Thursday, October 25, 2007

Alonzo H. Fowler: Forgotten Pioneer of the Bamboo Fly Rod, Part II

Alonzo H. Fowler:

Forgotten Pioneer of the Bamboo Fly Rod, Part II

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

Copyright 2007, all rights reserved.

As tournament casting was the premier way to advertise a fine bamboo fly rod in the 1870s, the 1876 tournament was shaping up to be a particularly hotly contested struggle. John McHarg, and perhaps more than a few other rod makers, must have been keenly interested in breaking Fowler’s iron grip on first prize in the fly casting tournament. Particularly galling to McHarg would have been the fact that first prize in the competition was an intricately engraved split bamboo fly rod made by none other than Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler. As The Rochester Express noted in the days leading up to the tournament, “We learn that among other crack linesmen the veteran Rube Wood, of Syracuse, who has borne off the blue ribbon the past three conventions, is determined for one to add the Fowler rod to his list of prizes won, and it is also said that Monroe Green will try his prettiest to secure it for future use in luring the wary denizens of Caledonia Creek.” As an aside, Monroe’s brother Seth Green was barred from entry for being a “professional,” meaning he kept winning every event he entered.

When the fly casting tournament was held on the banks of the Genesee River in May 1876, only three casters took part, less than a third of the normal turn out. What explains the paucity of fly casters? Perhaps the fact that Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler was appointed to judge the competition had something to do with McHarg’s (and others) withdrawal. The contest was won, not surprisingly, by Wood, who in an ironic twist utilized a Fowler rod to win the first prize presentation rod made by…Alonzo Fowler. As Forest & Stream commented, “The first prize was a very handsome split bamboo fly-rod, made and presented by Dr. Fowler, and it is worthy of note that the prize has been won for three consecutive years by one of Dr. Fowler’s rods.” One can almost hear John B. McHarg’s teeth gritting through the fog of time.

The following year, to put the final dig into the Fowler-McHarg feud, Dr. Fowler decided to enter the fly-casting tournament himself. At the 1877 New York State Meet in Syracuse, Fowler took fourth in the open competition, losing the first prize of a “silver mounted rod by McHarg & Co. valued at $75” to Reuben Wood. It is certain that Dr. Fowler must have felt a tinge of disappointment at not winning, seeing as how McHarg would personally have had to present him with the winning prize. Fowler did win the second competition (open to those who had never won a prize) with the longest cast of the tournament, 75 feet (three feet longer than Wood’s winning cast in the open division). Fowler’s first prize was a special $75 rod made by Hoskins & Waring of Oswego, New York. Since Wood used a Fowler to win the prize, his rods had won first prize five years running, and both categories in 1876.

Flush off this success, for the first time Fowler began to advertise his rods on a national scale, beginning in April 1877 in Forest & Stream. The ads carried the masthead “CARD.” the meaning of which the author regretfully admits is lost on him. The secondary masthead read “Dr. Fowler’s Celebrated Six-Strip Bamboo Fly-Rods.” Interestingly, the text declared that all Fowler rods were “finished without cutting away the enamel” and he claimed them to be “the strongest and handsomest rods in the world.” These ads ran for three consecutive months. Also of interest is the fact he was producing a circular (catalog) which implied selling by post.

Fowler reels were still being sold, and a 13 September 1877 article in Forest & Stream still recommended “Doctor Fowler’s hard rubber reel…weighing only one ounce for a trout rod…[and is] all that can be asked for ease and perfection of work.” None of the Fowler rod ads, however, make mention of the Gem Reel. According to Martin Keane, the few Fowler rods from this period that have come to market are stamped “A.H. Fowler” in a semi-circle on the reel seat

Perhaps it was because of this success that Dr. Fowler, who around this time opened a new dental practice, was forced to take on a partner by the name of Samuel Tisdel. Tisdel was a close friend of Fowler’s and a fellow officer in local conservation clubs. Beginning in the Spring of 1878, advertisements began to appear with a Fowler & Tisdel, Ithaca, New York address. The first ad the author has been able to find for this new firm dates from 28 March 1878 under the header “Split Bamboo Rods: The Original Hexagonal Rods.” The ad copy read “The superiority of the Fowler Rod, AS IT IS NOW MADE, is beyond comparison with any of the imitations offered by parties in the trade.” Fowler listed John W. Hutchinson (81 Chambers Street) as his New York agent, and still sold them by mail from his Ithaca address. This ad ran until the end of May 1878. It is also the last advertisement for Fowler fishing tackle of any kind the author has uncovered.

