Before there was an Internet or a Cabela's, Bass Pro Shop or Gander Mountain, there was Herter's — the first outdoors gear juggernaut. ¶ Say the word "Herter's'' and a legion of mostly men, now middle-aged or older, in Minnesota and nationwide nod their collective heads in fond recollection. ¶ Herter's mail-order catalogs were legendary, hundreds of pages jammed with hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor gear that could be delivered to your doorstep. Those catalogs included lengthy descriptions, instructions and bold, often audacious claims — entertaining readers while also enticing them to buy. ¶ Herter's was the Sears, Roebuck of the outdoor industry and was perhaps best known for its waterfowl products. Launched and headquartered in Waseca, Minn., the company was the inspiration for today's huge mail-order and big-box outdoor retailers. ¶ And at the center of it all was George Herter, an eccentric and reclusive entrepreneur, a marketing genius who made brazen, bombastic claims to boost sales of his products. Though he died more than 20 years ago, he remains an enigma — and one of the most interesting characters in Minnesota history.
"He was an icon in Minnesota, and had a lot to do with influencing waterfowling, not only in Minnesota but throughout the United States,'' said Doug Lodermeier, 60, of Edina, a waterfowl historian and collector who gave a presentation on Herter's legacy Saturday at the annual Minnesota Waterfowl Association's waterfowl symposium in Bloomington.
"It's easy to dismiss him as a crackpot and goofball, but the reality is he was a genius,'' Lodermeier said. "He was way ahead of his time.''
Herter labeled most of his products "world famous" or "model perfect," and he claimed many were endorsed by the North Star Guides Association — which didn't exist.
Said Lodermeier: "As a kid I couldn't wait for the Herter's catalog to come because me and my friends just rolled on the ground reading his claims and outlandish stories. We loved it — and we bought his stuff.''
Herter reportedly wrote all of the copy in his catalogs, instruction manuals and pamphlets and also was a prolific author — among his books: "How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month." In a cookbook he wrote, "The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach.''
Quirkiness aside, Herter built an outdoors empire, starting around 1935 in Waseca. It began as a catalog business that focused on fly-tying, but it grew to include virtually every outdoor product imaginable — and some unimaginable. Eventually Herter opened stores in Waseca, Glenwood, Mitchell, S.D., Beaver Dam, Wis., Iowa City and Iowa Falls, Iowa, and Olympia, Wash.
But after decades of success, a "perfect storm'' led to Herter's demise, Lodermeier said: The overexpansion of those retail stores at a time when oil prices were skyrocketing, the Gun Control Act of 1968, which prevented firearms from being bought and sold via the mail, and federal bans on the importation of some feather species Herter's used for fly tying.
Herter's went bankrupt in 1977, and the though the man has become mostly forgotten, his name lives on. Cabela's now owns the brand, and customers can order an assortment of Herter's gear and ammunition.
Herter's story has endured
The Waseca Historical Society offered a Herter's display last year, and plans to do another this year, focusing on Herter's gear. Local residents who worked at Herter's attended and brought items. Next year, the Historical Society plans to assemble a show on George Herter himself.
"I think the story is just starting to be told,'' said Joan Mooney, co-executive director of the society.
Virtually anything sold by Herter's is collectible today, said Jeff Hedtke, 63, of Norwood Young America. Many Herter's products, including his decoys, game calls and gun stocks, were considered top-quality and fair-priced.
"You could get a good walnut duck call for $3.50 after the war [World War II],'' Hedtke said. Herter called his decoys "the best in the world,'' and Hedtke said "they were very good.'' Some hunters still prefer them, Hedtke said.
Among the more unusual products George Herter sold was a fish call.
"That's one of my favorites,'' Lodermeier said. "It was a can painted like a lure,'' and operated like a bell. "You put it down in the water and pulled a string. It was guaranteed to attract fish.''
Wrote Herter in his catalog: "We tried for years to produce sounds which would be attractive to fish and we have finally succeeded. With the cost of fishing trips what they are, why take a chance on spoiling them for a mere $2.47?"
Herter's also manufactured fishing tackle, snowmobiles and even boats.
"George's model was to look at what was the best on the market, and improve on that,'' Lodermeier said. "He copied everybody, and made no friends doing that. He copied the Mepp's Spinner and called it the Pepp's Lure.'' The Johnson Silver Minnow became Herter's Olson Minnow.
'I don't want to be known'
George Herter saw combat in Europe during World War II, earned a Purple Heart and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Reclusive even at the height of his success, Herter apparently didn't give interviews, and few photographs of him exist. The man who left an indelible mark on the outdoors industry is relatively unknown.
He died in 1994 in Minneapolis at age 83, leaving behind no autobiographies or interviews.
"I don't want to be known and rarely tell people my right name. I never allow anyone to take my picture,'' he wrote in one book.
In the end, a Sports Afield writer perhaps aptly summed up George Herter, calling him "a dazzling mixture of bamboozle and brains, snake oil and savvy.''
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org