Cabela’s: A Surprising Outdoor Legacy

By David Payne
Contributing Writer

The 80,000-square-foot outdoors store is smaller than the Wheeling store, but features the modern Cabela’s layout – an outdoors experience that includes a mountain replica with North American game animals and a built-in aquarium stocking with native fish. Naturally, it features what I love most about the Cabela’s store in Wheeling – the gun library. I could spend hours gawking at the World War I and World War II military bolt-action rifles.

While the store seems so modern, the idea of a sporting goods store that was as much of an experience as an actual retail store is older than most people realize. Those roots can be traced back to a surprising source: Abercrombie and Fitch. Yes, that Abercrombie and Fitch.

You know that feeling of awe that you get when walk into a Cabela’s store? Imagine yourself back in, say, 1915 walking into the Abercrombie and Fitch store in New York. It had everything you enjoy about Cabela’s – and more (they could do a lot of things that Cabela’s can’t do today, such as let you shoot guns inside the store).

The company started out normally enough in the 1890s. It was founded by David Abercrombie, who held a variety of previous occupations, all of which were extremely manly. He was a trapper, prospector, topographer and railroad surveyor. He invented tents, rucksacks and various types of camping equipment. What set his business apart was quality – if it came from Abercrombie’s, you knew it was the best money could buy.

One customer, Ezra Fitch, liked it so well, he bought a partnership.

Fitch is the man who came up with the business model Cabela’s draws upon today – a store that brings the outdoors experience inside. Fitch’s idea was to make the store look like an actual campsite in the Adirondacks. To Abercrombie, it seemed like a joke. He got so sick of Fitch that he resigned in 1907.

With Abercrombie gone, the company retained its name Abercrombie and Fitch and Fitch launched the company’s first catalog.

The salesmen were all experienced outdoorsmen who could swap adventure stories with the best of them. Just before World War I, Abercrombie’s began offering sport clothing, including outdoor clothing for women. The business was huge ­ it took up an entire 12-story building.

Here’s something you can’t do at Cabela’s today – if you wanted to try out a rifle, that was no problem. You could take it down to the basement and shoot it at Abercrombie’s indoor rifle range. If you wanted to try out a fly rod before you bought it, you took it to the roof, where there was a log cabin and a casting pool.

During prohibition, you went to Abercrombie’s for your pocket flasks – so you could have concealed whiskey available at all times.

It was the place to be if you were an outdoorsmen. The list of customers is quite impressive – anybody who was anybody who did anything – including presidents – got their gear from Abercrombie. They outfitted Robert Peary with all he needed to become the first human to reach the North Pole.

They outfitted Ernest Hemmingway on his many adventures and the shotgun he used to kill himself most likely came from there. Among the regular customers were presidents Hoover and Eisenhower.

When Theodore Roosevelt went to Africa to collect exhibits for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Abercrombie’s supplied him with everything he needed to kill so many animals, it took museum taxidermists years to mount them all.

Of course, the Abercrombie and Fitch company of today has only its name in common with the original business. The Limited Inc. bought the company in 1988 and used the name for its clothing line. The Abercrombie and Fitch catalog of today is probably the last thing any outdoorsman would have in his house, but as you enjoy the new Cabela’s in Charleston, or the one in Wheeling, just remember where it came from.

Contact David Payne Sr. at davidpayne@theputnamstandard.com

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