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Casting a Spell: The Rod That Won the East

by George Black

George Black's fascination with bamboo rod-craft pivots on Eustis Edwards, whose personal history speaks volumes about the survival of craftsmanship in American culture. This excerpt looks at the final disillusioning and yet productive years of Edwards's life, and at the rods which exemplified his obsession with perfection.

Excerpted from "Casting a Spell," Random House (August 2006), 272 pages, hardcover.

Casting a SpellEUSTIS’S INNOVATIVE use of heat had the effect of turning bamboo a deep, dark brown, right to the core, and his neighbor and onetime partner soon began advertising rods of the same color. But Fred Thomas’s “Mahogany” model only looked the same. “The Mahogany rod was just stained brown on the outside,” Streamer [Bill Abrams] said. “It took Thomas another year to figure out what Eustis had done, and then he copied the technique with his own Browntone model.”

By 1916, Eustis Edwards was ready to go public with his breakthrough. And his elder son Bill joined him in his new rod shop, in a family succession that was replicated by all the graduates of the Leonard school at about this time. Eustis begat Bill, Fred Thomas anointed Leon, Hiram Hawes taught Merritt, and Ed Payne passed on his skills to Jim, whom he famously ordered never to play baseball so that his fingers could avoid harm and so work their magic. As indeed they did — Jim Payne made rods for fifty-three years without a break, from 1915 until his death in 1968, and they are widely regarded as the benchmark of consistent excellence. This laying on of hands, father to son, was astonishing, really, considering the unforgiving nature of the work and the marginal economic returns. But then you have to bear in mind that in the early part of the twentieth century the family business was still a cornerstone of the American economy.

Over the next two years, according to Martin Keane, Eustis and Bill turned out between a thousand and twelve hundred rods. Computing these figures, I found them a stretch. Depending on whom you ask, building a single bamboo fly rod is a matter of forty to sixty, even eighty, hours of skilled labor. Two men, two years: maybe two hundred rods, if they were driving themselves hard. A thousand rods: ten men at least. It would have been a business to equal Leonard’s, in other words, and a direct rival to Fred Thomas.

I’ve only ever found one photograph of Eustis Edwards after he turned sixty. It shows a slightly built man, apparently younger than his years, with delicate features and round, thin-rimmed glasses that lend him a scholarly, even ascetic, demeanor. In 1918, Edwards found himself at something of a crossroads. Despite the fifteen-year hiatus, he was at the top of his profession. His reputation as an innovator was secure, and he had the satisfaction of seeing his influence take hold both in Thomas’s work and in the rods coming out of the Leonard shop in Central Valley, which was now in the hands of old Hiram’s nephew Reuben.

On a personal level, Eustis’s life seemed to have reached the kind of tranquility that men search for in middle age. His daughter Minnie had given him his first grandchild, and now Bill was about to produce a second. Eustis’s younger son Gene, now a teenager, showed signs of having a craftsman’s hands.

Yet everything about Eustis Edwards’s career, from the pressures of the commercial marketplace to his own restless and perfectionist personality, would have made it clear to him that craftsmanship of this kind was hard to sustain. The making of high-quality bamboo fly rods is a brutal discipline, demanding the precision of a surgeon and the patience of a saint. The profit margins are slender. By 1918, with the exception of a few sentimental diehards who were still attached to their greenheart and lancewood, split bamboo was all there was. The big, bottom-feeding companies had developed mass-production techniques capable of churning out hundreds of thousands of rods that were cheap and crude but enough to satisfy the needs of the mass market. The boutique craftsman occupied a narrow and precarious niche.

The craft, in other words, did not — and does not — exist in a vacuum, but as part of a web of circumstances that can extend from the personal quirks of the craftsman through the larger forces of economic and societal change, even disease and war.

Eustis’s father, William Scott Edwards, had spent the last year of his life at 8 Washington Street before his death in September 1918. It seemed an unremarkable event, a normal old man’s death. But then, as I studied the family genealogy that I had found in Pilot, Virginia, I noticed that one of Eustis’s aunts had died on the very same day, and a second aunt only weeks earlier. And then in October 1918, even as Bill’s son Scott was born, Eustis lost his daughter Minnie at the age of thirty-seven. This series of losses at first seemed a wicked set of coincidences. But then the penny dropped: Spanish flu.

Some said the virus was spread by German agents. But when the Spanish press published details of the epidemic (it was uncensored during wartime, unlike most of its European counterparts), the virus became known as “the Spanish Lady.” In the United States, October 1918 was the deadliest month, with 195,000 of the total of 675,000 fatalities that occurred in the course of the epidemic. By the time World War I ended, the Spanish flu had taken an estimated 25 million lives worldwide — three times the number who had perished on the battlefields. Americans celebrated the armistice wearing face masks.

