KEVIN TATE: Spirit of pioneering mail-order outdoors catalog lives on

By Kevin Tate/NEMS Daily Journal

As the summer days dragged on into August with no end and no rain in sight, the catalog arrived in the mail from faraway Waseca, Minn., peeling back the heat, bearing promises of wonder and adventure on every page.
Tools and toys for every outdoor pursuit were there, described in language that would make J. Peterman read as modest and subdued, if not downright ashamed of his wares. Other gear might get you where you wanted to go but, by the time you’d purchased these top-of-the-line items, you felt like you’d already been.
Decades before anyone ever heard of Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s or Gander Mountain, a rugged individualist named George Leonard Herter started a mail-order sporting goods business on the upper floor of his father’s dry goods store in a small town in southern Minnesota.
Anyone launching a business in 1937, hot on the heels of the worst of the Great Depression, had to have either endless capital or overwhelming self confidence at his disposal, and there’s no doubt Herter exuded the latter in spades.
Relating the story to Paul Collins, of The New York Times Book Review, the former Waseca printer Wayne Brown remembered the catalog’s origins as single sheets meant to be three-ring binder supplements. By the 1960s, the annual offering was a book two inches thick printed in editions that ran on towards 500,000, making Brown’s heretofore small operation into one of the nation’s largest commercial printers, and making Herter’s enterprise live up to the legend he’d created it to follow.
What Herter pioneered was not the equipment itself, but the concept of a business that aggregated the full gamut of outdoor gear into one shopping experience – an experience made all-the-more memorable by Herter’s descriptions of each item on every page.
“Herter wrote all the copy for the catalogs,” Brown said in an e-mail message to Collins, and each item was described in detail that would make P.T. Barnum proud. None of the catalog’s items were merely satisfactory, they were, according to Herter, “World Famous,” “Patented,” “Special,” “made with infinite care by our most expert old craftsmen,” or, “actually made far better than is necessary.”
From the time Herter’s was launched and continuing through the decade of the 1960s, you could buy and ship virtually anything short of dynamite or anti-aircraft guns through the mail. Regular sporting firearms and ammunition of every shape, size and description were a major part of Herter’s stock and trade.
When that practice was curtailed by law in 1969, long before the advent of shipping services like UPS and FedEx, the company’s days were numbered.
Still, the company’s legend lives on. Cabela’s bought the rights to his company’s name and slogan in the early 1980s and now carries on part of his tradition, billing itself as “The World’s Foremost Outfitter.”
Along with outfitter, Herter and his ilk could add “dream weaver” to their job descriptions because, when the weather or the season or both are uncooperative, there’s many an adventure to be had sitting by the fire, thumbing through a catalog, outfitting adventures yet to be had, looking for new memories to be made.
Kevin Tate is VP of Media Productions for Mossy Oak Brand Camo in West Point.