A Washing Machine, Aldo Leopold, & Mr. Fox
by Jeff Nania © 2015
In 1921 at 34 years of age, Aldo Leopold had become the supervisor of the Carson National Forest in Northern New Mexico. He and his beloved Estella had just about completed the task of making sure that there were several children to carry on their family legacy, only Estella (1927) had not yet been born. While very successful in his chosen career, working for the U.S. Government in 1921 was a steady paycheck but not a road to riches. Without too much imagination one could guess that feeding and clothing themselves as well as Starker, Luna, Nina, and Carl occasionally stretched the family finances pretty thin, and luxuries were probably at a minimum. Certainly any major purchases would have required some discussion.
It was easy to see why one such point of discussion would have been the need for a new washing machine. Four kids running about outdoors keeping themselves entertained with all things, green and growing, wet and muddy would require the constant use of soap and laundry detergent. The purchase of a new washing machine would be clearly justified.
Leopold was faced with a critical dilemma. One that faces all of us that find ourselves in need of a new piece of field equipment and limited cash. A washing machine was needed, but Aldo had other ideas about what constituted wise use of available financial resources. The clever Leopold must have convinced Estella that while she wanted a new washing machine, family funds would be better spent on something that might be able to improve the status of the larder if things got thin. It is unlikely that she actually bought into this argument but acquiesced to the wishes of her much loved and hard working husband.
Who knows what convinced him that his hunting gear was not complete. Maybe it was the full page add in the January 1921 issue of Hunter-Trapper-Trader magazine, encouraging you to “gratify that age-old instinct to go a-hunting.” The ad further explained this activity would be greatly diminished if a hunter was not accompanied by a gun that was “hard-hitting, smooth in action, dependable, and suited perfectly to you.”
Or maybe it was Theodore Roosevelt’s tales of his great hunting adventures with his shotgun by the same maker. On February 11, 1909, Mr. Ansley H. Fox delivered to President Roosevelt a double barrel shotgun to be used on his now famous 1909 African Safari. Upon receipt of the shotgun Roosevelt penned a letter to Mr. Fox, stating:
“the double-barreled shotgun has come, and I really think it is the most beautiful gun I have ever seen. I am exceedingly proud of it. I am almost ashamed to take it to Africa and expose it to the rough usage it will receive. But now that I have it, I could not possibly make up my mind to leave it behind. I am greatly obliged to you, and I am extremely proud to have such a beautiful bit of American workmanship with me.”
There can be no doubt that Leopold, an avid reader, found Roosevelt’s tales of adventure as captivating as we do today.
Whatever the reason, Aldo Leopold began the quest to purchase “The Finest Gun in the in the World.”
So in January of 1921, with a pocket full of washing machine money, Leopold set off on the journey to secure a special order A.H.Fox shotgun. It is likely he boarded a steam train on the on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway in Albuquerque and began the journey over 300 miles to Colorado Springs, Colorado. This train did not go through to Colorado Springs and he would have had to spend at least a day in La Hunta, Colorado waiting for the spur link that would take him to his final destination. I imagine dreams of great hunts to come occupied his mind as he waited anxiously for the train to arrive.
Upon arrival in Colorado Springs, Leopold headed to 107 North Tejon St., the location of the famous Colorado Sporting Goods Company. Widely known as the store that had “Everything for the Sportsman,” it was a destination for all those who sought to go afield. Outdoor gear of every kind lined the shelves, from lanterns to axes, pup tents to wall tents, and horse harnesses and panniers. A visit to the store was an adventure in itself tempting all those who love the rough and tumble of the outdoor life. Many things must have piqued his interest but it was the gun section that Leopold had come to visit. At the counter he met with store manager Otis McIntyre, resident expert on all things related to outdoor pursuits and the only one allowed to take orders for the A.H. Fox Gun Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
They no doubt perused the order catalog, which listed all models of the Fox shotguns available. It is here that Leopold shows his keen interest in the gun maker’s art and his knowledge of firearms and their specific performance. His specifications were those of someone who wanted a shooters gun, but with a touch of elegance. A gun that was reliable, fast handling and capable of taking game birds of all kinds geese to grouse, but would be an example American gun makers art. A gun that would fit the bill sitting in a duck blind or walking the grasslands hunting over his dog Flick. A gun that would last a lifetime.