On top of the personal tragedies of the Edwards family came the turmoil of the postwar economy. War always stimulates the growth of technology and the production of certain strategic goods; but for the companies that benefit from wartime expansion, it also has a downside. When the conflict ends, these enterprises have to find something to do with their surplus capacity. This applies particularly to those that have specialized in armaments production.

The American arms industry had two iconic leaders. One was Samuel Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company; the other was the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Both were located in the state of Connecticut, Colt in Hartford, Winchester in New Haven. Each had its signature weapon: Colt’s 45-caliber handgun, the Peacemaker, and the Winchester 73, “the rifle that won the West.” Connecticut, guns, and mechanical ingenuity had long been synonymous. Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, remember, was a foreman at Samuel Colt’s “great arms factory” in Hartford before a blow on the head carried him off to King Arthur’s court. The very idea of Connecticut as a seat of invention is summed up in the way Hank the Yankee introduces himself:

I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the state of Connecticut — anyway, just over the river, in the country. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees — and practical…. Why, could make anything a body wanted — anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick, new jangled way to make a thing, I could invent one.

You can hear a strong echo of Hank in Winchester’s annual report for 1918, which said:

We have delivered to the Government substantial quantities Of small arms and ammunition and have performed important engineering service in connection with the development of Government products and services…. The termination of Government contracts will find us with a considerable portion of our plant idle. The management is active at the present time investigating and developing new products and new lines of business.

The following year, the company’s directors unveiled the Winchester Plan. This was Winchester’s retooling for peace, and it was a signal moment in the growth of American marketing — based on a strategy that nowadays we would call “vertical integration.” Winchester announced that it would be buying up a wide range of companies — tool and die makers; companies that produced ice skates and pocketknives; clay pigeon and fishing reel manufacturers. These were all common, everyday products, hardware store standbys. But Winchester decided that something else was also needed, something that would brand the company’s name for social elites as well as for the mass market. It settled on something that would represent the pinnacle of craftsmanship. Winchester already had the gun that had won the West; now it wanted the bamboo fly rod that would win the East.

On October 14, 1918, Eustis Edwards sold his small Maine rod-making business to Winchester for $10,000 — perhaps $125,000 in current dollars. He agreed to “use his best endeavors in manufacturing fishing rods and instructing and training a working force for the manufacture of fishing rods and in the development of the machinery, equipment and tools therefore and such other duties as may be assigned to him.” For this Winchester would pay him an annual salary of $3,000 for five years — not a fortune, by any means, but the kind of financial security no boutique craftsman could dream of. But the worrisome phrase in his contract was “instructing and training a working force.” What that meant was that Winchester intended to marry Edwards’s individual craftsmanship with a mass-production scheme aimed at competing with the bottom-feeders. I could only wonder what misgivings Eustis, who had always been one to dance to his own drummer, may have had about this arrangement.

Over the next forty years, the Edwards family traveled a good deal, as Thoreau might have said, in and around Hamden, Connecticut. I went there one day, driving up the central artery of Whitney Avenue, heading north from the neo-Gothic colleges of Yale and the fieldstone and Italianate homes of the New Haven periphery, looking for traces of Eustis Edwards in the Connecticut suburbs.

I passed Hwang’s Taekwondo on the left. After that, the Village Shopper, the Best Video, the Dry Cleanery, the Rascals Gym, Margie’s Beauty Salon. A Knights of Columbus bingo hall. A skin and nail salon called Let’s Face It. The Rainbow Cleaners (“Drop your pants here!”). Inevitably there would be a hair salon in the next minimall, and I took bets with myself about what it would be called. Mane Street, perhaps? The Yankee Clipper? Wrong. It was Shear Madness.

In the midst of this suburban sprawl, I found Filbert Street, the Edwards family’s first home. It was a short, leafy cul-de-sac, backing onto a brushy, riffled section of the Mill River, just short of Lake Whitney. The Edwards home, number 40, was still standing, a solid, middle-class Cape-style home with a front porch and a well-tended lawn, nothing ostentatious. Just a musket shot away were the old dam and the industrial remains of Whitneyville.

