Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler, if he is remembered at all today, is usually associated with the fascinating hard rubber reel he patented in 1872 known as The Gem. Indeed, early Fowler reels are some of the most coveted items of nineteenth century fishing tackle, bringing in excess of four figures for an example in decent condition (one once sold at auction for $14,000). However, although Fowler was important in the history of reel design, he was also a critical link in the history of the bamboo fly rod in America, being one of the earliest manufacturers of six-strip split bamboo rods. While this study does not pretend in any way to be definitive, it should serve as a start.
Although we know that Fowler was born in 1825, much of his early life is a mystery. Several articles refer to him as Colonel Fowler, implying a stint of military service, but where and when is not yet known. Although the first impulse is to place Fowler in the Civil War, he would have been 23 when the Mexican-American War broke out, and of course it is possible he fought in both conflicts.
What is known is that he became a dentist who practiced his craft in Ithaca, New York. Indeed, he was almost always referred to as Dr. A.H. Fowler. He set up a thriving practice in the pre-Civil War era, and was a dentist of national note; a testimonial from Dr. Fowler was run with an ad by the makers of Johnson & Lund Improved Artificial Teeth in the Dental Times Quarterly (1864) that read: “Gentleman, I take pleasure in adding my certificate in favor of your teeth. They are without fault. Dr. A.H. Fowler, Ithica, [sp] New York.” For reasons that remain unknown, Dr. Fowler sold his dental practice to Dr. George W. Melotte in 1866.
In addition to being a popular dentist, we also know that Fowler was a sportsman of great renown, and that he used his fame to build up a fishing tackle firm beginning in 1870, and perhaps a bit earlier. While his contributions to reel making have been covered by such authorities as Steven K. Vernon and Jim Schottenham, his place in fly fishing history has been virtually ignored, reduced to a few paragraphs of information in Martin Keane’s Classic Rods and Rodmakers, some of it misleading. What follows is an attempt to set the record straight on Alonzo H. Fowler, dentist and tackle maker.
Fowler was clearly one of the earliest and most talented American rodsmiths. No less an authority on the subject as Dr. James Alexander Henshall, pioneer American fishing historian and father of bass fishing in America, declared in Book of the Black Bass (1881) that Fowler was the second American to make a six-strip bamboo rod: “About 1870, Mr. H.L. Leonard, of Bangor, Maine, began making the six-strip bamboo rod, and Dr. A.H. Fowler soon followed him.” Certainly Henshall’s American-slanted bamboo fly rod history has come in for criticism by such modern scholars as Mary Kefover Kelly and others, but no matter how it is reckoned, Fowler was truly one of the earliest pioneers of the American split bamboo fly rod.
It is likely that he began his foray into the fishing tackle field around 1870, for on 18 June 1872, Fowler received Patent #128,137 for an improved fishing reel made from hard rubber. As the patent papers noted, “The reel is simple in construction, light and durable, and finished in appearance. The hard rubber is non-corrosive and peculiarly adapted for this purpose.” Jim Schottenham’s wonderful web site has a full reckoning of these reels (with photos) in their various permutations, so other than as a part of his overall tackle history, this article will concentrate on Fowler’s rodmaking and leave the nuances to these wonderful reels to the experts.
Still, the reel patent offers some interesting insight into Fowler’s work. Since patents at the time could take over a year to be granted, certainly Fowler was working on the rubber reel in mid-1871 (and perhaps earlier). From what Dr. Henshall noted, and from the patent information, we can be fairly certain that Fowler was also tinkering with fishing rods during this time. Interestingly, the 20 February 1873 Syracuse Daily Courier reported that “Dr. A.H. Fowler of [Batavia] is preparing a very handsome fly reel as a premium for fly throwing. It is composed of vulcanized India rubber, superbly mounted, and will be a beautiful specimen of the rubber reels patented and being manufactured for Dr. Fowler.” Note the wording says that Dr. Fowler had the reels made for him, but who made these reels per Fowler’s specifications has not been ascertained to date.
