Sunday, September 2, 2007

Labor and the Fishing Tackle Industry

Labor and the Fishing Tackle Industry

Tomorrow, the majority of us will celebrate the working man in America by watching a ball game, attending a fireworks celebration, or stuffing ourselves with burgers and hot dogs. I thought I would take a minute to reflect on the meaning of Labor Day as it concerns the history of fishing in America.

Labor Day had humble beginnings, being organized by the Central Labor Union and celebrated for the first time on Tuesday, 05 September 1882 in New York City. By 1884, the first Monday in September was chosen as the official Labor Day, and was soon widely emulated. The New York Times ran a detailed article on 07 September 1886 entitled "Parades in Other Cities: How Labor Day Was Observed by All Classes of Workmen." That year in New York City itself, 14,000 working men paraded before Mayor Grace. In 1894, it became an official federal holiday.

Labor Day Parade in Buffalo, NY, ca. 1900

The fishing tackle industry was largely built on the backs of the American working man and woman. It was one of the early industries to hire women in large numbers (almost all factory dressed flies were tied by women, and women predominated in the manufacture of fish hooks) and over the years offered gainful employment to hundreds of thousands of employees, American workers who built communities, raised families, and fought and died for their nation.

Mostly, these fishing tackle industry employees' names are lost to history. For every Charley Heddon or William Shakespeare, Jr., there were 100s of workers whose names we will never know but who designed, built, and packaged the tackle we use and collect. Fortunately, a few of their names and deeds have been preserved. People like Nettie Cruse, forewoman of the dressed fly division of Enterprise Manufacturing Co. of Akron, Ohio, who died tragically in the great fire that consumed the Pflueger factory in 1891. Louis Valentine, who worked from 1906-1958 assembling Pflueger reels by hand, and who was thought to have completed 500,000 Pflueger Supremes in his lifetime. Don Martin, who left his position on the factory line at Shakespeare to join the Marines in 1941 and died in the Pacific fighting at Tarawa. I bought some Shakespeare spinner blanks from Don's baby sister who remembered that he had the kindest eyes.

Anonymous Shakespeare worker assembling reels at the Kalamazoo, MI factory

Organized Labor and the fishing tackle industry had at times a difficult relationship. Pflueger underwent a series of turbulent strikes in the 1930s, caught up in the labor turmoil in Akron spawned at the great rubber factories like Goodyear and Firestone. Shakespeare and Heddon suffered violent strikes in the post-World War II era, and even smaller companies like The Sunset Line & Twine Co. in California had labor problems that made national news. But these were exceptions; the majority of tackle companies, big and small, had placid relationships between management and labor. In fact, in my interviews with former employees of Pflueger I conducted in preparation for my next volume of Pflueger essays, everyone I talked to had nothing but good things to say about working in the tackle factory. From what I know of Shakespeare, Heddon, and other companies, there was a similar sense of community elsewhere too.

So this Labor Day, in between trips to the cooler or during the seventh inning stretch, pause for a moment and reflect how even in your chosen hobby--whether it is researching fishing history or collecting fishing tackle--the fingerprints of the American working man and woman are everywhere. They built your fishing tackle, and they built your nation.

Have a safe and happy Labor Day.

-- Dr. Todd

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