Whitneyville, Whitney Avenue, Lake Whitney: you might say that Eli Whitney has left his mark on this piece of Connecticut suburbia. By the time Whitney came here in 1798, he was already famous for his invention of the cotton gin, which had revolutionized the plantation economy of the South. Incredibly, he had contrived to lose money on this enterprise, and he decided, as many have decided since, that making weapons for the government was a surer path to riches. The experiment in national independence was barely two decades old, and the United States saw enemies on all its frontiers — the British and French to the north, Spain to the south, hostile Indian tribes to the west. Congress, in a patriotic panic, appropriated the huge sum of $800,000 to arm the new republic. The only problem was procuring the weapons, since no one was yet able to manufacture them on a large scale. That was where Eli Whitney came in.

The man knew nothing about guns, but he was an inventive genius, and he recognized that waterpower was the key to his success. He wrote, “I am persuaded that machinery moved by water … would greatly diminish the labor and facilitate the Manufacture of this Article.”

Whitney found his perfect site at the falls on the Mill River, in the shadow of the Sleeping Giant, one of the freakish upwellings of basalt traprock that march north from New Haven through the sedimentary beds of central Connecticut. There he built his dam, then his factory, and then the model manufacturing village of Whitneyville. After visiting Whitney’s site, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, was impressed. “No position for a manufactory could be better,” he wrote. “From the bleak winds of winter it is completely sheltered by the surrounding hills…. No place, perhaps, is more healthy; few are more romantic.” And none, he might have added, was more profitable.

Eli Whitney wrote to President John Adams to say that his new factory could produce ten thousand stand of arms — a stand being a musket with its full accompaniment of bayonet, wiper, and screwdriver — for $13.40 apiece. The price was a little steep, but Whitney promised delivery in twenty-eight months. This sounded too good to be true, and it was. It took Whitney ten years in the end to fulfill his contract, but by the time he did so he had changed American society in profound ways. One of the first factories to develop machine tools that produced interchangeable parts, Whitneyville ushered in the era of mass production, and took the first large step toward creating what people would later call the military-industrial complex, stimulated by government procurements. Whitney’s innovations on the Mill River also stratified American society in new ways, creating a source of tension between skilled individual craftsmen and assembly-line laborers. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Eustis Edwards was familiar with this aspect of local history.

In 1855 or 1858 (I’ve seen both dates cited), long after old man Whitney had died, a local shirtmaker named Oliver Winchester took over Whitneyville and set up the New Haven Arms Company on the site. In the years that followed, Winchester gave the world the Henry Rifle, the design innovations of John Browning, and of course the Winchester 73. The labor to run Winchester’s machines came from thousands of new immigrants who flooded into the New Haven area from all over Europe — but especially from Sweden, where the iron and steel industry had led directly to a local tradition of arms manufacturing.

The man behind Winchester’s postwar expansion was a marketing genius named Louis K. Liggett. The source of Liggett’s fame was his United Drug Company, and the chain of drugstores that he called “Rx for All” — or Rexall. Until 1900, American drugstores had been essentially mom-and-pop operations. But Louis Liggett dragged them, often kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century. The core principles of the operation were economies of scale, ruthlessness of competition, and an intense advertising campaign to brand the Rexall name. Now Liggett proposed to apply the same principles to the American hardware business.

Winchester’s main problem in 1919 was carrying the costs of investment in new products as well as the financial drain of idle plant. But Liggett told the company there was no problem that couldn’t be solved with a sufficient volume of sales. He targeted hardware stores in every town of more than fifty thousand people and offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse. To keep prices down, Winchester would eliminate the middleman. Each Winchester franchise would be offered direct access to an identical set of product lines — cutlery, flashlights, and batteries; football helmets, roller skates, and baseball bats; hammers, pipe wrenches, and paintbrushes. A trade paper of the time gave this description:

Even the color scheme of the store plans will be standardized The basic color of each front will be a uniform gray; the name of the owner will appear in red, other lettering will be gold against blue. The purpose of the gray basic color is to forma neutral framework for the standardized window displays, which will be in bright and glowing colors.

All this was accompanied, the writer might have noted, by the instantly recognizable red logo that said WINCHESTER in slanting capital letters.

In the larger cities, meanwhile, Winchester would open stores under its own name. By the end of 1920, there were ten of these businesses, all of them high-end affairs and all of them in the Northeast. There was an immediate tension in this arrangement: it’s safe to assume that a guy dropping into a hardware store in Sioux City or Idaho Falls probably wasn’t much interested in a top-quality fly rod; by the same token, an affluent New Yorker visiting the Winchester store next door to Grand Central Station was unlikely to be looking for a pipe wrench. Recognizing this, the ten Northeastern stores quickly dropped the hardware and turned themselves into sporting goods emporia for gentlemen.

