Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 2

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 2

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008 The Author

Portrait of Thaddeus Norris, from Fred Mather’s Men I Have Fished With.

Rodsmithing 101

Thad Norris’ importance went far beyond just the fly rods he made with his own hand. His Chapter XVII in The American Angler's Book entitled "Rod-Making" gives a succinct overview of the contemporary state of rod building that is the seminal work of the era for rod history. As Norris declared at the beginning of the chapter:

[those] who have leisure and a mechanical turn, they can make rods for different kinds of angling, and whether for bottom or fly-fishing, can adopt any fancy they may have as to proportions or materials. Thus rod-making, like tying flies, becomes not only an amusement, but may be ranked among the useful as well as the ornamental requisites in the education of a complete angler.

Norris then proceeded to teach the reader not only how to repair rods but also how to construct them from scratch, including a method for constructing a rent and glued "four-sectioned tip" from Malacca Cane. He even revealed some of his trade secrets:

In making fly-rods for some of my friends, I have lately adopted a plan by which the same rod may be used for either light or heavy fishing. This improvement consists in having the butt in two pieces; the upper piece being about three feet long, has a ferrule at the lower end, into which the handle—if I may so call the lower part of the butt—is fitted. There are two handles, one of a foot or fifteen inches, and the other two feet long.

Exactly when Norris began to sell his rods is unknown, but it is likely somewhere very close to 1870. Having divested himself of his hatchery, Norris turned to rodmaking with a gusto. In the immediate years leading up to this turning point, he had become more and more fascinated with the art, and thus more proficient. As he recalled in The American Angler's Book:

A love of "tinkering," however, and the kind approval of friends as to some fancied or real excellence in the rods he made for them, induced an investment in a lathe, work-bench, tools, etc., and many pleasant hours have since been given to making rods, from the withy little switch of a fly-rod for trout-fishing, to the "heavy artillery" used in trolling, bass-fishing, and even in taking the lordly salmon.

With many bench hours behind him, between 1870 and 1873 Norris began to make commercial rods, albeit on an extremely limited scale. The evidence from this comes in the form of letters to the editor of Forest & Stream, an organ founded in 1873 and that would prove to be Norris' final major public venue. A dozen or more correspondents were already touting the merits of the Norris rod in the first years of publication, something not possible for a rod officially introduced the following year.

A key component of the Norris rod was his hand-made ferrules, which were non-dowel joints. As Dr. James A. Henshall wrote in More About the Black Bass, "If there were wanting any proof of the practical superiority of the non-dowel joint over the dowel and mortise joint, it would be found in the fact that so many old anglers, as Thaddeus Norris, Reuben Wood, and Chas. F. Orvis, having the mechanical skill to construct their own rods, discarded the latter for the former style of joint many years ago." And as Henry P. Wells later noted in Fly-Rods and Fly-Tackle: Suggestions as to Their Manufacture and Use (1885), "The simple ferrule is not new; Thaddeus Norris used it years ago, and advocated it in his most excellent book The American Angler."

His rods were available for sale, albeit to an extremely limited clientele. One of these customers was Fred Mather, noted fish culturist and angling author. Mather was great friends with Norris, and as he declared in his fishing memoirs:

I handled many of [Norris’] rods, and wanted one. I feared to tell him so, because the notion might occur to him to give me one; so I had a friend buy a rod for me, and I used it for several years, its value increasing each season, until it was stolen from me in a car while returning from a fishing trip. If I had used the rod until it was 'superannuated' it would be in an honored place on my wall...

The Norris “Rod Factory”

Perhaps Uncle Thad would have been happy making a limited amount of hand crafted fly rods for close friends and associates. But for reasons that we may never know, Thaddeus Norris embarked on a new career as a professional rodmaker.

The first notice of this new endeavour came in the 29 January 1874 edition of Forest & Stream when the journal declared: "A private letter states that the veteran angler, Thad. Norris, Esq., is presently to start a large fishing tackle and rod factory at Philadelphia. His rods are very highly prized by many anglers, though different persons have their favorite makers." And just like that, Norris became a professional rod maker.

“A large fishing rod factory” of course implies something along the lines of what Hiram Leonard was putting together in Highland Mills, New York. Perhaps it was Norris’ lofty goal to eventually oversee a workshop filled with apprentice rodsmiths, but the truth of the matter is that, regardless of the intended size and scope of Norris' rodmaking enterprise, his so-called "factory" was an artful bit of obfuscation. Fortunately, we have evidence of the size and scope of Norris' rodmaking concern. Fred Mather visited Uncle Thad every week throughout the summer of 1876. He wrote:

That summer it was my custom to visit Uncle Thad in his home on Logan Square every Tuesday evening, and we would go up into his workshop where the justly celebrated 'Norris split-bamboo rods' were made, and often talk until "the 'wee sma' hours ayont the twal."...The workshop of Uncle Thad—I love to call him so—differed from the rod-maker of to-day. The latter has his ferrules drawn by an expert who perhaps draws tubes for microscopes and telescopes...In Uncle Thad's day—and he was abreast of the time in rod-making, if not ahead of it—he made his ferrules by hand and brazed them, afterward smoothing them with flat files, grinding them together with emery powder and oil, and then burnished them in a lathe.

