John Olin, Ding Darling, Maynard Reece & King Buck: The Making of an Icon – Part One

Every hobby has its own folklore, often involving legendary figures in key roles. Fish and game lore is no different. The story I have chosen to begin telling today involves four of our greatest protagonists and will show how their lives became entwined to produce one of the most recognizable images in our hobby.

In part one of this series of posts, I am also going to take the opportunity to introduce some collateral fish and game items that are sought after by many collectors: ammunition boxes and advertising covers and calendars.


John M. Olin

Our story starts with John Olin. John has been described as a visionary. He was an entrepreneur and industrialist who went on to become one of the most prodigious of all American philanthropists. John was also an avid sportsman and a highly influential conservationist (see Figure 1).

Moreover, John was considered a guiding force in the conversion of subsistence hunting into sport hunting and the subsequent management of our wildlife resources on a scientific basis.



Figure 1. John M. Olin, an American visionary.



John was born in East Alton, Illinois in 1892. He was the first child of Franklin W. Olin and the former Mary Moulton. Franklin was a businessman who owned a gunpowder mill. After high school, John attended Cornell University where he majored in chemistry.

John became very involved in campus life, founding a fraternity, and ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Upon his graduation in 1913, he joined the family business as a chemical engineer. Along with his father and brother, Spencer, they grew the powder mill into the Western Cartridge Company, a maker of ammunition (see Figure 2).



Figure 2. Western Cartridge Company small arms ammunition box.



Early on, John showed a talent for developing new products. This resulted in 24 different patents for ammunition manufacture and design, including his best-known innovation – the Super-X shotgun shell (see Figure 3). The Super-X shell increased firing range by 20 yards and became very popular with hunters. John soon became an assistant to the president and, later, a first vice president.



Figure 3. Western Super-X shogun shell box.



Western competed directly with such giants as Remington and Winchester Repeating Arms (see Figures 4 and 5). For a time, it was rough going. Their powerful competitors were able to persuade many suppliers to not sell them the raw materials they needed.



Figure 4. Remington advertising cover, ex Bill Litle collection.



Figure 5. Exquisite Winchester advertising poster, featuring mallards in flight. Photo courtesy of Tim Melcher.



To survive, the Olins diversified. They bought a paper manufacturer, a lead shot facility, an explosive primer facility, a cartridge brass manufacturing facility, a fiber wad facility and started their own brass mill. Together, these companies became the new Western Cartridge Company and they subsequently made a fortune supplying ammunition during WWI.



Conservation Management Pioneer

During the 1920s, our nation’s game supply was decreasing at an alarming rate. Subsistence hunting and changing agricultural practices had reduced once abundant populations to all time lows. People such as John Olin became concerned about he future of our wildlife resources.

It should be noted that while John demonstrated throughout his life that he was, in fact, a very altruistic and generous person – John had had extra incentive when it came to wildlife conservation, as did all ammunition and gun manufacturers.

The future of their industry depended on perpetuating game populations and this certainly was not lost on John. Among John’s earliest conservation contributions was as a delegate of the Western Cartridge Company to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI).

The purpose of SAAMI was to address problems, such as current and future markets for their products. John chaired the SAAMI Committee on Restoration and Protection of Game. It was this committee that directed Aldo Leopold’s groundbreaking Game Survey of the North American States.

According to Senator Harry B. Hawes, one of the authors of the federal Duck Stamp Act of 1934, it was this investigative effort that brought Leopold into active work in the field of game management (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management.



Begun on July 1, 1928, Leopold’s monumental study was the first of its kind. Its purpose was to appraise the chance for the practice of game management as a means of game restoration in central North America. In his preface, Leopold noted that “the survey was financed by the sporting arms and ammunition industry”.

Many of the findings in Leopold’s study were used in developing An American Game Policy. It was one of the first and most important blueprints for game management and is thought to have marked the beginning of scientific game management. Leopold followed this effort with his classic book, Game Management, which became the bible of the game management profession.

In 1922, John became Director of Western Cartridge. The company became so successful under his leadership, that in 1931 (during the depression), Western bought Winchester Repeating Arms. In 1935, John merged the two, forming Winchester-Western. During WWII, the Olin’s company supplied much of the guns and small-caliber ammunition for the U.S and its allies.

The Dust Bowl years of the early 1930s had brought the plight of North American waterfowl into sharp focus (see Figure 7). Many concerned citizens were spurred into action. From 1931 until 1935, The Game Conservation Society (founded in New York in 1912), with the support of John Olin and SAAMI, operated a school in New Jersey to train people in game breeding and game management.



