Throwback | Fred Bear Interview with Michigan Out-of-Doors

In January 1979, we published a conversation between two Michigan outdoor legends, our then-editor Ken Lowe, who was inducted into the Michigan Conservation Hall of Fame in 1997, and the godfather of bowhunting, Fred Bear, who was inducted into the Michigan Conservation Hall of Fame in 1993. It was written just before Bear Archery moved to Florida, looking back on Fred Bear's career as an archery innovator, bowhunter, promoter and businessman up until then. It's a fascinating read for any bowhunter, especially those of us from the Great Lakes State! - DY

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Michigan Profile | A Living Legend
By Ken Lowe, Editor, Michigan Out-of-Doors, Jan 1979

He is president of one of the world’s largest sporting goods manufacturing companies.

He has hunted and fished on four or five continents.

He is the holder of patents on numerous inventions.

He has produced 25 films.

He has written three books and several magazine articles.

Those are a few of the distinctions of a Michigan sportsman named Fred Bear. Not bad for a fellow who flunked out of high school in his sophomore year.

Bear may not have been much for academics but he has a lot of savvy in other fields. He has been called an inventive genius. He is obviously a shrewd businessman. He is a gifted promotor. He has made a fortune out of his hobby.

And he owes it all to his love of the out-of-doors.

That goes back 70 years – to when his father began taking him hunting as a six-year-old in the mountains of his native Pennsylvania.

“The first game I ever killed was a cottontail,” Bear told this reporter. “I saw the rabbit in a field, and I ‘borrowed’ my dad’s 12-gauge L.C. Smith without permission. I was about eight years old.”

Bear, who will be 77 on March 5, spoke affectionately of his childhood. The words emerged in a drawl, which, coupled with the rugged head mounted on a lean six-foot-plus frame, gave him the appearance of a north woods Gary Cooper. His weather-beaten face bespoke a life in the out-of-doors.

Seated behind a desk in his office in the Bear Archery Co. plant in Grayling, he talked freely of the past, much of which had been spent here on the banks of the Au Sable, and of a future, which will be spent largely in Florida, where the plant was being moved after 31 years in northern Michigan. The office was filled with memorabilia of a lifetime of hunting and fishing – mounted game heads, guns, bows, arrowheads, dry flies, sporting books, an African hunting shield, elephant tusks, testimonial plaques and autographed photos of celebrities. Reposing on a stand in one corner was an old model Olympic typewriter on which Bear had two-fingered his way through many a manuscript. Adjacent to the office was a large workshop, complete with drafting board and all the tools of a layman engineer, as Bear describes himself.

One got the impression that he didn’t relish the thought of leaving this lair after all these years and carving out a new one in Florida.

“I was born in Carlisle, Pa.,” Bear said in answer to a question. “My father was a toolmaker in a railroad shop. We lived on a farm near Carlisle.

“As a youngster, I watched the great Jim Thorpe play football for the Carlisle Indian School. It’s now a war college operated by the federal government.”

He also ran a trap line in the mountains and spent a lot of time with his father hunting deer, rabbits and game birds.

“School was interesting to me,” he explained in one of his books, “but the yearning to be afield was so strong that classes eventually lost the battle and had to be made up in night school after I left home and went to Michigan.”

Bear came to Michigan in 1923, when he was 21 years old. He was drawn partly by the automotive industry, which he thought might be able to use the patternmaking skills he had learned in Pennsylvania, and partly by Michigan’s reputation as sportsman’s country.

“To us easterners, Michigan was a wild frontier in those days,” Bear told this interviewer. “The deer here were large, especially in the Upper Peninsula, up to 200 pounds. And there were only 50,000 to 60,000 deer hunters in Michigan then.”

Bear got a job in experimental engineering with Packard in Detroit. He remained with the automotive company only a couple of years before losing his job because of deer hunting. His supervisor told him that if he left to hunt deer, he needn’t bother to come back to his job.

“But the hunting urge was too strong,” Bear recalled. He and a group of farmers from the Thumb set up a deer camp in tents north of Seney in the Upper Peninsula. Their beds were on bales of straw, and Bear slept without a worry about his jobless status.

