Taking Care of Their Community: The Special People from Harris Outdoors
by RONA MANN
Photos by Jeffery Lilly
From the very beginning, it was never about anything other than taking care of people. Now, more than five decades later, that hasn’t changed. The duck decoys are still there, sitting aloof on a shelf, staring off into the distance; yet one has the feeling that they are more than wood and paint…they are made of history and memory and laughter and tears. And made by and for families who have spent their whole lives caring for other families.
A decoy is a dichotomy of sorts: it’s not only meant to distract; it’s meant to attract as well. And no decoy ever attracted more attention than those crafted by the Wildfowler Decoy company begun in Old Saybrook in the late 1930s. Bob Harris’s grandfather worked at that company, as did his grandmother who was the paint supervisor, teaching the fine art of painting decoys to other workers.
As happened with so many of the old mills and factories, a fire in 1957 destroyed the company, leaving Bob’s grandparents jobless with three children to feed. So they did what people did back then. Flying in the face of adversity and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, they bought what was salvageable from the rubble of Wildfowler Decoy and started their own company on Ingham Hill, where their old woodworking shop remains to this day.
The art of making a decoy is an exact one, but that did not deter Bob Harris. Whether it was in his genes or not, as a young man he began carving them and also began his love with the great outdoors.
Approximately 264 miles away in the southern tier of New York State, Lauren Furey was growing up at the same time, learning to fish and camp and appreciate the outdoors. Her grandfather taught her well, instructing, “If you’re gonna catch ’em, you gotta bait ’em.” Not only did she embrace baiting a hook, but for years skillfully cleaned everything she caught…and fifteen years ago, she “caught” Bob Harris.
The business started innocently enough when Bob and his father, who each restored derelict decoys, decided they’d try and sell them on e-bay. What began as a whim, morphed into an explosion, and suddenly they were getting orders from all over the world. It didn’t take long for the Harrises to decide they could do it themselves, working out of their house. Soon they were adding more and more product, bringing customers not just to the door, but right inside their home. “We even had Art Carney (who lived nearby) in our living room,” Bob said. It wasn’t long before product triumphed over living space, and it was time to move the business out.
Their first store was just a 1200 sq. ft. space on Center Road in Old Saybrook which they quickly grew out of and were forced to move. “We’ve actually expanded four times in four years, and pretty soon we’re going to need to expand again,” laughs Lauren. But for right now Harris Outdoors on the Post Road in Old Saybrook offers everything… absolutely everything and then some…for the avid outdoor aficionado as well as the weekend warrior, casual participant, or merely the curious browser.
The store is well laid out with signs directing customers to every department, although the employees who know their product inside and out are always on hand to personally guide, suggest, and answer questions, if asked, so chockablock is the Harris inventory.
Begin with kites… namely Sky Dog Kites from nearby Colchester, offering everything from small starter kites to power kites with 14 foot wingspans. Need a chair? Harris Outdoors has stadium chairs, beach chairs, chairs for sporting events and camping, all portable and durable.
Camping grows in popularity every year, and Harris Outdoors has anything and everything for camping, backpacking, hiking…and if they don’t have it, “We can get just about anything in a very short time,” Bob says. With great pride he points to the fact that they are an Orvis endorsed store. “It took six months to get that designation, but anything they make, we can get.”
You might not think freeze dried food could be delicious, but the Harrises swear their line from Mountain House offers variety, a great taste, and can be stored for up to seven years!Perfect to keep on hand in case a blizzard strands you indoors.
Because Bob, Lauren, and all their employees give back to the community as part time firefighters, EMTs and EMS technicians, emergency preparedness is a big part of Harris Outdoors. “We are in the middle of hurricane season right now,” Bob says. “People should come in and see what we have here…everything from portable water containers to 72 hour emergency meal kits, flashlights, and high powered lanterns. Taking care of the community is what we’re all about.”
At the back of the store in a separate space with its own door is The Hunt Club, run by the Harrises’ partner, Pete Krauss. Here customers will find the only firearms store in Middlesex County with a large selection of shotguns, rifles, revolvers, and the classic, traditional firearms. “We are very security conscious,” Bob cautions. “Before anything goes out of here, there is a full national background check.”
In addition to Peter Krauss, the Harrises have still another partner in Rye, New York, Carrie Burdke. Budke helps design and maintain the Harris Outdoors website and also aids in new product sourcing, keeping the company on the cutting edge at all times.
Being first responders, Bob, Lauren, and their staff not only volunteer their free time, but care about their community at work as well. That’s why so much of their store is geared toward safety and prevention. It’s also why they’re adding Storm Preparedness Classes – free to the public – to educate and inform people as to what they should do to stay safe in a hurricane or snowstorm.
Any time you frequent Harris Outdoors you can always talk to one of the owners…people who personally test what they sell before they sell it. People who are fully informed and whose goal it is to keep their community safe and happy. Although many years have passed since that first decoy was carved, “We still have that old fashioned feel here in everything we do; you can’t get that at the big box store,” Lauren says. “When you support a local business, the money you spend goes right back into the community. That’s what we’re all about.”
Bob Harris has quite a lot of information on his business card, beginning with the headline: Prepared for any Adventure. He is proud of his involvement in the community and therefore the card also notes he is a firefighter and EMT certified instructor. The card mentions Harris Outdoors buys and sells decoys, firearms, and fly rods. But once you add the store’s address, phone numbers, website, and e-mail, there is little room for anything else. If a business card is supposed to tell a story, Bob’s tells just part of his. It could never possibly itemize everything that Harris Outdoors is or does. It could never list every department or service they offer. That’s why they invite you to come in and get acquainted.
It’s more than just retail merchandise. It’s what’s behind those duck decoys sitting on the shelves. It’s history and memories… and the people who made them both.
Harris Outdoors is conveniently located on US Rt. 1, 889 Boston Post Road in Old Saybrook.
(860) 391-8655 Visit: www.Harrisoutdoors.com