19 Dec 2008

Remembering George Leonard Herter and His Catalogue

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The inimitable George Leonard Herter

Back in the 1950s and the 1960s, the annual two-inch thick telephone directory-sized Herter’s catalogue, arriving from far off, exotic Waseca, Minnesota was, for sportsmen, and for small boy aspiring sportsmen, not just a standard source of fishing tackle, camping, handloading, fly tying, trapping, and taxidermy supplies, the Herter’s catalogue was a long term reading treasure providing fodder for countless hours of theoretical expedition planning and equipment acquisition and maintenance.

Paul Collins, in a recent New York Times Book Review, pays tribute to the long-extinct Herter’s catalogue and its colorful and eccentric author. George Leonard Herter’s infamous “Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices” providing the recipes for the Virgin Mary’s favorite creamed spinach, Joan of Arc’s pate de fois gras, and Stonewall Jackson’s barbecued ribs (among many others) is his personal favorite example of Herteriana.

Starting in 1937 from atop his father’s dry-goods shop in Waseca, Minn., Herter over the next four decades built a mail-order sporting goods juggernaut. The arrival of the Herter’s catalog was like Christmas with bullets. Need a bird’s-eye maple gunstock? Check. How about a Herter’s Famous Raccoon Death Cry Call? Just two dollars. Fiberglass canoes? Got you covered. The catalog, which the former Waseca printer Wayne Brown recalls started as three-ring binder supplements, grew so popular — about 400,000 or 500,000 copies per run, he estimates — that Brown Printing became one of the country’s largest commercial printers.

“Herter wrote all the copy for the catalogs,” Brown said in an e-mail message, and each item was described in loving, haranguing, Barnum-esque detail. No Herter item was merely good: it was World Famous, Patented, Special, “made with infinite care by our most expert old craftsmen,” or — my favorite — “actually made far better than is necessary.” The corollary was that his competitor’s products were worthless — or, as he put it, “like they were made by indifferent schoolgirls.”

But as good as much of his gear was, talk about Herter always comes around to one thing: his books. His enchantingly bombastic catalogs included listings for more than a dozen of his self-published works, bound in metallic silver and gold covers, and bearing titles like “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month.”

My understanding is that Herter was put out of business in the 1970s over Jungle Cock. The eyed neck feathers of the Grey Jungle Fowl, Gallus Sonneratti, have long been an essential ingredient in the construction of artificial flies for fishing. The eyed feathers serve as eyes on streamer fly imitations of minnows, and as crucial decorative elements in the visually elaborate salmon fly attractor patterns originated in the Victorian era.

Federal enforcement of a ban on the trade in feathers of endangered species took no cognizance of material stockpiles dating to periods long before the ban, and George Leonard Herter was a classic American individualist and a hard core sportsman who simply could not bow to irrational regulation. The reports I heard were that federal lawsuits and seizures, based on one small particular type of feather entirely legally owned and acquired in the first place, ruined the famous company and broke its proprietor’s heart. He never even tried to revive his business.

Had it survived, just imagine how enormous a business Herter’s would be today! Herter’s would be today’s Cabela’s and more.

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Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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57 Feedbacks on "Remembering George Leonard Herter and His Catalogue"

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Doug Call

I too spent many hours looking through the Herter’s catalog that Dad always used for reloading supplies. So when I recently stumbled across a 14′ fiberglass boat built by Herters I snapped it up. It’s the Alaska model; has a pointed bow, broad beam and chines at the waterline so is very stable. Had it on the lake yesterday and am very pleased.



Tom Meisenheimer

My wife just found How To… For $10 a Month tucked away in the spare bedroom of her late mother’s house. I read through it thinking “what a nut-job!” but then remembered Herters, the outfitters from Minnesota wondering if it was the same Herters looked him up on the www. Somehow all the oddball ideas started to make sense. Large bird quills for carrying gold dust! Eating a great blue Heron! some advice, how to use an ax when cutting down trees was right on, some, like carving tobacco store indians to sell to tourists, were a tad wacky and as I read more about the man and more of his writing I found him to have an odd sort of charm. Over the years, since I was a young boy to recently, in my 70s, I have met some very interesting people. I knew L. Ben Hunt (wrote and drew the crafts page in Boy’s Life), Bill Kelly and Gene Anderson (Kellwood, tents and packs and etc.) and Jolly Jake Korel (Wyoming trapper) and that streak of earth bound practicality mixed with fierce independence ran through them all. Sorry to hear of Herter’s demise. GLH’s death is sorrowful too but his life lives on. $10 a month? Maybe, ya never know ’til ya try!



Ken turner

Just came to this site,funny I have been going through my stuff and found a copy of herters catalog no.84 R. 1974 .I still get that same thrill as I did when reading it in 1974. And many before that! I didn’t think I still had any herters’ items as we were just about wiped out in a flood in 1983 here in louisiana. I do remember I kept my beloved herters rock chuck reloading press,But lost all dies to rust.Verry good memories thanks K.W Turner U.S N. ret.



Bill Martin

I still have lots of Herter’s stuff – especially the reloading dies. I still use them; they are great!



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Never Yet Melted



Dave Klyzek

I believe my dad started purchasing from Herters in the 40s although not positive on that date. I can remember getting a big box twice or so a year full of fly tying paraphernalia, reloading equipment, various garments, maybe a new forearm for the shotgun and various other items. He also purchased alot of bags of shot and gun powder for reloading at different times during the year, my dad never wanted to be low on ammo. I still have many items today from those days like duck and goose calls, shell vests, reloading equipment, etc. Unfortunately I only have one catalog, a 65 edition. In my opinion Herters is ten-times what Cabelas will ever be, in fact I dont really like Cabelas having been stung there a couple times. Have a nice day



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