Wednesday, May 4, 2011

52 Trade Houses Part 5: W.H. Hobbs Supply Co. of Eau Claire, Wisconsin

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Over the course of the next year, we'll be detailing the history of 52 companies that sold branded fishing tackle. 52 trade houses in 52 weeks -- some obscure, some famous, and all available exclusively here on the Fishing for History Blog! If you have any items from the week's entry you'd like to share with us, please send it my way and I'll make sure it makes it on the blog.

For a discussion of what exactly trade tackle is, Click Here. Enjoy the 52 for 52!

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Trade House Tackle, Part 5:

W.H. Hobbs Supply Co. of Eau Claire, Wisconsin

I love Wisconsin trade tackle, and not just because I grew up fishing Wisconsin waters. The Badger state was full of wholesalers and retailers who branded their tackle, from Morley-Murphy of Green Bay to Point Sporting Goods of Stevens Point to Pritzlaff, Gross and Frankfurth Hardware firms of Milwaukee. There's just a ton of Wisconsin trade tackle to collect.

While much of it is relatively easy to come by, some of it is downright rare, like the company we are featuring this week in 52 for 52 -- the W.H. Hobbs Company of Eau Claire, Wisconsin -- which has incredibly rare trade tackle.

100th anniversary advertisement for Hobbs Supply Co.

The W.H. Hobbs Supply Company was founded in June 1895, and incorporated in 1906. The major officers at the time were W.H. Hobbs, president and treasurer; Roswell Hobbs, Vice-President, and E.A. Carroll, Secretary. The firm was founded as a wholesale house specializing in plumbing, heating, and industrial supplies. Mr. Hobbs must have been a Catholic, for in 1910 he was listed in the American Catholic Who's Who, and it is known he was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin.

He must have been prominent in the field, for the magazine Metal Worker referenced Hobbs in a 1916 issue. It wrote:

W. H. Hobbs, president of the Hobbs Supply Co., Eau Claire, Wis., was a visitor to the Chicago office of Metal Worker, Plumber And Steam Fitter last week, and also met his daughter, who was on her way home from school in the East. Mr. Hobbs reported an excellent year's business and also gave out the interesting information that our good friend, Herman H. Helstrom, president of the Wisconsin State Association of Master Plumbers, who lives in Eau Claire, has returned from Mexico to spend Christmas with his family.

So how did a plumbing supply company get into the fishing tackle trade? I have a theory about that. The magazine Automotive Industries noted in 1910 that "C. Booth Tomlins, of Chicago, has been appointed manager of the motor car department of the W.H. Hobbs Supply Company, of Eau Claire, Wis." Automotive! Of course. Like so many auto supply companies -- from Western Auto to Oklahoma Tire to Pep Boys -- the firm moved naturally from auto supplies to sporting goods including fishing tackle.

When Hobbs got into tackle specifically is not yet known, but I would guess the 1930s, if it was like so many similar kinds of firms. What is known is that by the 1940s the company was selling fishing tackle branded for the company. My father, who grew up in Duluth and spends his free time in the Wisconsin north woods, remembers Hobbs well and said they had a mail order catalog in the 1940s.

The best example of Hobbs branded tackle is a line spool from ca. 1950 marked "Badger Line" and "W.H. Hobbs Supply Co., Eau Claire, Wis." This nifty spool of braided nylon 20 pound test line shows the company trade name, "Badger," which has also been found on terminal tackle like snelled hook envelopes and line spools.

Are there other branded tackle items from Hobbs? There are Montague fishing reels dating from the 1920s marked "Badger" that may very well prove to be Hobbs trade reels, but without conclusive proof I am reluctant to make this claim. Only a perusal of period Hobbs catalogs can verify or disprove this claim.

Hobbs tackle is rare -- so rare I've only seen three or four pieces in nearly 30 years of collecting (and keep in mind much of this collecting was done in Northern Wisconsin exactly where Hobbs was located). The company itself was such an icon in Eau Claire that even today, the local arena is named "The Hobbs Ice Center" after this iconic firm. In 1995, the company celebrated its 100th anniversary (see ad above) but had discontinued its sporting goods line long before this, probably by 1970. A search of the current Yellow Pages does not show the Hobbs company still in business.

But W.H. Hobbs left a significant impact on the local region, and left behind branded tackle that is a great reminder when the firm was a major force in the great "Sand Country" of Aldo Leopold's day.

-- Dr. Todd

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