There were several such places in competition with one another in midtown Manhattan. Each was purveying a vision of upscale outdoor life; each showcased the handmade bamboo fly rod as its flagship product; and each offered the work of one of Hiram Leonard’s master apprentices. Abercrombie & Fitch’s twelve-story headquarters at Madison and Forty-fifth was the place to find a Hawes rod; if you wished, you could put one through its paces at the casting pool on the roof. Next door was Von Lengerke and Detmold, Fred Thomas’s East Coast distributor. The Winchester store, just around the corner at 47 East Forty-second, gave pride of place to “Mr. E. W. Edwards, the foremost split bamboo rod expert in the country.”

These establishments were the furthest thing from a small-town fishing tackle store you could imagine, and members of the snobbish Anglers’ Club of New York loved them. “Many a time,” read one article in the club’s bulletin, “you have entered a cluttered tackle store, and across an awkward counter have poured your confidences into the drooping ear of an ex-hardware clerk whose chief aim in life is to sell you a gaudy plug bait or a clock-work reel.” At the Winchester store, however, or at Abercrombie & Fitch, there were no counters; instead there were leather armchairs, a roaring fire, a private elevator to the gun room, and sales clerks who looked like Herbert Hoover.

The rods that Eustis Edwards built during his time at Winchester were superb examples of the craftsman’s art. This was when he made the 6166, the rod that had first won Streamer’s heart. In time I managed to acquire a 6165 of my own, a model from the same series, whose fine tips, dark cane, and overall delicacy of action and aesthetics took my breath away. For sentimental reasons I took it fishing for the first time on Woodbury Creek, just above the falls, where Thomas, Edwards, and Loman Hawes had had their first rod shop.

Returning to the Central Valley area for the first time in a while, it was hard not to be reminded of the commercial pressures that had driven the three men to break away from the old Leonard operation. For Edwards’s relationship with Winchester brought the same problems, only in a much more acute form. His contract was a classic Faustian bargain: in exchange for the freedom to make his own masterpieces, he had to train and oversee a mass-production workforce. What made this inherent conflict intolerable was a weak spot in Louis Liggett’s theories of marketing. Winchester’s decision to build cheap bamboo rods put the company in direct competition with high-volume producers such as the Montague Rod and Reel Company in Massachusetts and the Horrocks-Ibbotson Company of Utica, New York. But those competitors had years of experience; they could make cheap rods in their sleep. For Winchester, entering a tough marketplace, cost and quality were at cross-purposes. If Edwards insisted on quality control, Winchester rods became uncompetitive. If production costs were lowered, the quality declined.

You can sense Eustis, an old man now, straining to break free for one last flourish. Whether he actually tried to make rods under his own name or merely asked permission to do so, there’s an amendment to his five-year contract, dated July 1923, that reads like a gag order. You’re not a person, Winchester’s lawyers are saying; you’re a brand. You can have your name back if and when we part company; but until then, “Eustis W. Edwards” belongs to us. There’s a kind of existential horror about losing the right to your own name, especially when it’s synonymous with a vision of quality and integrity. Entering his late sixties, with his creative powers undiminished, Eustis saw his name used to sell junk, and there was nothing he could do about it. It must have made him heart-sick. The only comfort was that the Winchester contract had barely fifteen months to run.

Eustis Edwards had six good years left, as it turned out. For almost half a century, he had struggled to balance the ideals of his craft with the realities of economic survival. He’d done so in almost every imaginable setting: as a Leonard acolyte and member of old Hiram’s manufactory; as one of the elite “supergroup” with Thomas, Hawes, and Payne; as Fred Thomas’s junior partner; as a secretive independent; as head of production for a huge industrial corporation with a bamboo sideline. At every stage he’d bucked the machine, balking at compromises, corporate pressures, and identity theft, turning his back on economic security for the independent pursuit of perfection. I think ultimately it was this, beyond the sheer beauty of his work, that made Eustis such a compelling figure to me.

In 1924, at the age of sixty-seven, he finally put the equation together. In the house on Filbert Street, in a furious yearlong burst of creative activity, Eustis made fifty rods that may have been his very finest. He called them the Perfection.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
George Black has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation,The National Law Journal, and many other publications. He is currently articles editor ofOnEarth magazine, a publication of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Black is also author of The Trout Pool Paradox (Houghton Mifflin, April 2004).  This article is excerpted from Casting a Spell by George Black. Copyright © 2006 by George Black. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
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  • http://twitter.com/thelaurelbush Lauren Bush

    Where did you find that Timothy Dwight said that about the Winchester site? What source?

  • Chuck

    a beautiful reflection on the man who brought art to rod-crafting in an age where art was increasingly sidelined. thank you for this article. i have a winchester bamboo rod, and i will never be able to hold it again without hearing your writing in my mind.