The first notice the author has found concerning Fowler rods comes from The Batavia Times of 14 April 1873 and reads:
Dr. A.H. Fowler has just finished the fly rod made to order of the Batavia Sportsmen Club, to be offered as a prize for fly throwing at the State shoot next month. It is a model of beauty and workmanship, and is the handsomest rod we have ever handled or seen. It is three jointed, composed of six-strip bamboo, silver-mounted, about eleven feet in length, and weighs only nine ounces, with one of the Doctor’s patent vulcanized rubber silver-mounted reels.
Additionally, as the Auburn Courier & Republic reported on 09 June 1873, Fowler donated several other reels as prizes at the New York State Sportsmen’s Association held at Batavia.
By this time, Fowler’s reputation in upstate New York had been cemented, and as he began to advertise nationally, his fame spread. The first national advertisement the author could find is dated 05 February 1873 in Forest & Stream, and several key pieces of information are contained in it. First, Fowler declared the reel was “the latest contribution to the angler’s outfit [and] has now been before the public for one year.” It is obvious Fowler was selling Gem Reels before his patent was issued in June 1872. The second point of interest is that Andrew Clerk Co., which would become Abbey & Imbrie in 1875, were sole agents for Fowler’s reel at this time. Finally, Fowler used testimonials from Seth Green, father of fish culture in America, and Robert B. Roosevelt, noted sportsman and uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, in his ad.
Initial reactions to the Fowler hard rubber reel were mixed. Forest & Stream opined in the same issue as the inaugural advertisement:
Dr. Fowler, of Syracuse, has placed anglers under obligations by giving them a newly invented reel, made of hard rubber, which for the simple quality of lightness makes it a great desideratum. It has been difficult to combine this requisite with the strength necessary to support the sometimes complicated machinery of the reel, and all anglers who use the finest tackle will appreciate Fowler’s improvement. There are other new features in his patent which are worthy of attention. Andrew Clerk, of Maiden Lane, is the sole agent for their sale.
Yet a few months later, editor Charles Hallock wrote in answer to the query of whether Fowler’s reels were suitable for bass, and whether he recommended them, that “We prefer a nickel reel ourselves, but we never fish with less than a two ounce reel, and Fowler’s weighs only an ounce. Different angler’s have different opinions.”
Perhaps the favorable notices from his friend Seth Green caused him to have a change of heart, for Hallock wrote on 16 July 1874, “Last week we tested for the first time the qualities of Fowler’s rubber reel, and found it worked to our complete satisfaction. Its lightness is charming. We noticed two of these reels in use by experts at the Fly Casting Trial at Oswego.” He later responded to another writer’s query by noting that the “Price of Fowler’s Hard Rubber Reel is $3.50 [40 yard] to $4.50 [100 yard], according to size, [and his] rods from $3.50 upwards, according to quality. Can get a good one for $15.00.” It might comes as a bit of a surprise to some reel collectors to find The Gem was apparently made in four sizes (40-60-80-100 yard).
By February 1875, Fowler was advertising an improved version of his reel called “The Gem—Improved,” and declaring in his ads that “IT HAS BEEN IMPROVED and all Reels made this year will pass through the hands of the inventor, and none allowed to go out, except those that are perfect.” Apparently, quality control was such a problem that Dr. Fowler felt the need to tell the world he would personally inspect every reel. Other changes include an Ithaca address, one that would be associated with him for the rest of his life, and the fact that Andrew Clerk no longer had exclusive distribution rights to his reel.
