Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part I

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008 The Author

Painting of “Uncle Thad” Norris, courtesy Dean Smith.


What would convince a successful businessman, internationally respected author, and an icon in his field to begin a new career at the age of 63 that promised enormously long hours, excruciatingly exacting work, and precious little pay? At a time when most of us would be looking forward to retirement, few of us would undertake such a daunting life change. What could possibly have possessed a man so respected in so many fields to take up rodmaking as a profession? The answer to that question, not surprisingly, is the untold story of the life of Thaddeus Norris, the acclaimed "Uncle Thad" of American fishing lore.

The most important American angling writer of his generation was born in Warrenton, Virginia on 15 August 1811. He attended common school in Wheeling, West Virginia, and it was in the hills and dells of this region where the young Thaddeus first developed a love for fishing. At the age of eighteen he moved to Philadelphia, where he would successfully engage in business for the next forty years. How successful? When his seminal The American Angler's Book came out in 1864, The Round Table, a popular Philadelphia literary magazine, declared that it was "handsome, and crowded with fine wood engravings" and that Norris was "one of our rich merchants who is an adept in the gentle craft, a lover of Isaac Walton's memory, and a very intelligent writer."

This is not the only evidence we have of his business acumen. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in his obituary, gave notice of his mercantile career. "He came to this city when quite young," it declared, "and opened a trade in general merchandise. He continued a successful business there and in branch houses at New Orleans and Memphis until the outbreak of the civil war, when he retired from the trade and turned his whole attention to the subject of fish..."

That year, as the Civil War came to a close, his firm—known as Thaddeus Norris & Co. of Philadelphia—got involved in a complicated case when the assets of its New Orleans branch were confiscated by Union troops, revealing the home branch of Norris & Co. as a creditor to the tune of $17,116.73. That was an enormous sum equaling $218,542 in today's terms. While much is still to be learned about his private life, it is known he married a woman named Dorothea and had three children, two sons (Richard and Thaddeus Norris Jr.) and a daughter. It was noted by several accounts that Norris was a Quaker, although this claim has yet to be substantiated.

The Bryn Mawr home of Thaddeus Norris, Jr., ca. 1900.

Uncle Thad, American Angler

Norris' business career was a great success. Yet his fishing exploits are so important that his brilliant mercantile career is but an obscure footnote. “Uncle Thad,” as he was almost universally known, would probably have wanted it that way. As he famously declared, he acquired a love of fishing as a boy but "never became an angler until he ceased to trust in the flesh." In other words, he became an angler only when he took up a fly rod.

It was the mid-1840s when Norris began to take angling more seriously and became an extremely proficient angler, particularly concerning fly fishing of which he would remain a lifelong adherent. In 1848, noted author Jones Wister was privy to a fly casting competition between Thaddeus Norris and William Cadwalder held at Penn Gaskill's Dam. Apparently, things got so heated between the two men that Thad bet $100 (more than $2500 in today’s terms) he could outcast Cadwalder. In his Reminiscences (1920), Wister described the event:

Time and time again Cadwalder threw his 'fly' out over the water, trying to outdistance that thrown by Mr. Norris, but in vain, as the latter's 'fly' soared far beyond his own. Both men had beautifully equipped rods and reels, which were envied by me. The onlookers said that Norris had the best rod, which he had made himself. At any rate, it soon became evident that Cadwalder had lost the bet...

This is important evidence that at even at this early date, Norris was a rodmaker, and a fine fly caster it must be added.

As a busy merchant, Thad began to treasure his time on stream and water even more, and with a scientific mind began over the next fifteen years to collect his thoughts on the subject to the point that he set out to put them in print. But when the Civil War broke out, Norris despaired ever seeing his work in print. "I had collected most of the matter contained in this book when the present rebellion broke out,” he wrote, “I then thought it doubtful whether the following pages would ever be printed." One shudders to think that this book—and Norris' subsequent career—almost never was.

Fortunately, at the urging of friends, Norris set out to publish the book even though hostilities were still raging, and it was a revelation from the beginning. On 08 October 1864, The New York Times undertook to review The American Angler's Book and declared that Norris "has produced what may almost be called an encyclopedia of the subject, so copious is the book in instruction respecting the fish themselves, and the various devices practiced to withdraw them from the domain of the naturalist to that of the culinary 'artiste' and epicure."

