Charles F. Orvis, founds The Orvis Company in Manchester, Vermont.
|Born in Manchester, VT in 1831, Charles
F. Orvis was the fourth of seven children of Electa and Levi Orvis. The
Battenkill Valley was still haunted by tale-telling soldiers of the Revolutionary
War then, and surrounded by deep and wild woods. Charles, like many rural
boys, developed a sense of self-reliance and a passion for field sports,
particularly trout fishing:
I remember well my first
trout; I remember as well, the first fine rod and tackle
I ever saw, and the genial old man who handled them. I had thought I knew
to fish with a fly; but when I saw my old friend step into the stream
and make a
cast, I just wound that line of mine right around the “pole”
I has supposed was
just right, and I followed an artist. (I never used that “pole”
again). I devote
my time that afternoon to what to me was a revelation, and the quiet,
in which the old gentleman accepted my admiration, and the pleasure he
took in lending me a rod until I could get one, is one of the pleasant
things I shall
always retain in memory.
|Unlike many other children, however,
Charles adopted a keen inventiveness and an astute business acumen. By the
age of twenty he was skilled with hand and machine tools and had mastered
the basics of mechanical engineering, and designing and building rods for
himself and friends.
|In the 1850s, both Charles and his
brother, Franklin, became immersed in the tourist trade. Charles and his
brother both saw Manchester as a tourist destination, though many other
locals scoffed at such a vision.
|In 1853, Franklin built the Equinox
House and the success that followed allowed Charles to turn his love of
rod building into a business. In 1856, Charles formed the C.F. Orvis Company,
setting up in a small stone building next door to his brother’s Equinox
House. In 1861he built the Orvis Hotel on the same street.
| By the 1870s, following the Civil
War, Charles took advantage of the country’s expanding railroad services
that afforded thousands of sportsmen access to remote lakes and streams.
However, despite a booming sports trade, Orvis was not without grave competitors
vying for the angler’s dollar. It was Charles’ inventive mind
and knowledge as an angler himself that would help him to further succeed
|Through the 1870s the bamboo fly
rod remained an inferior product. Much of the cane, even “Calcutta
Cane” from India, which was considered the best was unreliable and
inferior for casting and responsiveness. The cabinet-makers glue of the
time was not adequate for the rods’ hard, planed surfaces, and an
entirely new technology, including new machine tools, was needed to advance
the rods’ abilities in the field.
| During the 1880s many of the problems
pertaining to bamboo rods were solved. Primitive ferrules, that ruined rod
action and allowed rot, were replaced by efficient ones. Milling techniques
were improved to split bamboo into narrow strips. With its light weight
and elasticity, bamboo could be made into eight to ten foot rods, much more
manageable lengths than the fourteen foot rods of the previous generation.
By the end of the 19th century, the bamboo rod was considered superior to
rods of crafted from other woods, though these other rods continued to be
made, and made well, to allow anglers a choice between traditional and cutting
edge materials. Charles Orvis, realizing the importance of providing choice
in a competitive market, experimented extensively with various rod-building
materials. He handled and evaluated rods of various properties, likely that
of U.S. shadblow, ironwood and cedar, as well as Mahoe, Pingo and Dagame
from Cuba, and beefwood of Australia.
|None of his experiments in rod-building
were revolutionary, but Ned Buntline, a then prominent outdoor writer, reported
in a fishing journal that, in the Orvis rod, “I think I have the best
bamboo rod of its weight – six ounces – in America; yes, in
the world. Put that down, not as a puff, but as a truth that I’ll
stand by and fish by as long as I and that rod last.”
|Charles Orvis’s contribution
was perhaps more philosophical than artistic. He did not produce rods in
enormous numbers, nor did he create custom rods of very few numbers. His
goal was to build as many quality rods (to be fished, not collected) as
he could personally oversee. A passionate angler first, he achieved his
goal and produced quality rods at a good price. A. Nelson Cheney, a fisheries
authority, claimed: “ every rod passes through his hands so that when
delivered to the purchaser the seal of the master hand is upon it. His rod
makers are not only of ingenious mechanical skill, but anglers of repute.”
|Where fly reels were concerned,
however, Charles’s inventiveness was highly noted. In 1874 he received
a patent on a new design of fly reels. Patent Number 150,883 is regarded
as a milestone in American fishing tackle history. The 1874 reel was a major
breakthrough on a previous design. Its spool was narrow, quite unlike most
fly reels of the time. It also boasted perforated side plates that lightened
the reel and permitted air circulation through the line while on the spool.
As the patent claimed: “A current of air is continually forcing itself
through the wound-up line, and all mildew and rot thereby avoided, as under
these circumstances the line soon becomes thoroughly dried.”
|Perhaps the greatest innovation,
since neither the narrow nor the perforated spool themselves alone were
entirely new creations, was the mounting of the narrow spool upright in
what is now the traditional position of modern fly reels. The combination
of shape, ventilation and position made the Orvis reel the true forefather
of modern fly reels.
|The reel was debuted in the Trout
model for $2.50 with a black walnut case. This first model did not have
a click. Orvis sent and introductory model to Charles Hallock, editor of
Forest and Stream. Hallock loved and praised it:
||“C.F. Orvis, the celebrated rod maker of
Manchester, Vermont, has sent us a beautiful German silver, perforated trout
reel, which he is now manufacturing, the most unique we have seen, and we
might say, equal to any other reel in its various features. In some respects
it is unlike other reels, and the improvements which the patent cover are
quite marked. It is a narrow reel; its diameter is larger in proportion
to its width than is usual, so that it winds more rapidly and lays the line
more evenly than if the spool or cylinder were wider. Its perforations make
it quite light – yet heavy enough to balance the line comfortably,
and also serves to dry the line rapidly by admitting circulation of air.
