Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 3

Thaddeus Norris, Profile of a Rodmaker, Part 3

By Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

© 2008 The Author

The Sad Demise of Thaddeus Norris

From humble beginnings in January 1874, over the past three years Thaddeus Norris had labored long and hard to establish his name as synonymous with quality. But just as he was put into a position to reap the rewards of his hard work, and perhaps expand his rod enterprise, it all came to a sudden end. On 11 April 1877, Thaddeus Norris died "suddenly and painlessly," as his obituary in Forest & Stream declared. It continued:

The guild of anglers has lost a master of the gentle art...Possessing great mechanical gifts, he was led on little by little to essay making his own implements for his spring and summer campaigns, and in time acquired such great facility and such accurate knowledge of the best materials for their construction, that his rods and flies, in the judgment of many experts, had no superiors.

His obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer gave more details of his passing, including some really surprising information concerning the final months of his rodmaking career:

Thaddeus Norris, Esqr., a well known resident and retired merchant of this city, died suddenly, at half-past one o’clock yesterday morning, at his residence, 208 West Logan Square. For about a year prior to his death he had been suffering from paralysis of the brain, superinduced by exposure while pursuing his favorite pastime and study of angling and fish, but no immediate danger was at any time apprehended from his disease—not even a few hours before his sudden decease, when he busied himself preparing flies for a friend.

His death, although sudden, is underscored even more by the fact he labored the last year of his rodmaking career under certain physical duress. Testimonials to Norris’ character were universally positive; no less a titan in the field as Charles Orvis wrote in Fishing with the Fly that "It was not only my good fortune to know 'Uncle Thad' Norris, but to have fished with him. The dear lovable old another century...will be more read and appreciated than he is to-day."

In the wake of Uncle Thad’s passing, we get more evidence of how small Norris' rod making concern was in the form of the newly renamed Holberton & Co., now at 117 Fulton Street, which no longer offered Norris rods within a couple weeks of Norris’ passing. Wakeman Holberton probably had the same kind of situation as Abercrombie & Fitch experienced a century later when Jim Payne passed on and there stock of Payne rods sold out in a day. In true Wakeman Holberton style, he declared "best quality of trout flies teid after...Thad Norris and other patterns." Holberton would continue to use Norris’ name in advertising for some time.

Wakeman Holberton, as Norris' agent in New York, probably saw a run on his Norris rod stock when news of Uncle Thad's death became known.

The Final Chapter of the Norris Rod

Interestingly, although Thad Norris had passed on, it was not the end of the saga of the Norris rods. On 18 April 1878, just a week after Thad's death, his son Richard Norris of 2550 Gray's Ferry Road, Philadelphia took out a notice in Forest & Stream declaring:

Parties wishing to procure one or more of the above make of Rods can do so by applying in person or by letter...Comprising four Salmon Rods, two Trunk Rods (Trout), thirty trout rods of Split Bamboo, Lancewood and Iron Wood and Greenheart, with extra tips of split bamboo and extra middle joints. Some of the above in Red Cedar cases.

So this was the end result of three years of steady work at the rod bench: 36 rods, some of them in Red Cedar cases. These rods must have sold very, very quickly because there are no subsequent notices.

Again, we are privileged to discover what happened to Thad Norris' personal fly rods. On 24 April 1879, about two years after Thad's passing, Thomas E. Kirby, auctioneer, presided over the auction of Norris' own fly rods, held at Kurtz's Gallery on Broadway on 26 April 1879. The auction notice was published in Forest & Stream and read:

Important Auction Sale to close the estate of the late Thaddeus Norris, Esq., of Phila. Prize Medal Trout and Salmon Rods and other Angling Implements. Norris Rods…are of well-known reputation, and are guaranteed to be genuine Norris Rods of the best workmanship, selected woods, and stamped with the maker's name. This is the only opportunity which will be offered to obtain one of these rods, there being no more for sale after this lot is disposed of. Nos. 16, 20, and 24 were made for and were on exhibition at the Centennial Exhibition, for which first prizes were awarded, and medal also.

That this lot included the presentation rods is all the evidence needed that this was Thad's own private rods, many likely made for his own use.

Again, by a quirk of amazing luck, the auction was deemed so important it warranted a detailed article in the Sunday edition of The New York Times. The article reported that twenty trout and four salmon rods were sold, including the three Philadelphia Exhibition rods which brought $31, $39, and $46 respectively ($646 to $959 today). "This being the last of his make obtainable," the article declared, "there was a large attendance and a spirited competition, and unusually good prices were realized." Trout rods went from $13.00 to $26.25 each, and salmon rods from $17 to $26. It was a sad end to the rod making career of Thaddeus Norris.