As the press surrounding the Gem reel began to wane, interest in Fowler rods began to pick up. In part this is because Dr. Fowler seemed to be an extremely gifted self-promoter, as evidenced by the letter he sent to Forest & Stream dated 24 June 1875. This letter was excerpted as follows:
Colonel A.H. Fowler, of Ithaca, the inventor of “Fowler’s Rubber Reel,” and the maker of excellent split bamboo rods, writes us a naturally exuberant letter, calling our attention to the fact that one of his rods, in the hands of Reuben Wood, of Syracuse, took the first prize at the Watertown contest last month, and says:
“For four years my rods have taken first prizes. At Rochester first and second, at Batavia first, at Oswego first, and at Watertown first. There were several rod makers present at the last convention. All acknowledged my rod to be the finest and best that they had ever seen. I make nothing but six-strip rods for trout, bass, and salmon, and warrant them as good as can be produced in the world.”
There are four or five makers of fine split bamboo rods whose respective qualities are so excellent that it is difficult to determine which is the better of them all, if, indeed, there be any essential difference. We have tested quite thoroughly the Fowler rod to our complete satisfaction, and while fully convinced that it would not have taken first prize in our hands at the trial mentioned, when that indomitable expert, Reuben Wood, was a contestant, we would not debar it from an equal place with any competing split bamboo rod.
This is an exceptionally informative blurb, helping us better understand the quality and style of fly rods Fowler was making. It also bordered on braggadocio, as evidenced by the terse note sent in a few weeks later by one of Fowler’s competitors, John B. McHarg of Rome, New York.
McHarg, a talented rodsmith in his own right mostly remembered today for his spinner baits, took exception to both the tone and content of Dr. Fowler’s letter and blasted him in a letter published in the 15 July 1875 Forest & Stream. The full text of his letter is reported as follows:
Rome, N.Y., July 1st, 1875
Editor, Forest & Stream:
In your issue of the 24th of June we notice an extract from Dr. Fowler’s “exuberant” letter in reference to his make of fly rods. Our modesty would naturally prevent us from appearing in print, but the Doctor’s letter as printed being in the nature of an advertisement, and containing statements which, if not questioned, might have a tendency to mislead those who “cast the fly,” we venture a few words in reply. The Doctor doubtless makes a good bamboo rod, but that it was acknowledged “by all the rod makers present” at Watertown to be “the finest and best they had ever seen” is quite a mistake. There are a number of rod manufacturers in different sections of the country that make, (if not better), equally as fine and good rods as his, which fact can be easily demonstrated by any test the Doctor may choose to name.
He says, “For four years my (his) rods have taken first prizes—at Rochester, Batavia, Oswego, and Watertown.” What his rods did at Rochester we are not aware, but have lately received from Mr. Wood of Syracuse, a rod for repairs which he (Wood) says took the first prize at Batavia. That is an ash rod. It is well known that at Oswego Mr. Wood, using the Doctor’s make of bamboo rod, did not cast the longest distance, but by some process of figures known only to the committee, was declared winner of the first prize, he casting sixty-one feet in fact, but allowed sixty-eight feet by the committee. At Watertown Mr. Wood used a light rod for style (as he termed it), and a 12-foot rod for distance, casting seventy-five feet, one foot further than the winner of the second prize, who used an ordinary ash rod, and some nine inches shorter in length, and who might have claimed the difference in length of rod, and been entitled to first prize, as was done by Mr. Wood at Oswego. The Doctor should give some better evidence of the superiority of his rods over all others than that named in his letter, or those “who were present” at Oswego and Watertown will rightfully question his claim.
J.B. McHarg & Co.
What to make of McHarg’s letter? Was it simply sour grapes—after all, technically Dr. Fowler’s assertions were true, as his rods did win first (if disputed) prize in the past four New York State meets. But Fowler’s letter most certainly chafed the other rod makers who attended the meet—including H.L. Leonard, M.L. Marshall, and others—and they must have silently applauded McHarg’s not so subtle slap at Fowler. It is worth noting, however, that McHarg finished 8th in the fly casting competition won by Wood in 1875, while second place in the disputed contest went to a McHarg employee.
Tomorrow: PART II: The Rise and Fall of the Fowler Rod
-- Dr. Todd