the sporting goods business that stayed afloat for 40 years before it, too, sank. His innovative, ahead-of-its time outdoors empire went bankrupt around 1980.
Now, Waseca history buffs are cooking up a tasty tribute to an eccentric native son who, they say, put their southern Minnesota town on the map.
In 1937 B.C. (Before Cabela’s), George Leonard Herter launched a catalog for outdoors aficionados and a chain of big-box sporting goods stores. It all began up the stairs from his parents’ dry goods store in Waseca.
A private man who loathed getting photographed but boasted P.T. Barnum-style bravado in his self-written catalogs, Herter also penned more than a dozen books in the 1960s. Topics included everything from marriage advice to escaping the rat race on $10 a month.
A cookbook became his best-known title. “Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices” was described in the New York Times as “one of the greatest oddball masterpieces … a wild mix of recipes, unsourced claims and unhinged philosophy.”
The book, co-authored by Herter’s wife, Berthe, sprinkles in recipes for Cochise Venison Hamburgers with catfish cleaning tips and utterly unsubstantiated tales on everything from Hitler’s favorite omelet to the Virgin Mary’s fondness for creamed spinach. Red pepper, Herter insisted, would protect you from atomic radiation.
With a focus on food, the Waseca County Historical Society is wrapping up a three-year retrospective on the quirky huckster. In 2014, the county’s history center put on an exhibit about Herter’s catalog and stores. Last year, it zeroed in on Herter collectibles — including his duck decoys, fishing lures and animal calls. This year’s final exhibit on Herter — “The Man and the Myth” — kicks off with a potluck sampler from 5-8 p.m., Friday. They’ll knock $10 off a $15 ticket if you bring a Herter “dish to pass.”
So much for the notion that history museum events are strictly dry, tasteless proceedings.
The grandson of German immigrants, Herter was born in 1911 — three years after his sister, Thelma. He earned a Purple Heart on European battlefields during World War II.
Sports Afield magazine once called him “a dazzling mixture of bamboozle and brains, snake oil and savvy.” He seldom granted interviews or sat for photographers.
Yet his catalogs, regularly reaching more than 400,000 people, promised customers that certain items were “actually made far better than is necessary.” Others were “World Famous … made with infinite care by our most expert old craftsmen.” His sporting goods rivals’ products, meanwhile, were constructed “like they were made by indifferent schoolgirls.”
The recluse penned chapters on “How to Kill a Wild Boar With a Shirt.” He was, according to a New York Times look-back in 2008, a “surly sage, gun-toting Minnesotan and All-American crank … [an] ornery survivalist, unabashed huckster, eccentric gastronome, reclusive tinkerer, teller of tall tales.”
The catalog’s popularity prompted Herter to open stores in Waseca and Glenwood, plus locations in Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Washington state.
“While sportsmen firmly approved of its innovative approach to retail, the existing ‘Mom and Pop’ shops did not,” according to Doug Lodermeier, a Twin Cities Herter expert. He credits Herter’s catalog and stores for sparking “an explosion” in the popularity of hunting and fishing.
“It put Minnesota on the map as a sportsmen’s paradise,” Lodermeier wrote, nominating Herter as one of the state’s top 150 people and places for the sesquicentennial in 2008.
“You’d step through the doors to find every hunting and fishing item known to man under one roof,” Lodermeier said. “Though we take this concept for granted now thanks to Cabela’s, not to mention Wal-Mart, it was absolutely revolutionary in the mid-1930s.”
His stores peddled bird’s-eye maple gunstocks, fiberglass canoes and his “Famous Raccoon Death Cry Call.” His books, in turn, discussed everything from the origins of blue cheese to kicking the smoking habit.
He promised readers they could earn big bucks by milking scorpions and shared Ernest Hemingway’s alleged secret to curbing dandruff: three parts light rum to an ounce of port wine.
The demise of Herter’s business has been attributed to several factors, including high gas prices in the 1970s, expanding retail outlets and law changes that restricted the sale of guns through the mail. He wound up millions of dollars in debt.
Herter died in 1994, at 83, and he’s buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
“I don’t want to be known and rarely tell people my right name,” he said in one book, reflecting the private introvert behind the bombastic braggart. “I never allow anyone to take my picture.”
One rare exception, a photo snapped in 1966 by a New York Times photographer, shows Herbert with a slight frown sitting in front of his fireplace. Frying pans, a coffee cup and a tea kettle hang from the mantel and a stack of books covers an ornate table. His hair is messed, his glasses thick.
“Those who worked with Herter,” the New York Times said in 2008, “recall a pale, quiet, squeaky-voiced man often lost in his ideas.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.