During his visit, Leopold ordered an A.H. Fox double barrel 20-gauge shotgun engraved XE grade. He specified the barrels to be 30” in length, 2 ¾” chamber and the chokes to be improved cylinder in the right barrel and full choke in the left. He further specified that the right barrel be bored for “bulk powder” and #9 shot the left bulk powder and #7 shot. The gun was to weigh a very light six pounds, meeting his requirement that it could be carried on long treks without fatigue. Its pistol grip stock and forend were made from beautiful American walnut. He ordered it with no safety. Before leaving he paid Otis McIntyre the 1921 princely sum of $87.50 as a down payment on the shotgun, the balance of $87.50 to be paid upon delivery. The most advanced new washing machine of the day was about $120.00, and while somewhat comparable in price, but not even close to each other in value.
The XE engraving pattern on the gun was the favorite of many of the discriminating shooters of the day. The pattern developed in 1913 for A.H. Fox by world-renowned engraver William Gough turned the shotgun into a canvas and a timeless work of art. Tasteful scroll combined with game scenes and the ever-present fox winds its way from the receiver up onto the breech end of the barrels.
It is interesting that Leopold ordered the gun specifically without a safety. While that may seem strange in today’s “gotta protect everyone from everything world” it was based on his experience as a hunter that made him so choose. An entry in Leopold’s hunting journals dated December 31, January 1 and 2 of 1920-21 prior to him ordering his new shotgun provides some insight.
Lower Torme Point 1921
“Just about sunrise as we were putting away the breakfast dishes, full of confidence, hope and hotcakes. I heard a faint honk and there were ten big Canadas passing up the river about 20 yards high and 50 yards from camp. I made a wild grab for the gun rack led a big honker about ten feet, and pulled_ _ that awful feeling_ _ had Ward’s gun and it was on safety. D____ a safety.”
Real shooters of years gone by and today are very aware that there is little danger in a gun going off unless you pull the trigger, and so a safety, a mechanical device with the potential for failure, was not as sure as keeping your finger off the trigger until you were ready to shoot.
The finished gun arrived six months later in July of 1921 and was picked up by a no doubt very excited Aldo Leopold. He took the Fox on its inaugural hunt in September of 1921. His hunting journal again documents the events.
Foothills west of Barelas Bridge Sept 15, 1921.
7 doves 19 shells 3 shells per bird no cripples lost
“First trial with the new gun, bulk powder and glasses. Couldn’t connect at first but later did a little better. Using 2 ¼ drams of Dupont, 7/8’s oz of no. 8. Flick (his German Shorthair Pointer) was very disappointing, mauling all the birds badly. Probably the combination of burrs and loose feathers got on his nerves.”
It is little known fact but only stands to reason that Leopold, ever the recycler, handloaded his own shotgun shells. Pursuing his journals provides an interesting look at Leopold the shooter. He meticulously recorded both the results in the field and patterning tests of different loads. A journal entry from January 29, 1924 records the patterning performance of both barrels using 4, 6, and 7½, 2¾ inch one ounce loads at 40 and 60 yards. He noted the little Fox liked 7½ and 4 shot better than 6.
Today the Fox shows signs of honest field wear, scuffs and scratches from a life in the hands of a hunter. The engraving remains crisp and most of the original finish is retained. Clearly it was a gun well used and a “great possession” well cared for.
As I held it I couldn’t resist mounting it to my shoulder and swinging right, following the imaginary path of incoming ducks on late fall Wisconsin River hunt. I felt the kindred spirit of Aldo Leopold course through this seemingly inanimate object and for that moment I was with him in the blind smelling the smells, feeling the wind by the flowing river, and watching in guarded anticipation at swinging and swirling ducks as they came toward us.
Aldo Leopold hunted with “the Fox” until his untimely death in 1948 helping a neighbor fight a grass fire near the “Shack”. This rediscovered treasure will forever more reside on display at the Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to visit and see the gun remember the owner: Aldo Leopold world-renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold the hunter.
Above: Engraving on Leopold's Fox
Below: Leopold's Fox patterning log.