Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nine Reels and a Really Big Rod, Part I

Nine Reels and a Really Big Rod, Part I


Dr. Todd E.A. Larson

As a child, one of the things I most looked forward to was the arrival every Friday of my copy of The Sporting News. In the days before the internet, it allowed me to follow the sports that I loved in the kind of depth that you simply can’t get from watching the same sound bites repeated every half hour on cable TV. One of TSN’s regular columnists occasionally wrote an article along the lines of “Things I Found While Looking Other Things Up.” This idea has stayed with me all these years, and occasionally I would like to share little bits of fishing reel history I discovered while researching something totally different. The subject for this episode is famous fishing reels.

I once wrote a Reel News article about Talbot (January 2006) that noted two intriguing reels by this classic Missouri reelsmith, including the first reel W.H. Talbot ever turned out and a fabulous silver, gold and diamond-set reel Talbot made for casting champion Fred N. Peet. Clearly this pair of reels—wherever they may be—are among the most important ever made. Writing the article got me thinking about more historically important reels, and this article will outline nine additional fascinating, important, or eclectic fishing reels, and as a bonus the background of perhaps the world’s most famous rod.

The first is not a reel from an important maker but rather a fishing reel owned by a historically important individual. A correspondent writing to the journal Forest & Stream in March 1878 noted that he had seen a salmon reel that “belonged to Dr. [Stanley] Livingstone, and was used by him during one of his journeys into Central Africa.” This large bronze reel of 4.5” in diameter and 1.75” wide was now “in the possession of Mr. John P. Loeser, of Denver, Colorado, and was presented to him by the Rev. Horace Walter, Vicar of Leytonstone, England, who accompanied Dr. Livingstone upon one of his exploring trips to Africa.” No other information was given about this reel except it was personally used by Dr. Livingstone on his African explorations. Such a reel with provenance would be exceptional indeed; perhaps someone in the Denver area might look up the descendants of Loeser to see if the reel survived?

A second reel of historical importance was discussed in November 1889 in the same journal, a brass double multiplying click reel with counter balanced handle once owned and used by Dr. Theodatus Garlick. Who was Dr. Garlick you might ask? Garlick was a pioneer in the study and science of fish culture and the author of Artificial Propagation of Fish, the seminal early work in this field. With this reel, Dr. Garlick caught the Naiad Queen, “the first trout ever used for artificial propagation of fish.” The chances are very good that if you catch a trout on the East Coast this fishing season, it was the product of a stocking program begun with the Garlick’s Naiad Queen. The reel Garlick used was entrusted to Thomas H. Chubb, the famous Post Mills, Vermont tackle maker. So although not as famous as the Livingstone reel, from a purely fishing standpoint, the Garlick reel certainly surpasses it in historical importance.

On 26 October 1902, The Boston Globe ran an article about Elbridge Gary of Stoneham, Massachusetts, a collector with an eclectic bent. The list of his possessions was sufficiently obscure—including the liquor box of Captain Oliver Porter, who was murdered in the Fiji Islands—but the most interesting was the wooden fishing reel of Daniel Webster’s guide. As the article noted, “A wooden fishing reel, bearing the initials of Branch Pierce, the famous hunter of Long Pond, Plymouth, is one of Mr. P. Gerry’s most highly prized mementoes. Pierce was the favorite guide of Daniel Webster and other celebrated men when hunting, and his gun is carefully preserved in Pilgrim Hall.” A wooden reel marked “B.P.” would certainly be an important find.

The story of the famous actor Joseph Jefferson’s legendary Kentucky reel is familiar in collecting circles. Upon his death in 1905, he willed his favorite reel to his great friend and fishing companion, the two-time U.S. President Grover Cleveland. The story of this remarkable Benjamin Meek Kentucky reel was famously chronicled by Joseph’s widow Eugenie Jefferson in the May 1909 Outing Magazine, but what is not common knowledge is that Jefferson was not universally beloved, and on the occasion of his will and the famous reel making national news, some scribes seized upon the reel to make a parting salvo at Jefferson. The Atlanta Constitution noted acerbically in an editorial of 28 September 1905 that “A copy of the will of Joseph Jefferson has been filed in Baltimore. He leaves his favorite fishing reel to his friend, Grover Cleveland. ‘Tis a pity he couldn’t leave his histrionic mantel to somebody.” Despite the cheap shot, no amount of acrid commentary can take away from the importance of the famed Jefferson Kentucky reel. Most commentators were like the Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture, which reported in its 30 September 1905 issue that “Joseph Jefferson bequeathed his best Kentucky reel to Grover Cleveland. This is not surprising, for the distinguished pair of fishermen have had many a reel good time together.”

One of the most important women in fishing history was Maine’s Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby. On 07 February 1897, The Washington Post ran a lengthy profile of Fly Rod, who was in town to bump elbows with politicians and promote the Maine woods which she so frequently wrote about. The article noted that she “has a small fortune in fishing tackle…[which is] worth more than $1000, and it is a compliment to her pluck that none of these things have cost a penny…There’s a real gold reel that Miss Crosby is so proud of she carries it with her on travels. It is adorned with mother of pearl.” Unfortunately, the article did not describe what kind of reel it was, although one can be fairly certain it was a fly reel. Anyone with a gold fly reel with pearl insets might just have an item from the most important female anglers of the nineteenth century.

Next Wed: Part II

-- Dr. Todd

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