Visit hunting camps these days and you’ll see all kinds of optics from high-end German scopes to cheap discount models. But in the Shenandoah Valley, the scopes you probably see most often are those made by Leupold, an American company based in Oregon. Some are battered and nicked, but they still keep working, year after year.
Over the next two weeks we’ll take a look at how that optics company was founded, with the story of how they started with a different business focus, but shifted to hunting optics all because of a fogged-up scope and one missed mule deer buck. Ever since the 2.5X Plainsman was introduced that year in 1947, Leupold riflescopes have drawn loyal fans like few other hunting optics companies, especially among Shenandoah Valley nimrods.
The firm that would evolve into a modern-day world leader in the field of optics started out with a far different purpose than helping hunters accurately draw a bead on game from long distances. The only thing that relates to today’s company was the name of its founder, Marcus Fredrich (Fred) Leupold. It was 40 years after Leupold first opened shop when the company bearing his name finally came out with its first overwhelmingly successful scope.
Born in Ravensburg, Germany, in 1875, Leupold immigrated to the U.S. at the young age of 16, in 1891. Holding various jobs as they became available, he eventually settled in Oregon where he found a niche working for C.L. Berger & Sons, a manufacturer of surveying tools, as a precision machinist.
With that background knowledge and skill under his belt, he sought financial backing from his brother-in-law, Adam Voelpel, to start his own business. Together they created a company in Portland, Oregon, in 1907 called Leupold & Voelpel. Setting up shop at 5th and Oakland, the business focused on repairing surveying and drafting equipment. There was a strong need for their services in those early days of our country when homesteads were being carved out and tracts of land bought and sold.
Demand for their services was strong enough that they soon hired several additional workers. As their reputation for quality work grew, they decided to not only repair but also build survey equipment. To accommodate the expanded focus, they moved to a building adjacent to Leupold’s home, in 1911.
Work was steady as World War I approached, but eventually it became hard for them to compete with larger companies backed by deep-pocketed investors. They needed other options and began searching for them. They soon found their answer when they were introduced to one John Cyprian “J.C.” Stevens.
The meeting was a fortuitous event and turning point for the future of the company. Stevens, born in 1876 in Kansas, was just the person they needed with a civil engineering degree from the University of Nebraska and background as an inventor, engineer and hydrologist.
J.C. had worked for the U.S. Geological Survey on water issues. During that time he invented an instrument that would measure water flow in streams more efficiently than those in use and patented it. After they met Stevens, Leupold and Voelpel agreed to market the device in 1911. By 1914, Stevens joined the firm as a third partner.
The company then changed its name to Leupold, Volpel, & Co. (Voelpel altered the spelling of his name around this time, to avoid anti-German prejudice.) At this same time one of Leopold’s sons, Marcus, joined the company.
Sales were good for the business but increased dramatically when Stevens invented another product, the Telemark, in 1938. That instrument measured water levels and transmitted the data over telephone lines. It was an immediate hit, and soon the company had grown to 40 employees, was enjoying worldwide sales, and had moved to larger quarters.
Stevens’ son Robert joined the company in 1939, focusing on marketing, sales and advertising. Volpel died the following year, and soon the company renamed itself to reflect its new focus and new management personnel as Leupold and Stevens Instruments Co. A few years later, Leupold’s other son, Norbert, joined the company, in 1944, the year his father died.
Next Week: A fogged-up scope on a rainy day causes a missed buck…and how that led to Leupold’s change of focus to a hunting optics company.