Figure 7. Dead waterfowl on the Great Plains, victims of the Dust Bowl.



The Clinton Game School trained 145 men in all, and these became many of the first technically trained employees of state game and fish departments. The Game Conservation Society evolved into More Game Birds in America – and we now know it today as Ducks Unlimited.

John’s SAAMI committee also initiated fellowships for game management research at four different universities and this was the beginning of cooperative wildlife research programs between the universities, the Bureau of Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and the state wildlife agencies.

Beginning in 1933, the gun industry was subjected to a 10% federal excise tax which, right in the middle of the depression, could (and probably did) turn away customers. The original excise tax was channeled into a general fund, relatively little of which was spent for wildlife purposes.

This changed in 1937 with the The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act for its sponsors, Nevada Senator Key Pittman and Virginia Congressman Absalom Willis Robertson, the act specified that the federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition would be earmarked specifically for wildlife restoration.

It was seen as a means to implement the findings of Leopold’s work by the sporting arms industry and, therefore, John and SAAMI gave the program their full support. During WWII all excise taxes were increased, including the one on sporting arms and ammunition (to 11%).

Following the war, the excise taxes were rescinded – but John and the sporting arms and ammunition industry requested that the tax on their products be retained. They believed that scientific game management was worth investing in.

In 1944, the various Olin companies were reorganized under a new corporate parent, Olin Industries, Inc. John was named president. In addition to suppling sportsmen, the war production helped the Olin’s to become one of the wealthiest American families (see Figure 8).



Figure 8. Western magazine advertisement.



After the war, the Olin’s acquired the Mathieson Chemical Corporation. In 1952, the Mathieson Chemical Company, as it was known then, acquired the pharmaceutical firm of E.R. Squibb & Sons (now a part of Bristol-Meyers Squibb). In 1952, Olin Industries and Mathieson Chemical merged to form the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation.

The years following WWII brought great changes to the American hunting scene. Returning servicemen put immense hunting pressure on our country’s game lands and wildlife populations. The newfound prosperity of the 1950s exacerbated this problem.

There was more discretionary money and a flood of consumer goods on which to spend it. Road systems were improved and expanded and they were soon filled with new cars full of hunters enjoying their release from wartime economic restrictions. Hunting was no longer seen as a means for putting food on the table – the emphasis had shifted to the sporting aspects of hunting.

All of the developments in game restoration, game management and conservation prior to the end of WWII were effective groundwork for the post war years. The impact on our game lands was greatly buffered by existing conservation programs and the small group of trained game managers ” held the line and bought time” while new programs gained strength.


If the foundation of modern game management had not been laid by people like John Olin, effective game management on a national scale might not have been developed in time to preserve our wildlife resources.


Nilo Farms

John Olin was clearly a very competitive person, both in business and recreational pursuits. He was a passionate hunter and very much enjoyed dogging, wherein the hunter works closely with one or more hunting dogs. John believed, devoutly, in the retriever breeds and the necessity of good dogs in reducing wasteful losses of both upland game and waterfowl during hunting.

Believing very strongly in the value of both the hunting preserve concept and retrievers, John purchased three farms totaling 640 acres near Brighton, Illinois to serve as the future home for an experimental hunting preserve and for a Labrador kennels. The site was 12 miles north of East Alton and the Olin headquarters.

John’s search in naming his new farm-preserve resulted in a corporate contest. An Olin employee, Stan Keonig, suggested the name Nilo as the name for the farms and kennels (Nilo was Olin spelled backwards). John loved the idea and Nilo Farms was born. The kennels were built in 1950 and the hunting preserve in 1952. The selected breeds were English setter, English springer spaniels and Labrador retrievers.

Olin’s passion for Labradors began in the 1940s, when W. Averell Harriman, Secretary of State under Franklin D. Roosevelt, introduced Olin to the black dogs. The devotion of both Harriman and Olin to Labradors promoted the breed to American sportsmen, advanced field trial competition and encouraged selective breeding.

In 1952, John formed the Winchester Conservation Department (WCD). The purpose would be to promote professional and scientific game management in all its aspects, especially as it concerned the hunting preserve concept. The main goal of the WCD during the mid 1950s was to have Nilo Farms serve as a demonstration area for potential preserve operators and for state wildlife officials.

For fish and game collectors, Nilo Farms would provide the setting for something extraordinary to take place toward the end of the decade (see Figure 9).



Figure 9. John Olin and his trusted companion, King Buck, at Nilo Farms. Circa 1950s.



Continue to Part Two




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