It’s my guess that a lot of people don’t know how some of the major catalogs and retail showrooms got their humble beginnings. When you walk into a Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops store, or open their catalogs, it’s obvious who they are and where they came from. Others however, are not so obvious. Take Nordstrom’s, for example. It’s a high-end retail store/mail order business geared toward people who pay $700 or more for a pair of shoes because it has some fancy designer’s name on it. Without the name, they appear to consist of about $25 worth of rubber and dead animal skin (leather), or less.
It’s just speculation, but I suspect that most of the fashionistas sporting those fancy feet don’t realize that the founder of Nordstrom’s shot his horse and ate it during the Gold Rush in Alaska in the late 1800s. It’s a matter of record. Ewwww, doesn’t it just make you want to hide your Prada shoes in the back of the closet?
Before his journey to the Klondike in search of gold, John Nordstrom, a Swedish immigrant, had worked as a miner, logger and potato farmer. In Skagway, Alaska, one of the historic towns at the center of the Gold Rush era, it’s said that Nordstrom made and repaired sturdy leather boots for the rugged men who trudged their way up the Chilkoot Pass that led to the Klondike in the Yukon Territory. After striking gold himself, he and a partner that he met in the Yukon opened a shoe store in Seattle, Washington, in 1901, and Nordstrom’s was born.
If you’re wearing anything from Eddie Bauer, you also can thank an avid outdoorsman. A young Eddie Bauer quit school at the age of 13 and worked at a retail hunting and fishing outfitter in Seattle. When he was 20, he rented space in a gun shop and sold and strung tennis rackets to make a living. From Labor Day to Feb. 1, he would close his shop and put up a sign that read “Eddie Bauer Has Gone Hunting”. He spent those months in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest developing and testing products that established his reputation as an expert outfitter. He gave up the tennis rackets, focused his business on hunting and fishing, got the first patent for a goose down jacket, the ‘Skyliner,’ in 1940 and the rest is history. That’s correct — Eddie Bauer invented the down jacket. He also supported the World War II effort, producing down-filled garments and sleeping bags for the military.
LL Bean got its start in Freeport, Maine, 106 years ago, even before Bauer had his fledging his outfitting business in Seattle. Bean’s founder, Leon Leonwood Bean of Maine, a hunter, fisherman and trapper, sold traps when he was 9 years old and shot his first deer when he was 13. He grew tired of wet feet from hunting, fishing and trapping and got the idea to sew the rubber bottoms from galoshes onto leather uppers, creating the ‘Maine Hunting Shoe’ in his brother’s basement in Freeport in 1912. He opened a boot factory and the innovative Bean went on to develop no-nonsense hunting and fishing equipment, the beginnings of a retail and mail-order empire. Another of his inventions was The Toter, which consisted of a frame and bicycle wheel that made easy the task of transporting a dead deer out of the woods.
Most of Bean’s signature rubber-bottom boots now are called ‘Bean Boots’ and often are referred to as ‘duck boots’. A few models of the original Maine Hunting Shoe are still available. Another variation of his boot is the cold-weather ‘pac boot’ which incorporates thick felt liners, introduced by Sorel in the early 1960s.
I first visited the Freeport store back in 1976 to gear up before my first deer hunting trip. It looked more like a warehouse with wool shirts and pants stacked neatly in cubby holes along the walls, nothing like the compound it is today. My brother, father, uncle and I each got red and black plaid Stag jackets and Maine Hunting Shoes. We were early fashionistos and were fit to grace the covers of any outdoorsman’s magazine or catalog. Strike a pose.
Freeport itself was a small, quiet town and I think I remember a drug store, a hardware store and one restaurant, The Falcon. Leon L. Bean’s hunting and fishing legacy has since put Freeport on the map, which now bustles with shoppers, stores, outlets, restaurants and traffic. If not for hunters, trappers and fishermen, Freeport might still be a one-horse town with a hardware store, drug store and The Falcon.
How LL Bean got its start is common knowledge to most people, especially outdoorsmen, of my generation, but because the company’s main catalog now is filled with dress shirts, Wicked Good ‘slippahs’ and home furnishings, younger people may not know of Bean’s rugged beginnings. Unless you’ve visited the flagship store in Freeport which has hunting equipment and guns, or thumbed through the hunting specialty catalog, you may be unaware of the company’s rich hunting heritage.
About an hour south of Freeport, is the Kittery Trading Post. In the 1930s, the store was exactly what its name implies — a one-room trading post and gas station where hunters and trappers traded skins and pelts for ammunition, supplies and gas. In 1938, Philip Adams bought it for $4,000 and it’s been run by members of the Adams family ever since, continually expanding to its current retail showroom spanning more than 90,000 square feet.
My first trip to the Kittery Trading Post was on the way home from LL Bean back in ’76. We bought more equipment for our hunting trip. The place was brimming with guns and gear. What a country! Except for ‘The Post’ there wasn’t much in Kittery back then. Today, the town of Kittery, like Freeport, is another metropolis awash in shoppers with stores, plazas, restaurants and motels lining both sides of Route 1 for more than a half mile on either side of the road. What created such a boon to the local economy? That’s right. Hunters, trappers and fishermen — namely the draw of the expanded Kittery Trading Post.
Let’s not forget about Dick’s Sporting Goods. A lot of people buy athletic sporting goods, fitness equipment and clothes at the big box stores, but the hunting and fishing department is often in a far corner of the store, not in the forefront. To get to there you have to walk past exercise machines and North Face jackets. However, the shop had modest beginnings similar to its competitors. It was born of a bait and tackle shop opened in 1948 in Binghamton, New York, by 18-year old Richard “Dick” Stack, with $300 that his grandmother gave him to follow his dreams. His business grew and he expanded the fishing line to more outdoor equipment and guns, which has since expanded to other sports. The chain now operates 610 stores in 47 states.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a visit to a National Forest, a National Park or even a walk through any of the lands and sanctuaries owned by the Mass. Audubon Society, you’re doing so because of — you guessed it — hunters. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most famous hunters and conservationists in American history, established the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) while serving as U.S. President in 1905. Roosevelt created the agency to conserve our forests in perpetuity and insure the sustainability of our natural resources. The Service now manages the nation's 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands, which encompass 193 million acres and employs 34,250 people in 750 locations.
The Mass. Audubon Society, while having rallied against hunters and trappers, often seems to forget which side of the tracks it came from. Mass. Audubon, which is independent of The National Audubon Society, was named for John James Audubon. The National Audubon Society also was named in his honor. What have they got to do with hunting, you ask? Audubon himself was a famous hunter and artist, who shot his subjects, then posed them for his paintings. History has it that he also hired other hunters to shoot specimens for him while he was working on his most famous artistic collection, “Birds of America.” One of his quotes is, “Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment. Cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.”
Because of hunters, trappers and fishermen — who are a strong segment of American history — sportsmen still have an endless selection of gear and practical clothing, non-hunters enjoy warm, dry feet and stylish glad rags, and even the fashionistas and fashionistos have fancy feet and skinny jeans (which real men don’t wear), compliments of John Nordstrom, a prospector who shot and ate his horse. And let’s not forget the contributions that Theodore Roosevelt and millions of other hunters have made to the conservation of our wild lands and natural resources. If it weren’t for them, you might as well sing that song, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot."
Marc Folco is the outdoor writer for The Standard-Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through OpenSeasonSpecialties.com.