A Great American Institution: NRA Takes Ownership of the Harrisburg Show

NRA Publications Editorial Director John Zent recalls how his father took him to his first "sportsman show" and got him hooked on the annual event that is now owned and operated by NRA as the Great American Outdoor Show.

My father almost never took time off work, so it was most unusual when he rousted me out one winter Saturday morning to go to the “sportsman show.” From our home just below the Mason-Dixon line we headed north to Harrisburg, Pa., where the “sportsman” show was taking place at the “farm show.” Hmm? I didn’t know what to make of that, but had been to fairs and carnivals, so I suppose I expected some kind of cold-weather midway with hunting and fishing stalls.

After the long drive we joined a line of folks filing into an enormous brick building. It was warmer inside, but more like a barn than a house or school. In fact, it smelled like a barn.

After that, what I remember is a kaleidoscope of rifles, shotguns, taxidermy, big bass in a glass tank, fishing rods, boats, campers, tents and crowds of people pressing to see it all just like Dad and me. Of course I can’t really summon up specifics, but likely the day afforded my first looks at moose, elk, and bighorn sheep (well, mounts), all of which would fixate my attention years later. It had to have been 1966—I was 12 that winter—because later that year, inspired by what I saw at Harrisburg, I bought my first bow and a couple used leghold traps. That fall I passed my personal point of no return as a hunter.

Though Dad never took me back again, the hook was set. Five years later it was me driving my ‘67 Ford van with a couple classmates in tow, all of us “battling” senioritis. I recall being infatuated with the lever-action rifles, almost-affordable Maine bear hunts and a booth where they were buying squirrel tails to make fishing lures. Because my school was nearby, I became a show regular during my college years and always took a date. Apparently to suburban co-eds from greater Philly and Westchester County, the show was a walk on the cultural wildside, what with all those livestock odors, dead animals, and rough characters in plaid wool, cowboy hats or bibs, including big Ben Lee making turkey dirty-talk in the small show ring.

After coming to work for NRA, I started recognizing certain outfitters, call makers and wildlife agency reps, and through friends who were there to help favorite outfitters work the 10-day marathon, I even glimpsed a bit of show social life as long-term regulars congregated to joke and complain about the cave-like atmosphere and penny-pinching crowd. Where else could you dine with a group that included west Texas cowboys, an outfitter out of Alberta who genuinely sees 180-inch bucks every season, a down-east Maine sea duck captain and mate, semi-professional models hired on by an RV company, a member of the world’s most famous diamond-mining family and some tough beat cops off the Jersey streets? In fact any show-goer could meet any one of these intriguing folks and many more simply by visiting the right booths and striking up a conversation. And that wasn’t hard since we were all talking the same hunting-fishing-outdoors language.

Eventually I was making the trip with a little money in my pocket--and was lucky to have any left on the way out. I’ll never forget laying the groundwork for a New Mexico elk hunt one year, then seeing my mounted bull hanging atop the outfit’s booth the next. At Harrisburg, I bought my all-time best bass reel, champion goose calls, real wool camo, cartridge belts, a dead-duck retrieving dummy and lots more, even though you couldn’t pay me to carry out 98 percent of what’s there.  The place has always been a beehive of campfire commerce where you can get what you really want at rock-bottom prices, if not what you really need. Once, though, I hit the jackpot, when I happened across a cart selling beautiful potted gloxinias. You see it was Valentine’s Day, and so when I showed up at home late for dinner, at least I wasn’t empty-handed.

Now NRA has stepped in to run things and renamed it the Great American Outdoor Show. Alongside all the outfitters, guns, gear, water-sports necessities and camping equipment, this year’s event will be an important showcase for NRA’s message about protecting freedoms, values and our way of life. NRA leaders will be on hand to join outdoor TV and country-music celebrities with the urgent call for all of us to do our part.

I’m expecting this year’s show to be the topper. So much of what I saw at 12 is still fascinating, except perhaps what made me feel like a mountain man then, will make me feel like a kid now. My advice to everyone who lives within driving distance is go, take your kids, take your parents, and tell you neighbors.

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