Friday, June 1, 2007

ORCA Nationals, Dowagiac, Michigan Report

Dowagiac, Michigan is of course a famous town in the history of fishing, having been home to Heddon for a number of years. What many people don't know about Dowagiac, however, is that it is the most hidden town in America. Or at least that was how I felt as I roamed the backroads of rural Michigan striving against all odds to find this sleepy little burg.

Having driven to Michigan from Cincinnati (with a long bypass to pick up Richard Lodge's new book from the bindery), I reached the tourist town of Elkart, Indiana--apparently less than 20 miles from Dowagiac, arriving at noon. This gave me a solid two hours to make the first presentation by Andy Foster on Kentucky reels. I was confident. Perhaps too confident.

What I discovered on my unscheduled detour is that Yahoo Maps sucks, at least when it comes to rural Michigan. The turn-by-turn directions gave the names of streets that had no names only numbers. I stopped and asked for directions. Got lost. Stopped again. Got lost a second time. Stopped a third time. Got REALLY lost this time. By now it was 1:55 and, having been on the road since 4:55 a.m., I was inventing curse words that would probably get me arrested in at least seventeen states.

Finally, I stopped at a bar and was prepared to offer anyone there $20 if they would drive to Dowagiac and let me follow, but the bartender said all I had to do was follow the main road out front of his bar straight into downtown Dowagiac. I made it to the Amerihost at 2:10 p.m., already late for Andy's presentation but ready to salvage the afternoon. That's when I was informed that the ORCA convention was NOT being held at the Amerihost hotel, but at the Dowagiac Conservation Club several miles away. I solemnly prepared myself to be lost once again.

Fortunately, the women staffing the Amerihost desk (who was the same woman, by the way, who informed me that they had no record of my reservation) gave me decent directions and I spun into the Dowagiac Conversation Club at 2:30. Andy still had fifteen minutes left on his presentation, which was extraordinarily interesting.

My main reason for coming was to watch Bill Muth's amazing talk on Horton-Bristol history. I was not disappointed--Bill covered the evolution of the non-Meek Horton reels from 1931 until the shuttering of the firm in 1951. While much of this fare was cheap bargain bin fodder, a few of their reels were quite inventive.

After the informative talk, Bill answered questions and showed off his amazing collection. He was swarmed by admirers and questions, as shown by the following photo:

After the talks were over, it was time to greet many old friends and meet some familiar names and faces. I got to talk to Jim Schottenham for some time, and chatted a bit with Bill Sonnett and Warren Platt. Lorraine "Ell" Lawrence made me feel much better when she noted that she also got lost driving in from South Bend.

From the Dowagiac Conservation Club I made my way back to the Amerihost, where room trading began. About two dozens rooms were open, and there were some amazing reels and other items for sale. Not everything was reels, as seen by this neat case of "go-withs" seen in one room:

I finally tracked down Richard Lodge, ORCA's esteemed Reel News editor, and was able to show him the very first copy of his new book Skeletons: A Collector's Guide to Raised Pillar Fly Reels.

Room trading seemed to be a hit; I ended up adding a really tough Montague trade reel marked Thos. E. Wilson with a double-handled tournament crank. I also saw many reels that made me wish I had deep pockets. As my pockets were, per usual, quite shallow, I was content to ogle and fondle these gems and wish them a happy home in some ORCA members' collection. This photo shows Dave Erickson about to close a deal for a nice reel:

Room trading was a lot of fun and I got to spend more time conversing with many ORCAns, including John Ganung and Jim Madden, two of the nicest guys you will ever find. I ended the day in Bill Sonnett's room swapping war stories from the good old days when every rafter was full of Heddon 150s and every tackle box held a Meek & Milam. I miss those days...

I then hopped into my car and drove the 280 miles home to Cincinnati down I-31 to Indianapolis, the worst highway ever. The highlight of the trip was listening to the Cavaliers-Pistons NBA game and hearing Lebron James do his Michael Jordan impression and score 29 of his teams final 30 points.

So what did I learn from my Dowagiac sojourn? First, there are a hell of a lot of places up there named Pokagon. Pokagon Highway, Pokagon Street, Pokagon Avenue, etc. Second, that one should never, ever venture into the backwoods of rural Michigan without a GPS device. Third, that despite 20 years of intensive research on fishing history, only by driving the area can you get a sense of how close South Bend, Kalamazoo, and Dowagiac actually are. Fourth, that ORCA Nationals has to be experienced to understand how cool it is. I enjoyed my short stay and will definitely make a longer trip next year.

--Dr. Todd

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