When he returned to Detroit, he found a job as foreman of a plant engaged in silk-screening the emblems of tire and auto manufacturers on the covers of spare car tires. The tire cover plant burned seven years later, in 1933, and Bear found himself without a job in the depth of the Depression.

Meanwhile, in 1927, Bear happened see a film made by Arthur Young, a California archer, on hunting in Alaska with bow and arrow. This kindled his interest in archery as a hobby.

“My interest then was as much in making archery equipment as it was in shooting,” Bear recalled.

“Since there were no jobs in 1933, I went into business producing bows, arrows and leather goods.”

He had been making archery equipment by hand as a hobby and had a $600 inventory in his basement. Bear formed a partnership with Charles Piper, who had a connection with Chrysler Corp., and the rented a garage to house their fledgling factory. Through Piper’s “Chrysler connection,” they were able to engage in silk-screening tire covers and manufacture archery equipment as a sideline. “The silk-screening carried our archery baby,” Bear said.

“We moved both businesses to different quarters three times. Then in 1939 we split the partnership. I didn’t like the advertising (silk-screening) business and Chuck didn’t like archery.”

Although it took Bear 14 hours to make a single wood bow by hand, his archery business continued to grow, and in 1947, he decided to move his operation to Grayling.

“I wanted to get out of Detroit,” he related, “and I liked the Grayling area, where I used to spend weekends hunting and fishing. It was a sort of defunct, leftover town from the lumbering days.”

With a work force of about 25 people, Bear opened a plant with 8,500 square feet near the Au Sable. By the late 1960’s, the work force had grown to 750 and Bear was by far the largest employer in Crawford County.

“The company has had a steady growth since 1947,” Bear said. “There wasn’t a year since then that we didn’t grow that I can remember.”

Production increased from 7,500 bows in 1947 to more than 360,000 conventional, glass and compound bows in 1976.

Bear Archery today is far and away the world’s largest manufacturer of archery equipment. The company turns out fully a third of all of the archery equipment sold in the world. Literally millions of bows, arrows, quivers, armguards and other pieces of archery equipment are manufactured by Bear every year. The company is about three times larger than its nearest competitor.

It didn’t get that way by accident. More than any other person, Bear was responsible for boosting man’s oldest sport into one of today’s fastest growing forms of recreation. Credit belongs to two of Bear’s superb talents – inventiveness and promotional genius. As he told Michigan Out-of-Doors, “The success of the company was built largely on my engineering ability and my love of the out-of-doors.”

Bear has been accurately described as “an inventor of no mean ability whose contributions to the design of modern archery tackle and manufacturing processes have lifted the ancient sport from the home workshop into a worldwide multi-million dollar business employing thousands of people and providing year around enjoyment for families from Alaska to Zanzibar.”

In the workshop that adjoined his office in Grayling, Bear invented the glass laminated bow. He also produced the first quiver that was attached to the bow. He developed the first true take down bow. Bear Archery sold the first arrow with interchangeable screw-in heads.

Important as these innovations were to the development of the archery sport, they would have counted for relatively little if there hadn’t been a mass market for the improved products that resulted from the inventions. The market was created in a large measure by Bear himself through his promotional genius.

Recognizing the need for a market for his products, he parlayed his genuine interest in the out-of-doors in general and archery in particular into a force that created a broad new interest in archery.

He traveled extensively staging shooting exhibitions, competing in archery tournaments, helping to organize archery clubs.

A left-handed shooter, he took first place in an archery tournament at Eaton Rapids in 1933. During the next 15 years, he won the Michigan archery championship three times and placed first or second in 30 or more major tournaments.

More importantly, Bear built a reputation as the world’s foremost bowhunter.

An incident that occurred in the 1933 deer season in the Porcupine Mountains was the catalyst that converted Bear from a rifleman and set him on the road to becoming internationally famous as a bowhunter. Before the season ended, Bear had his buck, and it was a beauty. It weighed 285 pounds, dressed.

“It was the largest deer I had ever seen,” Bear said. “I felt sorry for him. I had him at such a great disadvantage. He stood looking at me at about 75 yards. All I had to do was pull the trigger.”

It was the last buck Bear ever killed with a rifle.

