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 how
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, cordial way
in which the old gentleman accepted my admiration, and the pleasure he evidently
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.
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 be magnificent.
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 on 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 color 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 color was promoting sales for a wide variety of artificial flies. For $2.50, as the annual catalog stated, the purchaser enjoyed “color 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.
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 and expand.
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 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 an 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 honored, though, surprisingly, a salmon model never appeared.
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 more.
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 disks,
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…