He is known as the “Father of Modern Archery” and it was a boy’s dream to receive a Ben Pearson archery set under the Christmas tree or for a birthday gift.
Manufactured in Pine Bluff, what started in Ben Pearson’s garage in 1931 with a few part-time helpers became within a few years the largest archery equipment company in the world. At the height of its run in the mid-60s, Ben Pearson Inc. had more than 800 employees at its 15-acre site in Pine Bluff and was manufacturing 3,000-5,000 dozen arrows and 4,000 bows each day.
In a letter provided by his son Ben Pearson Jr., the elder Pearson described his operation to a publication, “Strange As It Seems.”
“We use 15 or 20 rail carloads of turkey feather each year to fletch the arrows we manufacture,” Pearson said.
It was through his mechanical genius that Ben Pearson’s company became the first in the U.S. to mass-produce a complete line of archery equipment ranging from sets to high-end tournament and hunting gear.
THE LEGEND OF BEN PEARSON
Ben Pearson was born in 1898 near Paron in Saline County. With only a grammar school education, he became self-taught in electricity and mechanics and around 1926, Pearson made his first bow – a six-foot hickory patterned after the English longbow obtained from instructions in Boy Scout articles written by Uncle Dan Beard. Years later, Pearson would author his own instructions for making a flat bow in the Boy Scouts’ Merit Badge Series for Archery.
But Ben Pearson didn’t just want to make bows and arrows, he wanted to shoot them, and after countless hours of practice he got good, very good. He finished next-to-last in the 1926 state archery championships but by his determined resolve, which would take him all the way to the inaugural class of the Archery Hall of Fame, he came back the next year and won it. In 1938, he placed seventh in the National Archery Association’s tournament, but what he really excelled at was exhibition shooting and bow hunting.
Pearson traveled all over North America and Mexico putting on demonstrations and his son said during 1956 Pearson appeared at more than 40 exhibitions and shows across the country, including the nationally-televised Will Rogers Jr. show in New York City.
As often as he could, Ben Pearson Jr. as a young lad would travel with his father for various exhibitions. His dad taught his son how to shoot and Pearson, Jr. says they would practice together sometimes up to four hours a day. The young Pearson got so good at trick shots he began to participate with his father during demonstrations.
Pearson remembers driving with his father and family in the family’s Ford Galaxy 500 to Mexico City in 1963 to give archery demonstrations at the Latin American Trade Fair where there were several hundred thousand attendees. Pearson says he was in the third grade at the time and recalls the routine at the shows.
The Pearsons would toss rings up in front of targets for each other and as they fell, pin them to the straw. Close to nine-years-old at the time, Pearson Jr. acknowledged he always stood closer than his dad for his shooting, but modestly admits his skill impressed the crowd as well.
Sometimes the rings would be filled with balloons and as the demonstration progressed the rings would get smaller, finally ending up with his son tossing up ping-pong balls that Pearson, Sr. would pin to the target from a distance of 30-40 feet.
“You know, it might take him one or two shots most of the time. Three, four, or five sometimes, but he would pick them off,” Pearson, Jr. remembers.
One memorable demonstration captured on video occurred in a flat bottom boat on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs during an exhibition sponsored by Johnson Motors. Pearson says his father stood in the boat running parallel to another man standing in a separate boat who tossed up ping-pong balls that one of the world’s greatest archers then tattooed.
A HENRY FORD WANNABE
It was a chance meeting with a retired Oklahoma oilman in 1938 that soon made Ben Pearson’s dream to mass-produce archery equipment a reality. Pearson had always been a fan of Henry Ford and had envisioned assembly line manufacturing as the key to making affordable reliable equipment. He knew how to do it, and he knew he could invent the machines he needed; the problem was he didn’t have the capital for his dream venture until Carl Haun came to visit his backyard shop in Pine Bluff one day.
The Oklahoman had heard about Pearson and traveled to Arkansas in search of some top-of-the-line arrows for his grandson who had lost or broken all of his. Haun was extremely impressed with the quality of Pearson’s work but manufacturing bows and arrows in the small shop was slow and extremely laborious. Pearson took the opportunity to explain his vision of mass-producing archery equipment to the former oilman and Haun was hooked.
Soon they went searching for the appropriate building where they could begin their enterprising partnership and settled on an old sorghum mill that was for sale.
According to Pearson, Jr., “At that moment Carl Haun’s financial support and Ben Pearson’s mechanical knowledge were joined, forming the Ben Pearson Company.”