He was one of the small band of hunters who took part in Michigan’s first archery bow season in 1937 when only two counties – Newago and Iosco – were open. Prior to that, archers could hunt deer in Michigan only during the regular firearms season.

Bear began to extend his hunting to widely scattered parts of the globe. “I discovered that I could go anywhere in the world and expense it out and pay myself for hunting,” he remarked. “I found myself in a very enviable position.”

In 1955, when he was 53, Bear made his first safari to Africa. It also was the first organized safari to hunt in the Dark Continent with bow and arrow. For the next 10 years, he had the time of his life, hunting intensively and extensively.

Bear has hunted in Africa three times, in Alaska 15 times, in South America once and in India once (at the invitation of the Maharajah of Bundi, an occasion on which he became the first person to kill a Bengal tiger with an arrow in more than a century). He also has hunted in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta and in a great many of the United States.

During those hunts, Bear has killed more than 125 big game animals with bow and arrow, including black bear, grizzly bear, brown bear, polar bear, lion, tiger, elephant, Cape buffalo, Asiatic buffalo, moose, barren ground caribou, mountain caribou, stone sheep, white-tailed deer, mule deer, antelope, elk, reedbuck, oribi and damalisque.

Six of these kills were world record trophies – the brown bear, stone sheep, barren ground caribou, mountain caribou, moose and elk. Bear holds the distinction of having held these six titles all at one time. Two of them – the nine-foot brown bear and the stone sheep – still occupy first place in the records of the Pope and Young Club, archery’s equivalent of the Boone and Crockett Club.

Don Moser, who accompanied Bear on a grizzly hunt in British Columbia, wrote this description in an account published in Life magazine: “Even as he was learning about the bears in the neighborhood, Fred was preparing himself for the moment when he might have to face one at close range. At camp in the evening he meticulously honed the broad, razor-edged blades of his hunting arrows. And since drawing his heavy hunting bow would be almost as strenuous as trying to bend a crowbar, he worked his muscles into shape by firing at stumps in the nearby woods. His form was so unorthodox that a tournament archer would have laughed at him. He crouched, cocked his head, tilted his bow at an odd angle and didn’t even bother to sight over the arrow point. Like a pitcher throwing a baseball, he depended largely on instinct to aim his arrow. He simply looked at his target and let fly.”

Asked by Michigan Out-of-Doors to recall the biggest thrill of his bowhunting career, Bear singled out an interlude in Mocambique (Portuguese Africa) in 1965. In the gathering darkness, Bear sent an arrow into a lion from a blind, an act that triggered a six-hour ordeal for Bear and his party before they recovered the 460-poind beast that measured 10 feet in length. The episode is described in chilling detail in the bowhunter’s book, “Fred Bear’s Field Notes.” Bear, incidentally, was 63 years old at the time.

Bear got a vast amount of promotional mileage out of his hunts by filming them and writing about them.

His 25 archery movies represent the largest adventure film library of its kind anywhere. Bear has used the films in hundreds of personal appearances at dinners and sports club meetings throughout the country, and they have been shown often on television.

Although he finds writing laborious, he has written many stories about his hunting exploits for Outdoor Life, True and other magazines as part of his total promotional effort on behalf of archery.

He has written two books – “The Archer’s Bible” and the aforementioned “Field Notes” – and has delivered the manuscript for a third to Doubleday, which plans to publish the book next August under the title, “The World of Archery.”

“I’m working on one more book,” Bear said. “It will deal with animals from the viewpoint of the hunter or sightseer. The emphasis will be on deer, but there will be chapters on other big game also.”

His wife Henrietta assisted in preparing “Fred Bear’s Field Notes.” She is from Oshkosh, Wis., and Bear met her on one of his deer hunting trips in the Upper Peninsula when she was a social hostess at the Blaney Park Resort.

Bear is the father of two children, a daughter who works for Bear Archery in the advertising department and a son who is a graduate of West Point now stationed in California in charge of missile bases in the Pacific area.

While promoting archery, Bear also has conducted a one-man crusade for 50 years for good sportsmanship and sound conservation.

“You don’t go hunting to kill,” he has said. “You go hunting to hunt. There are hunters and there are killers. To the true sportsman, the kill is an anticlimax.”

