Dennis Anderson: On and on with the Northwest Sportshow

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2012 - 12:46 AM

The exhibition of outdoors goods and services that came to be known as the Northwest Sportshow has for eight decades inspired dreams and wonder. That process begins again Wednesday, a good chance to take a look at what has changed and what has not.

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It was 1932 when Frank (Nick) Kahler, above left and shown right, started a sportsmen’s show in Minneapolis. From the goofy — like Sharkey the Seal — to the expected, the show has endured for 80 years.

Maybe the coolest thing about the 80-year-old Northwest Sportshow that opens Wednesday in the Minneapolis Convention Center is the big role the Zero Hour Bomb Co. played in the spectacle's long history.

Zero Hour Bomb Co.?

Founded in 1932 in Tulsa, Okla., as a builder of electric time bombs used in blowing up oil wells, Zero Hour by the late 1940s was struggling to stay alive.

Fortuitously, along came a guy from Rotan, Texas, named Jasper R. Dell Hull, who had invented a backlash-free fishing reel -- no small shakes in the history of angling.

R.D., as he was called, needed someone to manufacture his reels, and found in Zero Hour Bomb a handy partner. Their first reel, dubbed the Standard, debuted in 1949.

A few short years later, the reel became so popular that Zero Hour Bomb Co. converted its named to Zebco -- and exited the oil business altogether.

Enter now a character named Frank (Nick) Kahler, a hockey promoter who also was a nut for fishing and hunting.

So much so that in 1933, when the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, Kahler -- counterintuitively, if not goofily -- founded what today is the Northwest Sportshow.

His idea was to provide a forum where outdoorsmen and women could gather to dream. And to buy.

And a place where manufacturers of fishing and hunting gear could trot out their new wares, something Zebco will be doing at the Northwest Sportshow, just as it has for more than a half-century.

Countless other builders of outdoor gear also have launched products at the Sportshow, boosting not only their fortunes but those of Kahler and the show's successive owners, including Phil Perkins, his son, Dave, and now the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The nation's first aluminum fishing boat, for example, was floated at the show.

In 1944, Flower City Ornamental Iron Co. in Minneapolis was facing an uncertain future. A wartime manufacturer of aluminum pontoons and bridges, Flower City turned its post-war intentions to boat building.

Metal boat building.

Until then, wood was the only material used in fishing boats, and anglers seemed not to be clamoring for craft made from aluminum.

Wood floated, to be sure, and metal sank.

Still, in 1946, in Minneapolis, the world's first aluminum fishing boat was made, a 14-footer called an Alumacraft.

Here again Kahler was in the right place at the right time with his Sportshow, because soon enough Alumacraft had a competitor named Crestliner and not long afterward another, Lund.

Each would become a legendary Minnesota boat builder, and each would need to display products at the Midwest's premier outdoors show -- a privilege for which Kahler, of course, would charge.

Seasonal magic

But the Northwest Sportshow -- the longest continuously running such exhibit in the nation -- always has been about other than mere buying and selling.

Nurturing anglers' dreams, and hunters' too, is what greased the show's path to success.

In the early 1960s, I was a kid living with my family in Rugby, N.D., and each spring my dad, a dreamer in his own right, would arrange business meetings in the Twin Cities to coincide with the show's then-10-day run.

This was when the show was held at the old Minneapolis Auditorium, with its wonderful stage where dog trainers, fly casters, turkey callers and other performers captivated wide-eyed audiences with feats most outdoorsmen and women couldn't otherwise imagine.

Also for our entertainment were trained seals, water skiing squirrels, trick shooters and Japanese cormorant fishermen.

Wide-eyed, I remember trailing behind my dad and my older brother at the show as they poked and prodded new products, before talking about them all the way home.

Years later, when I was in college, some friends and I drove to the show from Morris. What a bargain it was, we figured, to exchange a few bucks in admission costs for the chance to see, touch and feel gear we could never afford, while jawboning nearly to death resort owners from northern Minnesota and Canada whose show booths invariably displayed fish too big to be believed.

Also we wanted to see Minneapolis Tribune outdoors writer Ron Schara, who emceed the daily stage shows.

A truly mythical figure from our hillbilly vantage point, Schara was the source of our many outdoor fantasies -- and jealousies.

Stuck as we were, for example, on fishing openers drowning worms from shore in the walleye-free Pomme de Terre River, we would read breathlessly the next morning in the Sunday Tribune how Schara had instead been on Mille Lacs or Leech or some other otherworldly destination, awash in the latest gear and hauling in everything but the kitchen sink.

Ditto Schara's reports from the duck and pheasant openers, and especially the first day of ruffed grouse season. While we struggled even to buy shells, he hobnobbed with outdoor legends Ted and Bud Burger, who along with Schara seemed to fill their freezers almost at will -- and their neighbors', too!

So it was with great anticipation my buddies and I took our seats at the stage show, waiting for Mr. Schara, the great fish and game slayer, to appear.

He did.

Wearing a white disco outfit, with amber aviator sunglasses.

"Hey, it's John Travolta,'' said one friend.

"Never you mind,'' I said. "This is the big time. And this is the way big-timers dress.''

Later that night, through Paynesville and Benson, Hancock and finally on to Morris, I thought how I might someday look in a disco outfit of my own.

A sense of history

The deal is, if you go to the show this week, be a watchful visitor.

See the booth with Minn Kota motors and Humminbird electronics? That's H.F. Wellman Co., the only exhibitor that's been in every show since the first one in 1933.

And over there, the Lowrance electronics booth? Try to imagine a half-century back when the company's Green Box depth finder was introduced to Minnesota fishermen at the show and a tackle representative named Jim Ferguson nearly talked himself blue explaining how it worked.

And the Rapala exhibit? Maybe it wouldn't be there if two Minnesota fishing nuts, Ron Weber and Ray Ostrom, hadn't written Lauri Rapala a letter in the late 1950s, asking if they could peddle his lures in the U.S.

This year, the show is more than 400,000 square feet in the Convention Center, compared to 80,000 in the old auditorium.

Everything is bigger and better, now 80 years later.

Even my dreams.

So much so that come Wednesday at 5 in the afternoon and later at 7, I'll check out Ron Schara's turkey hunting and fishing seminars.

I'm dreaming he can still squeeze into that disco outfit, and if so, I want to be there.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

  • related content

  • About the Northwest Sport Show

    Saturday March 24, 2012

    Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 1-9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

  • Zempie Yamashita, a “master cormorant fisherman” from Japan, appeared at the show with his anglers.

  • In 1988, while the Minneapolis Convention Center was being built, the Northwest Sportshow temporarily moved to the Metrodome.

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