By Harold Dickert
So much has been written about tackle manufacturers. Countless hours of research, resulting in a vast array of articles, have taken place. I am so very grateful that this is the case. Over the last 30 years we have learned so much information that has enhanced our knowledge and made our hobby dramatically more rewarding.
During this same 30 years many of the large retailers in the big cities have been chronicled through some wonderful research and publication. Also the wholesale distributors, big and small have been covered in great detail.
The fact remains however, that a vast majority of the fishing tackle that we enjoy in our collections today were sold by the little tackle shops that dotted the land by the thousands in the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
The purpose of this article (and perhaps a few in the future) is to do a little digging, a little reflecting and a little reminiscing about those stores and what we lost as they, and many other small retail businesses, ceased to exist.
Very few of those small shops are still in business today. The story of what happened to them is often more that meets the eye. The first reason often sighted is the lower price structures of the emerging big box stores. Although this was a factor as time went on I believe it actually started with the introduction and proliferation of the automobile. As people became more and more mobile and had the ability to travel greater distances the need for the neighborhood stores cease to exist. It was the beginning of the end for the family owned corner grocery store, the candy store, the shoe shop, the meat market, the drug store, the hardware store and yes, eventually, the bait shop. Many of the families that ran these stores could not see it coming. Often they thought it was because they were poor merchants and could just not compete but actually the handwriting was on the wall. Nothing they could have done would have changed anything. Our buying habits and in reality our American way of life was simply changing, sadly, in my opinion, never to be the same.
Let’s start our journey by examining some of the advertising that took place. The really small stores generally did not advertise in the newspaper. They depended on word of mouth advertising. Like any merchant they realized that a good reputation went a long ways. This is still true today. This type of advertising left no traces for us to find but other types did. One of those, used most often, were advertising novelties to be handed out to customers. They took many forms such as calendars, key chains, ink pens, match book covers and the one I’d like to discuss here, fish rulers to measure your catch. Much like the hardware store with their yard sticks and the paint store with their paint stirring sticks, the bait shop handed out these marvelous little (usually 12 or 14 inch) rulers, with a lot of information printed on both sides. To have a small collection of these provides a wealth of information upon close examination. One starts to realize the diversity of these shops and the vast array of products that were offered.
Take a short trip through time with me as we tour in and around southern Michigan during the 1940’ and 50’s. I picked this area because it is the one I am most familiar with and certainly represents a microcosm of the majority of the U.S. Most of us old timers, if I may be allowed to include myself in that category, are aware that drug stores sold fishing tackle and you can find evidence of that here as we look at the Richmond Drug ruler from Bear Lake, Michigan. Pretty standard fare and I bet a great place to grow up. Fishing Tackle/Soda Fountain…you bet…I’ll take the job. Two small tackle manufacturers near by…paradise.
Or just up the road, in Beulah, where we have the Oxley (General) Hardware. I’m riding the Way Back Machine now as I to travel back there to hunt for old tackle. Tinning? Not even sure what that was.
Traveling South we come across the famous Arntz Sporting Goods Store, home of the Michigan Lifelike Minnow. Yes that wonderful lure was made many years before this ruler would have been handed out but I would have liked to see the store in the 1950’s anyway.
Other shops nearby would have been Chalmers Bait and Tackle in Whitehall or the Voss Hardware In Muskegon Heights or 40 miles to the east to Chucks Live Bait in Grand Rapids. A city the size of Grand Rapids would easily have had 50 or more little tackle shops in and around town over the years.
Don’t forget Service Stations like Wm. Tulloh, over in Rose City. They Rented out Cabins too…pretty cool. I can hear the waves washing up against the shores of the lake from my cabin as I wait for morning to start a day’s fishing.
Now, The Irish Hills Bait Ranch sounds like a wild place over in Tipton, Michigan. Besides the usual fare they sold Go-Carts. Now we’re talking. I would have given anything for a go-cart when I was a kid but could never afford one. I even trying making my own but had no way to weld the pieces together.
If you prefer the big city head on into the Detroit area. I bet the American Army & Navy Stores did a big business after the war.
Not big enough? How about The Great Chicago Surplus Stores. They simply had “Everything”
Of course we should picture the flip side of the rulers too. They usually told us the size and catch limits for that state and often gave the year. Sometimes they offered a few words of wisdom too.
Well, I guess it’s time to come back home to reality and be thankful that we are still around to look back at the good old days.
Hope you enjoyed our short trip and hope we can do it again soon as we continue to look at the Bait Shops, Tackle Shops and Sporting Goods Stores Of America.