In 1972, he established the Fred Bear Sports Club, whose main purpose is to help save the sport of hunting. The club is described as “an association of people who believe in clean water, clean air and the natural beauty of an unlittered countryside, who further believe in the intelligent management of wildlife, support the fish and game laws and abide by the rules of fair chase.”

The club, along with the National Rifle Association and the American Archery Council, helped launch “The American Outdoors” television project in 1977. Each of the three groups contributed $104,000 toward the project to produce a series of 26 half-hour shows for national television featuring all types of outdoor recreation. The shows are designed to educate the public about the pleasures of outdoor recreation and to raise funds for the American Archery Council to promote that sport and for AWARE (America’s Wildlife Association for Resource Education), a nonprofit foundation to disseminate information on the state of the nation’s wildlife, fish and other natural resources.

Among Bear’s other education ventures is the Fred Bear Museum in Grayling, a major tourist attraction that houses many of the trophies Bear gathered in his more than 40 years of bowhunting and the world’s finest collection of archery artifacts.

His pioneering role in bowhunting and his contributions as a conservationist have brought Bear numerous awards. In 1976, Winchester-Western honored him as its Outdoorsman of the Year. He has received the W.J. Compton Medal of Honor Award in Archery and has been elected to the Hunting Hall of Fame, Archery Hall of Fame and Sporting Goods Hall of Fame.

In 1967, Bear sold his company to Victor Comptometer Corp., a conglomerate that two years before had purchased Daisy, the company that manufactures air rifles and pistols.

In 1977, Victor merged with Walter Kidde Co. of Clifton, N.J. “Kidde does pretty close to $2 billion in sales,” Bear explained, “and has more than 200 divisions in a wide variety of operations. The company initially made fire extinguishers and grew from there.” Among Kidde’s subsidiaries are 12 that are located in Michigan, including – besides Bear Archery – James Heddon Sons, the fishing tackle manufacturers.

Bear remains as president of the company, and despite his years he goes to the office regularly. He still spends a good deal of time on research and development – experimenting with equipment and testing it.

“Normally,” he observed, “if a fellow makes his hobby his business, it gets to be a chore, but this never happened to me.”

The work force at Bear Archery declined from 750 in the 1960s to about 300 by the time the company moved to Florida late in 1978. “We turn out a lot more production now with a lot fewer people,” Bear remarked.

He attributed the cutback in the work force to the emergence of the compound bow, which lends itself better to production line operations than the conventional bow.

“The compound was invented about 10 years ago,” Bear explained. “We figured archers wouldn’t accept such an awful looking contraption, but we’ve been making them for about five years now and they represent about 85 percent of our production, and this is increasing steadily. The conventional bow is practically obsolete now, even though compounds cost maybe twice as much as recurved bows.”

Bear Archery was struck by members of United Auto Workers Local 1903 in 1976. The union claimed that management refused to bargain. Bear contends that the UAW moved into the plant that year and conducted an election among workers with a show of hands, a vote that management maintained was improper. The company won a federal court ruling the following year declaring the election invalid since it was not conducted by secret ballot.

In any event, the strike was still in progress even as the company was moving its operations to Florida. The plant had continued to operate throughout the walkout.

Bear said the decision to move to Florida was not based on the strike but on high labor costs. He added that a survey showed that 90 percent of Bear’s competition was located in the South, where employers have a labor cost advantage of between $2 and $3 an hour.

“We had to get where the competition was,” Bear stated. “Michigan doesn’t have a very healthy atmosphere for small manufacturers.”

Commenting on the strike that began when Victor had control of the company, John P. Kavanaugh, director of the Michigan Office of Economic Expansion, said last September, “When Mr. Bear was running the company, they had no labor problems.”

Although the move to Florida must have a bitter pill for one whose roots are so firmly imbedded in Michigan’s North Country, Bear accepted this turn of events with a stoicism that is probably tempered with the comforting knowledge that he will be back on the Au Sable every summer. For the truth is that he is a dedicated fly fisherman as well as a bowhunter, and this is what helped lure him to Grayling in the first place.

He looked around the trophy-filled office that was soon to be vacated and said, “I plan to come up in time for the big hatch.” 1979

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