For our own preferences we should wish a click but others would think differently.
It is a pretty toy, as well as a useful implement and can be carried in
a very small space by unshipping the crank. Price is $5.00 in case, We should
think a salmon reel after this patent may be even more desirable, as metal
salmon reels are always ponderous.”
|By the following summer of 1875, Hallock’s
preference for a click was honoured, though, surprisingly, a salmon model
|Model Number Two was a bass reel
with a wider spool which had a line capacity of seventy to eighty yards,
compared to the trout model’s forty to fifty. Both the trout and bass
models had detachable handles. Both models remained standard items for about
forty years. Around 1900 the reel was also offered in aluminum for $1.00
||In 1920 the Orvis reel was discontinued.
Some intrigue and mystery surround the patent of the Orvis reel.
The original patent called for hard rubber.
||The reel is composed of four concentric perforated
Placed in pairs at a suitable distance each from the other.
And, later in the patent:
I have described above the reel in which the perforated disks are
Made of hard rubber; but do not wish to be confined to this material,
as the reel may be made of metal throughout…
|Here, Orvis was keeping his options open; he
recognized the limitations of hard rubber and specified rubber plates were
to be strengthened with “hollow embracing metal bands” around
their outside edge. No rubber model is known to exist today, or to have
ever existed. So we are left to wonder if the rubber version ever made it
from original concept. Perhaps Orvis went straight to metal for his prototype,
or perhaps, one day, a hard rubber model will surface from history.
|Another rarity (and aluminum models were rare
enough) has not yet passed through the Museum of American Fly Fishing’s
workroom, and that is the “Heavy Gold Plate” model advertised
for $10.00 as “For Prizes” in Forest and Stream in 1876. Such
reels were advertised in the Orvis catalog, as well, so it seems likely
a few exist. The standard model is stunning; the gold-plated model must
|Though the reel was a great success, other attempts
at innovation were not. One such effort was when Charles attempted to produce
his own silkworm gut for fly leaders. He acquired cocoons of American moths,
primarily from Spanish and Chinese suppliers, and raised them. But he found
the resultant material completely unsatisfactory. He wrote up his failure
in Forest and Stream and was applauded by his contemporaries for his efforts.
|As hard as he searched for better products, and
as fine as some were, it was his understanding of the angling market that
made him a success. Unlike his contemporaries he did not advertise often
in the popular magazines of the day. He used his catalogs instead, a far
different tactic than that his competitors undertook, and one that proved
commercially successful .
|But Charles Orvis was not interested in financial
success alone. Orvis was an enthusiastic supporter of enlightened fish and
game management. Among his friends were noted fish culturists like Robert
Barnwell Roosevelt, Seth Green, Fred Mather, and A. Nelson Cheney. Such
friendships enabled Orvis to keep a close eye eon the conservation movement
of the day and participate in the dialogue. With his nearly proprietary
attitude regarding the Battenkill, Orvis began a tradition. As early as
1882 he observed that the river was troubled by siltation and became an
active campaigner on behalf of the river and its needs.
|In 1883, Orvis co-edited an important new book,
Fishing with the Fly; Sketches by Lovers of the Art, With Illustrations
of Standard Flies “collected by Charles F Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney.”
The 333 page book was cloth bound, the cover lettered in gold, and contained
colored plates of 149 standard trout, salmon and bass flies, to accompany
twenty-four articles by well known fly fishers.
|It was an irresistible catalog, a book to treasure,
in which the authors guided the reader and introduced him to trout waters
he would never see; let him shake hands with outdoor writers he would never
meet, and gave him the ability to marvel over the illustrations of the flies,
seductively arranged for his appreciation and appraisal.
|Fishing with the Fly was one of the finest of
America’s angling books, as it reflected an age when the American
fly fisher was developing his own graces. He was a sportsman tourist anxious
for the full creel yet at the same time the deep woods and waters became
pastorals he could always remember. Certainly both Orvis and Cheney were
sensitive to the sportsman’s love of nature and perceptive in their
understanding of his environment. Adjacent to each page of colour plates
were quotations from angling literature, many taken from authors who had
contributed to Fishing with the Fly. The book was so well received that
it was continued in print for four editions. At the same time, the use of
colour was promoting sales for a wide variety of artificial flies. For $2.50,
as the annual catalog stated, the purchaser enjoyed “colour illustrations,
the most correct and the finest ever produced.”
|Charles F. Orvis left his mark as a businessman
who clearly understood the passions of his customers, because they were
his passions, too. His patented reel is seen as the model for modern fly
reels. His vision of Manchester, VT as an international tourist destination,
and its river, the Batenkill, as one of the world’s finest trout fisheries
worthy of conservation efforts has proved true. His business philosophy
of building quality fly rods at a reasonable price has outlasted each and
every one of his, and his legacy lives today in the pride with which Orvis
rod builders continue to craft each premium rod, which are still sold today
through the world’s longest continuous-running catalog.
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