Dr. Todd E.A. Larson
In 1915 Forest & Stream—by that time a very different monthly magazine than the weekly 19th century journal cited above—published the first segment of an often overlooked three-part history of the Kentucky reel. The article was a detailed interview with pioneer Kentucky reelmaker J.L. Sage, recounting his version of the origins of the Kentucky reel, and was penned by an anonymous author. The author recorded Sage as saying that “Jonathan [Meek] worked at the watchmaking trade, and put Benjamin at working the reels, for which there began to be a demand. They worked this way along about 1842. They followed the Sneider [sic] pattern of reel pretty closely. It was about this time that Jonathan made a reel, the end plates of which were silver dollars.” If anyone finds a Kentucky reel with side plates made of Walking Liberty silver dollars, you now know you have a true treasure on your hands.
The interview with Sage is of tremendous interest for a number of reasons, but it is the article the following month that serves as the source for another pair of historically important reels. Dr. James Henshall, famed author and the original fishing tackle historian, wrote a follow-up to the earlier article, vouching for its historical accuracy. Henshall also added the following comment on pioneering Kentucky reelmaker George Snyder, declaring “His son, David M. Snyder, was a druggist in Cynthiana when I resided there. He often talked with me about his father, and the invention of the reel. He owned his father’s favorite reel, a jeweled one, which I had in my possession until his death, I sent it to his nephew, also a druggist, in Louisville, Kentucky after the Chicago fair.” Does this Snyder reel exist today?
Henshall also described a famous reel made by J.L. Sage, whose interview served as the bulk of the earlier article. “I have also,” Henshall noted, “probably the first reel Mr. Sage made, a brass click reel, marked 1848, which he used in fly-fishing for black bass, in which art he was an adept.” Interestingly, this reel shows up again in fishing lore; Chicago Tribune outdoors writer Larry St. John described this very reel in his classic work Practical Fly Fishing (1920). St. John noted: “The earliest click reel made especially for fly fishing for bass was made by J.L. Sage of Frankfort, Ky., in 1848. It is still in excellent fishing condition and is of solid brass measuring 2 3/8 inches in diameter and 1 ¼ inches between head and tail plates. It has a permanent click which is placed in the head instead of the rear as is usual in click reels. It has an unusually sweet song. The reel was presented by Mr. Sage to Dr. Henshall during the World’s Fair at Chicago, who in turn has passed it down to the writer. Needless to say it is one of my prize possessions. The reel is pictured in the illustration showing the correct way to grasp the rod.” The famed Sage reel can thus be traced from Sage to Henshall to Larry St. John. Anyone care to try and search out any of St. John’s heirs? The pictured reel may very well be the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Fishing writer A.N. Cheney was presented a reel in 1900 by a friend of his that was reputed to have been made in 1830. His friend described it as follows: “You will see that one of the bars which hold the disks together is removable by taking out two screws in either end, and when the bar is removed a screw driver can be inserted to reach a screw hole in the reel seat, and this makes it evident that the reel was fastened to the butt of a rod with a screw.” Cheney himself described the reel as having “disks of brass and the spindle a bit of iron wire bent on the outside to form crank handle, and the reel has no click or check of any sort, but otherwise resembles a modern reel in form. The bearings on the spindle are much worn…” Not much of a description, but maybe someone recognizes the unique reel attachment method? This particular reel was deemed unique enough to display in the New York offices of Forest & Stream.
A final fascinating reel was discussed in a 1930s interview in The Hartford Courant with Horton Manufacturing treasurer Morton C. Treadway. As the article related, “Once a customer described a particular reel he couldn’t do without. The Bristol concern agreed to make it. No questions were asked. The reel, a tiny affair at least half the size of the smallest listed product, cost him $150. A check was received promptly upon delivery. Later in the summer a second check for the same amount arrived in the mail. ‘Make me another reel just like the first,’ instructed the buyer.” As an addendum, a collector who will remain anonymous has found this actual reel. Perhaps one day soon we’ll post pictures.
It is unknown whether more than one of the above mentioned reels have survived the ravages of time, just as my favorite important and (often commented upon) fishing rod seems to have gone missing, the famous “$50,000” Abbey & Imbrie rod written about so often on this blog Here and Here . It might interest tackle collectors that the official name for this piscatorial treasure is the “Abbey & Imbrie Jubilee Rod,” and that it was originally one of a matched set of five rods. As outdoor writer Emerson Hough commented in 1893 about the impending Chicago Columbian Exposition:
Mr. G.C. Hemenway, representing the well-known house of Abbey & Imbrie, was the other afternoon looking with interest at the work of installing the Abbey & Imbrie display of fine rods, the queen bee of which is a magnificent production known as the ‘Jubilee Rod.’ The rod is one of five made by Abbey & Imbrie for display in the Queen’s jubilee exposition in London. The other four were sold in London at $2,000 each, and brought the American house $75,000 trade besides. This rod now in Chicago is the equal of the others in all respects. It is a perfectly-made split-bamboo, faultless and ornamental to an unsurpassable degree. Even the ferrule plugs are exquisitely engraved. The precious metals only are used in the trimmings and fittings, the grip being of pure gold, richly and deeply chased. The butt of the rod contains a cut topaz the size of a pigeon egg and worth alone $1,200.
Keep in mind if you begin searching for a Jubilee rod of your own, you have an 80% better chance of finding one across the Atlantic than you do in America. Add a J.L. Sage brass click reel marked 1848 and you will really have yourself a combination!
There are certainly other important and famous reels out there, some even residing in ORCA member’s collections, and it would be great to hear some of their stories. In the future, I will relate one final famous reel story—the mystery of the Thomas Chubb Prehistoric Iron Winch Reel. But that is a story for another day.
-- Dr. Todd