There are some two million bow hunters in the U.S., and at least half that many more scattered around the globe. Most were gun hunters first, many still are. All share one desire: to meet the challenge of competing with an animal on intimate, demanding terms. There are no 300-yard shots in bow hunting. The longest are rarely more than 40 yards. Most are much less. At that range the archer ranks a poor second to the animal, and his weapon—cumbersome, clumsy to mount, slow to draw—is hardly an equalizer. For the man who hunts with a bow, the odds of achieving success are poorest. It is the joy of the experience he seeks, and it is in this that he finds his rewards. That philosophy has guided Fred Bear for most of his 74 years, and while he is not opposed to killing an animal when it is done legally and in fair chase, his life's work has been to promote the broader experience of hunting in which the kill is but one factor.
Bear became interested in archery in 1927 when he saw a film, Alaskan Adventures, chronicling a three-year hunting trip by the renowned Arthur Young in which he stalked and killed a giant Kodiak bear with a wood bow. From that moment on Fred Bear was consumed by bow hunting. Unable to buy satisfactory archery equipment in Detroit, where he lived, he began building his own. Archery might have continued to be only a hobby except for the fact that in 1933 the spare tire cover factory where he worked burned down and he found himself unemployed at the depth of the Depression. With about $600 worth of equipment in his basement workshop, Bear went into the archery business.
At the time it was anything but a high-profit industry. A skilled bowmaker, working 14 hours, could expect to produce one wood bow. A comparably skilled arrow-maker might turn out five dozen arrows. Bear hired four leather workers to make quivers, armguards and private-label leather goods, Bear Archery's major source of income in those early days. Then, while his crew worked in Detroit, Bear went about the task of creating a market for his products. He traveled the sport-show circuit doing shooting exhibitions, competed in countless archery tournaments around the country, produced a library of films on bow hunting and spoke tirelessly at dinners and sports clubs.
"When the man with the big feet spoke," says one of his longtime associates, "people listened."
By 1947 the business had prospered to the point that Bear was able to build an 8,500-square-foot plant on the banks of the Au Sable River in Grayling, Mich. But he was still searching for a method to mass-produce bows. For this he needed a material that was stronger than wood and would not break or become fatigued in extreme cold. Fibreglas provided the breakthrough. After impregnating it with resin, Bear succeeded in laminating the combination to wood. The result was a bow that could be mass-produced at reasonable cost, was stronger and more dependable than wood and yielded greater accuracy.
While developing the glass bow, working 14 to 16 hours at the plant and living in a tent on the banks of the Manistee River, Bear also found time to court a bride. Rather than postpone the marriage until they could afford more conventional living quarters, they honeymooned in the tent. "When Fred brought home guests," Henrietta Bear recalls, "he would toot the car horn the last mile through the woods to warn me that someone was coming."
Although they still have the property on the Manistee, the Bears have abandoned the tent that was home for the first two years of their marriage except in the deep of winter. They now live in a handsome ranch house overlooking a cove of the Au Sable on property adjacent to the factory. When he is not off on a hunt or at the office, where he still spends 12 to 14 hours a day. Bear can usually be found at a large picture window that looks out on a maze of bird and small animal feeders. He is no less fascinated by the tiny creatures that frequent his yard than by the larger ones he has stalked.
Although he is still the boss and the brains of Bear Archery, Bear sold the company eight years ago to Victor Comptometer, which also owns Daisy air rifles and Heddon fishing tackle. Today Bear Archery is twice the size of its nearest competitor and accounts for 30% of all archery tackle sold in the world. Its remarkable growth in recent years reflects that of the archery industry as a whole. New and improved equipment, an increase in the number of people bow hunting and the re-establishment of archery at the Olympics, which revived interest in the sport at schools and colleges, have all contributed to the company's success.
"People are discovering that archery is fun," Bear says, "that it develops coordination, and that it is a sport for every member of the family."
It also develops other things. Over Bear's drafting table in his office is a picture of a topless beauty with a bow. The slogan under it reads: "If you are going to hunt, go Bear!"