Chapter FIVE – pt 1

 One fall day in 1976, after our strike by the UAW had been going on for a number of months, Bob Kelly called me. He asked me to come over to the Bear Archery main building. The walk from my office next door in the old house we called “The Swamp,” where we had our in-house advertising agency, was one of the best walks I’ve ever taken.

When I entered Kelly’s small office, Fred was already sitting there. They both had serious looks on their faces, and I thought, “What the hell did I do wrong now?” Kelly gave me his stern Irish look and said very brusquely “Sit down, Lattimer!” Neither man cracked a smile. I was petrified. This was like having your dad and grandpa call you in for a chewing out for wrecking the family’s only car.

“We think you should go out to Bassett, Lattimer, and see some real cowboy country,” Kelly finally said.

I still wasn’t sure what he meant. “Was I being sent on a business trip of some kind?” I wondered. “What was in Bassett? And where was it?” At the time I didn’t make the connection to Dick Mauch, one of the former owners of Bear Archery before the Victor buyout.

“You need to eat some steaks half the size of Dallas and do some bowhunting with us. How does that sound?” the Irishman asked with a small smile and a twinkle in his eye. I glanced at Fred, and he had a big grin on his face, too. Seeing that, I relaxed and asked, “What do you mean?”

The two then told me that they wanted me to go bowhunting with them out at Dick Mauch’s place in Bassett, Nebraska. Fred had originally hunted there in December 1963 when he and Mrs. B were on their way back from California. Then he returned to hunt again with Dick in 1964 with Ed Bilderback (his Alaskan “Valiant Maid” guide), K.K. Knickerbocker, Bob Munger, Dr. Judd Grindell, Bob Kelly and Mike Steger (Mrs. Bear’s foster son, who at that time was teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs). Then, in 1975 Fred and Kelly went back out to hunt turkeys with Dick.

This is where the two of them went when they wanted to bowhunt, but didn’t want to have to do it with customers or staff, where they could just relax and let their hair down with their old friend, Dick Mauch. In Bassett they could quietly discuss problems and make clear-minded business decisions. In essence, I was being invited into this inner circle. But being as naive as I’ve always been, that didn’t occur to me at the time. This was my first hint that my opinion on matters other than advertising, public relations and sales promotion would be listened to with interest by the three of them.

Bound for Bassett

Mike Steger, Fred Bear, K.K. Knickerbocker, and Ed Bilderback.

Fred had first hunted in Bassett, Nebraska in December 1963. He then returned again in 1964 (shown above) and hunted with Dick Mauch. The gang gathered for this photo just as Fred was about to leave town (explaining his street clothes) following the hunt with some of the fine deer they had taken. Left to right: Mike Steger (Mrs. Bear’s foster son, who at that time was teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs), Fred, K.K. Knickerbocker (a major Bear Archery stockholder), and Ed Bilderback (his Alaskan hunting guide/boat captain). Fred told me that Ed Bilderback was the most natural hunter with whom he had ever been in the woods, using either bow and arrow or firearm.

Bassett is a town of approximately 1,000 people in the northern part of Nebraska, just south of the beautiful, wide and shallow Niobrara River that meanders along the northern edge of the state from its source in eastern Wyoming, finally joining the Missouri River to the east. Bassett is in Rock County and located at the intersections of U.S. Highway 20 and U.S. 183 at the northeastern edge of the Sandhills Country of the Cornhusker State.

Bassett is a quiet, gentle town where the big event of the week after Sunday church services is the midweek cattle auction at the Bassett Sale Barn. On a typical Wednesday auction day, thousands of head of cattle might move through its holding pens, inside to the auction ring, and back out onto the transfer trucks. Matter of fact, many times during the year during special cattle sales, they will have as many as 5,000 head of cattle auctioned, and during any given year they’ll move more than 200,000 cattle.

In the fall when Fred, Kelly and I were hunting near Bassett, they would run special sales offering weaned calves. On one of those sales in November it is not uncommon to sell as many as 5,000 calves. Then they also have a special sale in the spring for year-old calves when we would be out there turkey hunting with Dick. This is their “Back to Grass Sale” and provides ranchers who do not run cow/calf operations a chance to purchase yearlings for summer grazing.

It was great fun sitting in the cozy amphitheater-like Bassett Livestock Auction Barn, with its cow smells, watching all the noisy action with the ranchers and cattle buyers doing their silent bidding as the cattle swirl around the auction pen down below with the auctioneers doing their exciting pitch. Matter of fact, one of Bassett’s regular auctioneers, Col. Mike Baxter, won the North American auctioneer’s competition at Calgary, Alberta during the annual Stampede celebration and a couple of years after that he won the world title.

This is a land of big ranches, no-nonsense ranchers, range-toughened cowboys and astute cattle buyers. Average rainfall is less than 20 inches, however, this area sits atop an enormous lake of extremely pure and clean underground water, known as the Ogalalla aquifer.

Tapping this abundant water reservoir are many center-pivot irrigation systems that dot the landscape and nourish the tens of thousands of acres of field corn and alfalfa grown there each year. Nebraska Corn Fed Beef and Omaha Steaks are brands known and served in the finest restaurants over the globe.

Fred and Bob Kelly returned to Bassett in September 1975, to go wild turkey hunting, and Fred got his first gobbler with the bow and arrow for an old-fashioned Thanksgiving. After that, I began in earnest to promote turkey hunting with the bow and arrow in our advertising, our annual catalog, “The Big Sky,” and in our film work.

