An early chronicler of the history of the Kentucky reel was Onnie Warren Smith. Here, in his book Casting Tackle & Methods, he tackles the history of the fishing reel.
In no single item of the bait-caster's outfit has there been greater development than in the reel. It is a long journey from the first single action winder down through the years to the modern quadruple, self-winding, self-thumbing, self-a-hundred-and-oneother-things reel.
Just where and when the fishing reel originated we know not, but we find mention of it in "The Complete Angler"; says Isaak Walton: "And to that end, some use a wheel about the middle of the rod, or near the hand; which is to be observed better by seeing one of them, than by a large demonstration of words." Presumably Walton had no personal knowledge of the "wheel," otherwise he would have been more explicit in his description. This first winch was undoubtedly after the fashion of the "Nottingham reel," still used in England, a large disk of wood with a grooved outer edge to contain the line; simple and efficient for the work for which it was intended, fly fishing. To-day the single action reel has diminished in size and is made of many materials, but still it follows closely the pattern of the first winch produced. From the very nature of the case this is bound to be true. Little is required of the fly fisherman's reel, ordinarily it is but a spool on which the line is stored, so obviously no great development may be expected, no radical changes looked for.
The invention of the multiplying reel, the casting reel, per se, was coincident with the discovery of the black-bass as a sporting asset. As the short rod was born to meet new fishing conditions, so the multiplying reel was produced to satisfy the demand for something different to meet the wiles of a fish that fought differently, could be taken with different methods.
The multiplying reel was born down in "the blue grass country" in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Probably Mr. George Snyder, of Paris, Ky., produced the first double multiplying reel between the years 1810 and 1840, a crude creation when compared to a modern Meek or Talbot, but in mechanism of small pinion and larger cog-wheel, essentially what the latest reel is. Mr. Snyder was president of the Bourbon County Angling Club, and when not attending to his duties of presiding officer or engaged in his favorite occupation, angling, he applied himself to his trade, that of silversmith and expert watchmaker. Naturally he first made a reel for his own use, improving upon the winch as he discovered need for improvement in actual fishing. So the multiplying reel is a fisherman's discovery, as is every piece of tackle which stands the test of time.
When Snyder's reel was all but perfect his friends were attracted by its value as an aid to sport, and we find the inventor holding the honorable position of reel-maker to the Bourbon County Angling Club. Some of Snyder's early reels are still in existence and disclose a loving care and intimate knowledge of tools worthy of emulation. Casting from the reel with artificial lures was undreamed of in those days, Snyder's reel being produced for live bait fishing only, though it was but a step from live bait casting to throwing artificial lures. In some respects, judged by modern standards, these early reels are crude, the plates being riveted in position, the drag and click cumbersome, the shaft projecting through the head and tail plate, the barrel much longer than those in use to-day. However, the multiplying reel had arrived.
Another man to turn his attention to reel making was Mr. J. F. Meek, who appeared in Frankfort, Ky., about 1833, improving the Snyder reel by operating the dick and drag with sliding buttons, placing a collar around the crank shaft, and eliminating the protruding spool-shaft. In Louisville, Ky., in 1843, a man by the name of J. W. Hardman began making reels for black-bass fishermen, and under his expert hand it may be asserted that the modern "Kentucky reel" took shape. Mr. Hardman shortened the spool, fastened the head and tailplate to the pillars with screws instead of rivets, and increased the diameter of the spool, not to mention scroll work and ornamentation. Another name to be reckoned with in connection with the production of the wodern casting winch is that of Mr. Benjamin C. Milam, who in 1836 became an apprentice to Mr. J. F. Meek, soon taking charge of the reel making industry of the firm. Later on, in connection with his son, we find him making reels under his own name. There are other individuals who should be mentioned in connection with the early history of the multiplying reel, but in so brief a resume it is out of the question. There is one outstanding fact, however, which even the careless reader will not fail to note, i. e., the important place the Blue Grass country plays in the development of the casting reel; but this is as it should be, for it was from the southeastern portion of the United States that the type specimens of both species of black-bass were secured.
-- Dr. Todd