Martin Keane in Classic Rods and Rodmakers declared that Fowler actively made rods until “at least the mid-1890s.” He goes on to write that “specimens I have seen dated after 1885 had simple ferrules (without spikes) and stained dark-tone bamboo shafts. This meticulous finishing and good looks may have been the reason C.M. Clinton chose Fowler to build a special gold-plated rod to mount the doughnut shaped reel he invented. The reel was gold plated, and inscribed for presentation to D.F. Van Vleet of Ithaca, New York, in 1891. Housed in a walking cane case with presentation engraved cap of nickel-plated finish, it is indeed a stunning honorarium.”

It is almost certain that Keane’s dates are off; much research has been published since the pioneering Classic Rods and Rodmakers first came out and it is evident the work has a number of mistakes like this (for example, Keane was off by almost fifteen years on the purchase of Chubb by Montague City). The chances that Fowler was still making commercial rods by the mid-1880s while conducting a thriving dental practice are slim (he was listed as a dentist in numerous directories at this time), and it would appear that Fowler exited the tackle trade no later than 1885, and likely as early as 1880.

So how does one explain the Van Vleet presentation rod, and a few other highly intricate Fowler rods that may (or may not) date from the post-1880 era? It is likely the good doctor continued to make presentation rods for close friends and special occasions. De Forest van Vleet was a prominent Ithaca attorney and Democratic Party member who was named the U.S. Civil Service Commissioner. It is likely that the impetus behind his princely gift was his good friend and fellow Democratic Party officer Dr. Alonzo Fowler and not Charles M. Clinton, who made the gold-plated reel. Remember, Fowler had made gold-plated presentation rods as early as 1875. There was clearly some connection between Fowler and Clinton as well, as evidenced by Clinton’s patented reel which is pretty much a nickel-silver version of Fowler’s hard rubber Gem Reel.

Regardless of whether he was still making a few rods, tracking Alonzo Fowler after 1878 has proven to be a difficult task; in 1880, he was named the referee of the New York State Meet’s fly casting tournament in Seneca Falls. Per his usual generosity, Dr. Fowler made up a special rod to be given as a prize, which in the words of The Syracuse Daily Courier was “a handsome eight-strip bamboo fly rod, elegantly gold-mounted, with reel to match.” Note again the gold plating; the rod was valued at $65. Remember also in 1875, by his own admission, he was making solely six-strip bamboo rods, so the Fowler eight-strip rods clearly are a later product.

This is the last reference to Dr. Fowler concerning fishing rods the author has found, but not the last time he was mentioned by the press. For example, his stature had reached the point that The Utica Daily Democrat of 30 June 1884 reported that “Dr. A.H. Fowler was so unfortunate as to fall from a hammock, on the lakeside yesterday, and sustained several bruises.” Several notices commented on the fact that Dr. Fowler was a prominent New York Democrat, and that he was named President of the Game and Fish Protective Association of Tompkins County in 1890, the same year that his wife died.

In 1899, The Union Springs Advertiser declared that “Dr. Fowler, Ithaca’s popular dentist, visited Union Springs one day last week and lest he should forget the art of fly casting, he devoted about two hours to the finny tribe, and as a result took twenty-one fine black bass, weighing from 1 ½ to 4 ½ pounds each. The doctor was entertained at the Cottage House.” Clearly, the good doctor still knew how to handle a rod, even in his mid-70s. His fishing fame also lived on in the form of a dry fly named The Dr. Fowler; Dr. James Henshall in Book of the Black Bass (1881) described it as “Body, white; tail, scarlet; hackle, scarlet and white; wings, red ibis and white.”

The final notice came in the form of his obituary, which for someone so prominent, was surprisingly brief. He died at his home in Ithaca on 05 June 1903 in “the seventy-ninth year of his age.” In the two obituaries the author viewed, no notice was made of his contributions to fishing history. His ingenious legacy did live on in his son Fred Clarkson Fowler, a talented machinist who made instruments for the Cornell University Physics Department. When Fred Fowler died in 1915, the Cornell Alumni News noted “He was an Ithaca boy, the son of the late Dr. A.H. Fowler, a dentist, from whom he seems to have inherited his remarkable mechanical skill.”

Today, if Dr. Alonzo H. Fowler is remembered, it is for the pretty rubber reels he patented and had made under his name. But he made a significant contribution during the Golden Age of Bamboo Fly Rods, and in fact his rods were so good they were chosen (above Leonard, McHarg, and others) by some of the greatest tournament casters of all time. His rods are rare and of exceptional quality, and as such Fowler should be afforded a more august space in the pantheon of the bamboo fly rod gods.


Anyone interested in purchasing a piece of Fowler fishing tackle, Lang's is selling this gorgeous Gem Reel in their upcoming auction.

One of the finest Fowler reels to come to market in some time.

-- Dr. Todd

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