Hometown Host

Dick Mauch was born at home and raised in Bassett. His grandparents had lived in a prairie sod house 15 miles southeast of Bassett when they first migrated to the area. Grandfather Gottlieb Mauch was born in Basil, Switzerland and filed his homestead 15 miles from Bassett in 1887. Grandmother, Anna Hergesell, was born in Grossirdorff, Czechoslavakia, and arrived in this country in 1895 to live with an uncle. Gottlieb advertised for a wife, scarce in those days in that part of the country, and Anna shyly answered the advertisement. The two met, decided to marry, and eventually had 10 children, one of them being Dick’s father, Walter.

In 1910, Gottlieb opened the Farmer’s Lumber & Supply Company in Bassett after moving the family into town. Dick Mauch’s father, Walter, bought the business from his father when he was 18 and still in high school. He later became the International Harvester farm equipment dealer for the area. He gained fame during the Great Depression by helping the local people through the tough times of the 1930s by providing them what they needed to survive, telling them that they could repay him when things got better. But, just four days after his 50th birthday, he suddenly died of a heart attack. And the small town lost one of its most beloved residents.

One of his two sons, Dick, became interested in archery while a Boy Scout, eventually opening up an archery tackle shop in the Farmer’s Lumber & Supply Company, the family business that Dick and his brother, Emry, had purchased from their father. Dick eventually moved the archery tackle shop to his home in town after selling his interest in the lumber and hardware business to his brother. But Dick was no city boy, he was and is “country” through and through. Even today he controls more than 9,000 acres of hay and pasture land producing Salers (pronounced Sa-lair-is) registered cattle.

Business Partners

Dick signed up Farmers Lumber Company as a Bear Archery dealer in 1957 and quickly became the largest volume Bear dealer in Nebraska. That gained the notice of people back at Bear headquarters, including Fred. So it was that in April 1961, Dick was introduced to Fred on a trip to Grayling with Gene Jones, his Bear Archery sales representative at the time. Also on that first trip was a friend of Gene’s, Marv Miller.

Dick had flown his Piper Commanche from Ainsworth, near Bassett, to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. There he picked up Jones and Miller for the two-hour flight to Grayling. The three men were interested in hunting sheep that fall in the Little Delta area of Alaska where Fred had bowhunted in 1958 and 1959. That hunt never developed after Gene’s wife became pregnant, and they had to cancel the idea. Fred picked them up at the airport and invited them to his home to look at some of his hunting photos.

Fred then took them on a tour of the factory. Dick saw a new model 1961 grey glass, rosewood handle 60-inch Kodiak bow on one of the factory bow racks as they walked by. He mentioned to Fred how beautiful it was. The next morning when Fred took the group to the airport for the flight home, Dick was already in his pilot’s seat when Fred said, “Oh, I almost forgot, wait a minute.”

And he went to the trunk of his automobile and pulled out a Bear bow box and handed it to Dick. “A memento of your first trip to Grayling, Dick.” It was the Kodiak bow that Dick had admired in the factory. The thoughtful gesture was typical Fred Bear.

In fact, back in those days, and for a long time thereafter, if you purchased a Bear bow and were unhappy with it for any reason, even if you accidentally ran over it with your pickup truck, we always replaced the bow free, no questions asked. That was Fred Bear’s way of doing business.

Dick eventually became a shareholder in Bear Archery in September 1962. He flew to Michigan to attend a Nebraska-Michigan football game with Bob Munger. After the weekend, he and Munger drove up to Grayling to talk to Fred about purchasing stock in Bear Archery.

The company had just suffered its largest annual loss, and two of the early stockholders told Fred they wanted to sell their shares. Fred agreed, but wanted to find the right kind of people to purchase the stock. He wanted people who could be an asset to the company; ideally people who shared an interest in bowhunting. Dick purchased 100 shares of stock from Jack Van Coervering.

Others who owned stock during my early years working for Fred were K.K. Knickerbocker of Barrington, Illinois, Bob Munger (another hardware store owner from Charlotte, Michigan), along with Fred, Charles Piper, and Mrs. Bear as the principal owners of Bear Archery. Knickerbocker owned Acme Visible Records Company, a nationally known business supply firm. Matter of fact, when I went to work for Fred and Kelly handling the advertising in 1966 these people were, in essence, my bosses.

However, there were also some other smaller stockholders in those days after Dick bought his stock—Nels Grumley (Fred’s old friend and former bowyer), Charlie Kroll (Fred’s son-in-law), Don and Marian Sherwin, Al Mitchell, and stock in the names of some of the children of the Munger, Mauch and Bear children and grandchildren. In all there were 15,000 shares of stock, some of it held in reserve:

Fred and Mrs. Bear controlled 5,750 shares; K. K. Knickerbocker, 2,000 shares; Dick Mauch, 1,586 shares; Al Mitchell, 235 shares; Bob Munger, 250 shares; Nels Grumley, 170 shares; Charlie Kroll, 155 shares; Don & Marian Sherwin, 100 shares. Mitchell, Grumley, Kroll and Sherwin all worked for Bear Archery at one time or another. And some other people also invested in Bear Archery after January 1967, and before the sale to Victor Comptometer.

In June 1963, Dick’s passion for archery and bowhunting led to a job covering North & South Dakota, western Nebraska, Wyoming and the eastern half of Montana as a Bear Archery district sales manager. He would later cover an 11-state territory, all by flying his own airplane around the territory. He covered states from the Canadian border to Mexico—an amazing feat. At the end of two years, Dick had built the sales volume and expanded the dealer base so that Kelly could then divide the area into three sales territories. He hired two new sales reps, and Dick kept the states of Nebraska, Kansas and Wyoming.

To be continued: