An internationally known firearms expert, Herman P. Dean donated his huge gun collection to the Huntington Galleries (now renamed the Huntington Museum of Art) for future generations to admire and enjoy.
James D. Francis Library | Huntington Museum of Art
The remarkable Herman P. Dean packed several lifetimes of experiences into his busy eight decades.
As a newspaperman, he purchased the weekly Wayne County News in 1919 and continued to publish it until he retired in 1961. As a businessman, he owned Huntington’s former Standard Printing & Publishing Co. from the 1930s to the 1960s. A dedicated churchman, he taught Sunday School at Huntington’s Central Christian Church for 30 years. A world traveler, he visited not just familiar tourist spots, but remote regions as well.
Over the years, Dean, an internationally known firearms expert, collected literally hundreds of historic guns. Yet, shortly before his death, he liked to point out that he no longer owned a single one. Some he gave away to friends, others he donated to various museums but he presented the bulk of his collection to the Huntington Galleries (now re-named the Huntington Museum of Art) for future generations to admire and enjoy.
The museum’s collection numbers 400 guns and related items, gathered from two dozen countries. It traces the historical development of arms, from the 14th-century crossbow and early “hand cannon” to the weapons of the modern era. Included in the collection are one of frontiersman Danial Boone’s Kentucky long rifles, a Winchester rifle owned by a member of the Hatfield clan during the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud and a pistol used in the infamous 1875 bandit robbery of the Bank of Huntington.
Now, Huntington author Jack L. Dickinson has researched and published “The Life of Herman P. Dean,” a 114-page biography of Dean.
Born in 1897, Dean’s parents, Byron Dean and Laura Jane Osburn Dean, came from two of the oldest and most prominent families in Wayne County. As a boy, the young Dean loved the outdoors and became an avid hunter and fisherman. At an early age he became fascinated by guns, going on to spend his lifetime amassing his impressive collection of firearms for future generations to admire and enjoy.
When he wasn’t off globe-trotting, Dean lived on a 35-acre tract on Twelve Pole Creek in Wayne County just outside Huntington. He told a 1973 interviewer that he had shot “just about every animal in North America,” including a 1,650-pound Kodiak bear.
Like many other sportsmen, he became increasingly interested in conservation. “I get more fun out of restocking and conservation than I did formerly out of fishing and shooting game,” he said. “I now raise a great deal more game than I kill.”
As Dickinson relates in his new book, Dean collected antique weapons for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was the deep satisfaction he obtained from taking a rifle or pistol and learning the story behind it — how it was crafted and where and when it was used.
Collecting, Dean believed, was a way of presenting history and contributing to the understanding of the past.
“The history of the world,” he said, “parallels firearms developments. I like guns from the standpoints of historical significance, art, mechanical progress and ingenuity. And I enjoy the friendship of men who love guns. Then, too, it’s a hobby that fits in with advancing years, for the time does come in life when it is hard to follow a pack of blooded ‘coon hounds over the mountains of West Virginia.”
Over the years, as Dean became an authority on firearms, his articles were widely published in magazines. And, although his Standard Printing was primarily a commercial printing operation, not a book publisher, he nevertheless published a whole shelf of books about guns, some of which he wrote and some written by other gun experts. Many were printed in limited editions, making them now valuable and eagerly sought by collectors.
Although Dean sold his business interests and retired in 1961, he certainly didn’t take to his rocker. Until his death in 1978, he had an office in a downtown bank building and there — surrounded by Eskimo art, tusks of ivory and a world globe — he busied himself writing books, magazine articles and letters to his many friends scattered around the world. (The Huntington Museum of Art has a trove of those letters, which Dickinson was able to draw on in chronicling Dean’s exploits.)
Dean was one of HMA’s founding board members and his donated firearms collection was one of the first exhibits to go on view when the museum opened in 1952. Today, more than 70 years later, it remains one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.
“The Life of Herman P. Dean” is available locally at HMA’s Museum Store and at Booktenders Bookstore in Barboursville. Autographed copies are available directly from the author by sending a check or money order for $20, plus $5 for postage and handling, to Jack Dickinson, 6221 Highland Drive, Huntington WV 25705.
James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.