Pearson Jr. says, “By the time Carl left Pine Bluff, a building had been acquired and plans formulated. Sometime around march of 1938, Ben Pearson Inc. was created. After two or three investments, Carl and his wife moved to Pine Bluff and the rest is history.” Haun became the company’s president and general manager and remained so until his death in 1963.
By April 1939 just a year into the business, the Ben Pearson Co. was considered to be the world leader in volume production of archery equipment.
Aside from the archery industry, Pearson says his dad played a key role in the development and manufacturing of some of the first mass produced mechanical cotton pickers beginning in 1949.
“Therefore we are manufacturing the world’s oldest weapon and the world’s latest development in farm machinery,” Pearson told a reporter at the time.
By 1952, Ben Pearson Co. was producing 50 percent of all the archery equipment sold in the U.S. The company’s sprawling complex had expanded to twelve buildings covering 139,000 square feet, and all of it due to Ben Pearson’s mechanization genius. In fact, Pearson was awarded several patents for his inventions, including take-down bows, arrowhead construction and target making machines.
The company began marketing with catalogs and in the 1940 edition Ben Pearson Sr. wrote, “For the first time in the history of American archery, the manufacturing of precision bows and arrows has been placed on large scale production. We are able to maintain the highest standards in precision, because our large scale operations enable us to use craftsmen with highly-trained specialized ability. Thus, with the best in stock and the best in craftsmen coupled with our rigid precision supervision, we produce superior archery products which have no peer in America or the world.”
Part of that precision process was the wood from which the bows and arrows were made. Nearly all of the arrows were manufactured from Port Orford Cedar, which was grown in only two places in the world in commercial quantities – a small county in Oregon and a singular island in Japan. The company’s most popularly-priced bow was made of Lemonwood, which was grown in Cuba but had no connection to the lemon tree.
As time went by Pearson developed brands, or a “series line of names,” like the Sovereign Series for his higher-end bows. Among the most famous of all was the Palomino made from laminated wood and fiberglass. The bow was so popular with elite archers the factory ran six weeks behind on orders. The acclaim and awards won by archers using the Palomino bow are too numerous to mention but include many national, international, and world championships in the late 50s to early 60s.
In early 1967, Ben Pearson sold his interest in the company to the Leisure Group, a manufacturing conglomerate with corporate offices in Los Angeles. However, Ben Pearson Jr. says the production plant remained in Pine Bluff until the mid-90s.
The company changed hands several more times and now is located in Pensacola, Florida under the name Ben Pearson Outdoors. Its national sales director Ben Selman says the company, purchased in 2009, is family-owned and currently employs 26 people in a 5,300-square foot facility.
He says its intention is to “continue archery excellence forged by the legend of Ben Pearson.”
When asked what it means to represent the name of the “Father of Modern Archery,” Selman said, “Ben Pearson worked diligently in perfecting equipment that was both affordable and precise. We are constantly looking at innovations to already existing bows like the Advantage III. We are currently building the Ben Pearson name back to a recognized force for both competition and bow hunting through excellent equipment, pro and field staff, and social media.”
Ben Pearson Jr. and his wife Paulette now run a resort in Prim, Arkansas near Greers Ferry Lake on 1,200 acres of land his father purchased for a cattle/horse ranch.
Started in 1992, Pearson naturally enough named it Longbow Resort.
It features four handcrafted cabins amidst a beautiful natural secluded setting among streams and waterfalls. The resort has been featured in publications like Southern Living.
Pearson says he is at peace running his small family business and unlike his dad never competed much in archery events as he grew up. He no longer has any connection with the company that shares his name and led the world in archery production for three decades.
Although Ben Pearson, Jr. traveled the country with his dad for numerous demonstrations, mostly in his father’s plane because Pearson, Sr. was also an accomplished pilot, Pearson says some of his greatest memories were just hanging out at the plant in the midst of all the activity and, “smelling the strong, pleasant scent of the Port Orford cedar.”
His dad died in March of 1971 at the age of 72 and was inducted posthumously into the Archery Hall of Fame the next year. In 1980 for the 50th anniversary of the Ben Pearson Co., then-Governor Bill Clinton was presented with the company’s six millionth bow and 200 millionth arrow manufactured. At that time, the company employed more than 350 workers and had a payroll in the tens of millions of dollars.
It’s hard to describe the legend of Ben Pearson in one story.
He was an inventor, a machinist, an electrician and woodworker, an engineer, an industrialist, a world-class archer and a visionary.
One of his former employees, Don Croft, may have put it best: “Ben Pearson represented that bosses were no monsters, trying to get the last ounce of work out of me for the least amount of pay, but rather they are fine men who have succeeded through hard work and wanting to do the right thing.”