The Legacy of the Norris Rod

By the 1880s, Thaddeus Norris had rightfully been elevated to his current position as one of the true titans in American fishing history, but strangely enough, his contributions to rodmaking were receding from memory. Many of the anglers whom he had known and for whom he had crafted rods had passed on, and besides Norris rods were so rare (and so cherished by their owners) that few ever came up for sale.

The select anglers such as W.C. Prime who knew Uncle Thad personally were growing thin in number, so when Prime’s I Go A-Fishing was reprinted in 1905 (the year of his death), when he wrote that "the grand merit of the Norris rod [is] its spring is steady, even, long and easy" almost no one left had any frame of comparison. More common were the views of newer writers like J.R.W. Hitchcock, who wrote in the journal Outing in 1886 that in the Maine resorts one often found:

Against the rough board walls, upon pegs inserted in slivery beams, rods of high and low degree, the nickle-plated hexagonal split bamboo of Leonard or Conroy, the modest ash and lancewood of Mitchell, perhaps a venerable Thad. Norris rod...

Although likely less than a decade old by this time, Norris’ fly rods were now “venerable.”

Yet his impact on other rodmakers, at least, was acknowledged in one of the seminal books on the subject. Henry P. Wells wrote in his Fly-Rods and Fly-Tackle, which included a primer on rodmaking, that:

If others, in following the precepts of this chapter, shall derive therefrom some portion of the recreation rodmaking has afforded me—if the coming generation of anglers feel towards me but a tithe of the gratitude and sense of obligation with which I regarded Mr. Norris when I was a beginner, I shall be quite content with the reward of my labor.

Norris fly rods were not forgotten by one “venerable” organization at least. According to various catalogues, the Smithsonian Institution’s collection included the following five Norris-made rods. They were described as follows, with what I believe are acquisition numbers in parentheses:

(26890) Trunk rod of Greenheart; five-jointed with extra fourth piece and tip, seven pieces in all; weight 8 oz.; length, 11' 6", Thaddeus Norris, Philadelphia, Pa.

(26887) Salmon-rod of greenheart, four jointed in red cedar case, with extra third piece and tip; weight, 30 oz.; length, 17 feet 3 inches.

(26888) Extra greenheart trout rod; cedar case; three-jointed, with one extra middle and two extra tips; six pieces in all; weight 8 oz., length 12 feet.

(26889) Rent and glued bamboo trout rod in cedar case, with one extra middle and two extra tips, six pieces in all; weight 8 oz., length, 12 feet.

(26883) Plain trout-rod of greenheart, three jointed, with extra middle top, five pieces; weight, 8 oz.; length ___.

Whether these rods still reside in the collection of the National Museum is unknown.

Conclusion: Thaddeus Norris, Rodmaker

Thad Norris is one of the small handfull of individuals who put American angling on the map. Yet, even if his work as an early author and fish culturist have been recognized, for too long his contributions to rodmaking have been either glossed over or ignored. Hopefully, when the names of the early rodsmiths are mentioned, room will be made for Uncle Thad, to whom so much is owed by so many rodmakers, amateur and professional alike. As The Philadelphia Inquirer declared on his passing, "Being a good amateur mechanic, he manufactured all his fishing apparatus, and so great was the virtue attached to a rod, reel or net made by 'Thad' Norris, that anglers have been known to offer many times its value in order to possess it." Of course, this implies there may exist in some dim and dark attic a hand-made Norris fly reel. That is the stuff that dreams are made of.

A Thaddeus Norris rod would be the centerpiece of any collection. Recently, in the November 2007 Lang’s Auction, a twelve-foot Thaddeus Norris hand-made rod sold for $17,920, and at that it was in the author’s opinion underpriced (the preauction estimate was “only” $5000 to $7000). There are only around five known Norris rods residing in collections today, not surprising as the lifetime output of this rodmaker, who only made rods professionally for less than four years (and was clearly ill the final year of his life) was surely less than 1000 rods and probably less than half that number.

A 12-foot Norris rod that sold in November 2007 for $17,920. Courtesy of Lang's Auctions.

Such was the personality of Thaddeus Norris that in his final years, when others sought a contemplative retirement, he not only immersed himself in the rodmaker’s trade, but found a huge measure of satisfaction in it. It has been said a man’s character is defined by what he does after he is finished working; for much of Thad’s life it was fishing. For the final years, it was the fishing rod.

To a select company of his contemporaries he was a rodmaker without peer, to the knowledgable angler he was a titan of the angling world, and for the average literate fisherman he was the beloved Uncle Thad. What of those of us in the 21st century? I would echo the words of Norris’ friend and fellow writer Henry van Dyke, who once wrote in his book Fisherman’s Luck that “I am sorry for the man who cannot find pleasure in reading…Thaddeus Norris.”

I truly feel sorry for the man who cannot find pleasure in the beauty of a Thad Norris rod.

-- Dr. Todd Larson © 2008.

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