Philadelphia’s Logan Square, home to Thaddeus Norris rod shop.

Hardly a rod factory. In fact, this was as expansive as Thad Norris would ever get. He made his rods entirely from scratch, which meant that his production would have been extremely limited. Whether he had any help greater than a shop boy or two is unlikely; he often wrote that his trout and salmon flies, two other products he began to sell, were all made by his own hand.

On 05 March 1874, Norris began taking out his first advertisements in Forest & Stream, ads that would run consecutively for the next two months. Having been founded less than a year earlier, Norris gave the fledgling journal badly needed support and name recognition. He wrote a personal letter to publisher Charles Hallock dated 08 January 1874 where he declared "I am charmed with your paper and much gratified with the success you are achieving...I hear it spoken of everywhere in terms of high commendation, and will do all I can in its interest."

The first Norris advertisement declared "Thaddeus Norris, 208 West Logan Square, Philadelphia, Penn., makes to order and keeps on hand Fine Trout and Salmon Rods of Iron Wood, Lancewood, Greenheart, and rent and glued bamboo." Of interest is the point that these rods were made to order. This implies very little inventory of stock rods, and also does nothing to support the idea of a "rod factory."

The first Norris advertisement, January 1874 Forest & Stream.

Promoting the Norris Fly Rod

Testimonials for Norris rods came from far and wide. Perhaps the greatest of the Norris rod enthusiasts was William Cowper Prime. In addition to touting the merits of the Norris rod in journals, he wrote in his memoir I Go A-Fishing (1873) lovingly of his three favorite Norris rods, and declared "with one of these light rods I have during five years' use killed many hundred pounds of fish in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America; and I would not part with either of [my Norris rods] for a hundred times its cost."

Others followed in Prime’s footsteps. Frequent Forest & Stream contributor "Homo." declared "I shall try my Norris rod on the new game and know it will prove as trusty as did Mr. Prime's at Holyoke..." B.F. Bowles was most effusive in his praise of the Norris rod, calling it on 18 June 1874 my "beloved ten ounce Norris."

One can assume that this positive press kept Norris backordered, for he did not advertise at all for the rest of 1874 or the entirety of 1875. He did continue to act as a correspondent for the journal; for example, in July 1875 Norris wrote Forest & Stream that "I tie all kinds of flies ordered by my customers..." Along these lines, Norris’ instructive article on how to tie flies was considered by Charles Hallock to be the best of its kind.

In January 1876, Norris returned with his second advertisement declaring "Norris Fly Rods for Trout, Salmon, and Bass." Interestingly, it also noted he sold flies, reels, lines, leaders, fly-books, etc., implying his firm was morphing into a fishing tackle trade house. Did he offer a catalog at this time? These ads ran through the month of January and then, as before, abruptly stopped.

The second Norris advertisement, January 1876 Forest & Stream.

The big event for the nation that year was the Philadelphia Centennial, and Uncle Thad must have been hard at work preparing presentation rods for this seminal event in American history. In addition to consulting and working with the Exhibition on fish culture and displays, Norris handcrafted three rods especially for the Centennial. The first two were trout rods, one being a 12-footer (butt, two middles, three tips) of greenheart and split bamboo in a red cedar case, and the other an 11-footer (butt, two middles, three tips) split bamboo weighing 4 3/4 ounces. The third was a greenheart and split bamboo 17 foot, 3 inch salmon rod (four joints with extra third piece and tip) made with solid pin ferrules and weighing 30 ounces. All three rods were awarded first prizes and medals at the Exhibition. As we shall discover, these rods will reappear later in our narrative.

How much was a Norris fly rod? We have a great window into how the angling public felt about his work from Wakeman Holberton, a popular (some would say borderline shyster) fishing tackle dealer in New York who worked out a deal with Norris to become his New York agent. He wrote in April 1877 that:

A fly rod for black bass should be a moderately stiff rod, not less than ten or more than twelve feet long--such a rod as would be called a rather heavy trout rod. There is no necessity of its weighing over 12 ounces, but it should weigh at least 7 1/2 or 8 ounces. Such a rod will cost from $7 for a plain ash and lancewood (very serviceable) to $60 for the finest Leonard or Norris split bamboo.

Clearly, Norris was the top of the line, held both in esteem and price in the same breath as Hiram Leonard. $60 in 1877 was equivalent to approximately $1200 in 2007 terms.

A third advertisement for Norris rods was published in January 1877, also in Forest & Stream. It read "Norris Fly Rods, of greenheart and rent and glued bamboo, for trout, salmon and bass...Agent in New York for rods, Holberton & Beemer, 102 Nassau Street." It would be the last advertisement for Norris' firm, although Holberton & Beemer's Sportsmen's Emporium advertised "Thad Norris' Greenheart and Split Bamboo Rods" through February 1877.

The third and final Norris advertisement, January 1877 Forest & Stream.

Of interest also is that Norris advertised that he sold ferrules and other rodmaking materials for amateur builders. This would mean that one might potentially find a Thaddeus Norris ferrule on a non-Norris built rod.

TOMORROW: Thaddeus Norris, Rodmaker: The Sad Demise of Thaddeus Norris, and the Legacy of the Norris Rod

-- © 2008 Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

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