The American Angler's Book was a watershed in American fishing, a magnum opus of 692 pages that helped to revolutionize sport fishing in America. It was a success both critically and financially, going through three editions in the first two years alone. Yet not content to bask in the glow of his pioneering book, Norris turned to another passion, fish culture, and produced in a relatively short period of time another pioneering work entitled American Fish Culture in 1868. Basically an overview of the current state of fish culture, no less an authority than Fred Mather declared in his legendary Men I Have Fished With (1897) that "it gave all that was then known about breeding trout, salmon, oysters and other things..." Norris went into the trout breeding business soon after American Fish Culture was published, but sold his Bloomsbury, New Jersey trout farm in 1870 to Dr. J.H. Slack.

Norris the Amateur Rodsmith

As Norris turned 60 in 1871, he could look back over a life in which he had achieved enviable success in multiple fields. But Thaddeus Norris was to have a final career, one in which his achievements have been greatly overlooked. That career was as a professional rodmaker.

Sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s Thaddeus Norris built his first rod from scratch. Like most rodmakers, his evolution from tackle tinkerer to full blown rodsmith is still repeated even today. Like most rodmakers, he began by simply altering his rods to better suit the way he fished, which was followed by mastering the art of the rewrap and ended with him crafting replacement tips. From there it is but a small step to making one’s own rod. This then further progressed to constructing his own ferrules, and art he honed with the help of a neighboring jeweler. Soon he was hand crafting all parts of his own rods for himself and friends.

This may seem remarkable by today’s standards, but remember, this was an era best summed up W.A. Perry in his American Game Fishes (1892), who wrote:

The gratification of taking fish is enhanced a thousand-fold by the thought that it was done by means of one's own handicraft throughout. To make one's own rod, tie one's own leaders, dress one one's flies, search out oneself the haunts of the streams's Apollo, the trout, catch him oneself, and share him around the camp-fire with one's friend, is, me seems, the very pinnacle of piscatorial accomplishment. Thus did the part masters of the gentle craft, from the earliest days to those of Uncle Thaddeus Norris, of fragrant and well-loved memory.

Norris soon became an innovative and important rodmaker, and more importantly, one of the very first instructors in the art of rodcraft.

He probably got his first lessons in bamboo fly rod making from Samuel Phillippe, widely acclaimed as the first American split bamboo rod maker. Solon Phillippe, the maker's son, declared in a letter to Dr. James Henshall that his father Samuel:

was a good trout fisher, and fished at times in company with Thad. Norris, of Philadelphia...He visited a number of places with Mr. Thad. Norris, when the latter was seeking a location for a trout hatchery, and which was finally located near Bloomsburg, NH. Mr. Norris often saw Phillippe at work on split-bamboo rods in his shop.

Having been witness to the great mechanical genius of Samuel Phillippe, who made everything from custom hand forged fish hooks to bamboo rods, Norris would soon blaze his own path as a maker of rods that would soon be heralded by his contemporaries as without equal.

Perhaps this was not true of his earliest works, at least from the perspective of the industrial age. The earliest Norris rods would have been heavy and cumbersome by today’s standards. Fortunately, we have an example of a noted angler running across what has to be one of Norris’ earliest efforts. Kit Clarke, in The Practical Angler, described the following incident that took place on the Brodhead, one of Norris’ favorite fishing streams, in the period leading up to the publication of his book in 1892:

Not long ago I was fishing upon the famous Brodhead, in Pennsylvania, where I met a gentleman with a rod as heavy and unwieldy as anything of the kind I had ever seen. It bore evidence of having been home-made, and by dint of long service had become painfully "set" or bent. The butt was of ash, the second of middle joint of hickory, and the tip of lancewood. I was not a little surprised to learn that it was a fly-casting rod made and used by that foremost among Quaker anglers, Thaddeus Norris, and his name still appeared burned into the hand piece. About the time this rod was made a revolution had taken place in the manufacture and use of angling implements, and this was an example of the new departure.

We can assume (with some degree of certainty) that this is one of the earlier of Uncle Thad’s rods, likely pre-Civil War, as many of Clarke’s contemporaries were still fishing with later Norris rods and universally described them as graceful and stylish. Besides, the fact that a Norris rod was still being used a half century after it was made is a testament to its quality construction if not its elegant design.

TOMORROW: Thaddeus Norris, Rodmaker: Rodsmithing 101

-- © 2008 Dr. Todd E.A. Larson


Carol Norris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol Norris said...

My name is Carol Norris, and I am a direct descendent of UncleThad. My father, who is no longer alive, was a wonderful fly fisherman, rod maker, and fly tier in his own right. He wrote a companion piece to Uncle Thad's book. His father also made rods, one of which I now own.