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Old 02-20-08, 08:51 PM   #1
Buck Henry
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Default Classic Cane History: HL Leonard

There is such an amazing history to be learned when it comes to the American art form of bamboo fly rod building. I thought it would be neat to post a series of short lessons on a new classic rod buider / company each week. The first choice was obvious, enjoy!

Mr. Hiram L. Leonard, the father of American bamboo fly rods.



Hiram L. Leonard set out to found a gunsmiths, but he found demand so low that he turned instead to making fishing rods. It turned out to be an inspired choice, for he could make rods like no-one else before him and possibly since. Leonard was born in Maine, but he grew up in Pennsylvania, where he worked for a time minding the machinery at a coal mining company before he returned to his home state. These were hard times and in addition to gunsmithing, Leonard tried his hand successively at taxidermy, hunting and fur trading before he hit on the idea of making fishing rods. When Thoreau met Leonard in 1857, he described him as a tall, handsome man, faultlessly groomed and of 'gentlemanly address' . Leonard was also an accomplished musician, played the flute and the bass viol, and was possessed of the peculiar belief that no man could make a good fishing rod unless he could play at least one instrument. Maybe he was right, because few other rod makers ever approached him for quality.

It was Leonard who took Phillipe's invention and perfected and popularised hexagonal rods in America early in the 1870s. Leonard's break came in 1871, when Bradford & Anthony, a Boston sporting shop, saw a rod Leonard had made for his own use and commissioned him to build split-bamboo rods for them. At the time, Leonard was forty years old, and it wasn't long before had more work than he could handle. The names of the men he hired in those early years are the roll-call of the great American rods makers: Fred Thomas, Ed Payne, Billy Edwards, and Hiram and Loman Hawes. All of them subsequently went their separate ways, but not before they learned some special magic from the master.

Quite how Leonard's men learned the magic is a good question, because the master kept his cards quite obsessively close to his chest. His greatest secret was a bevelling machine of his own design, which first went into use in 1876 or 1877. The beveller cut the six strips needed for each rod with incredible precision and unerring accuracy; and there wasn't another manufacturer who had anything like it. Well aware of the consequences if the secret ever leaked out, Leonard kept the machine in a locked room and only he and his nephew Rube Leonard ever used it. Fred Thomas must somehow have gotten a look at it, because if he hadn't one of the secrets of building split cane rods would died with his mentor.

But there was more to Leonard than a fancy machine: he was the first rod maker to build rods with compound tapers which were calculated mathematically, and it seems that he discovered Chinese 'Tonkin' cane long before anyone else guessed how much better it was than the Calcutta cane in such universal favour at the time. The story goes that in 1877 Loman Hawes bought an umbrella with struts of such high quality that they couldn't possibly have been Indian cane. It didn't take Leonard and Hawes long to trace the supplier, and the discovery of the material gave Leonard's products an edge which they didn't lose for thirty years.

By the time Leonard died in 1907 at the age of 76, Thomas, Payne, Edwards and the Hawes brothers had all set up businesses of their own, which preserved the tradition of the master's way of rod making, but Leonard went to his grave with the secret of how he calculated his rod tapers, and it was several decades before the rest of the industry worked out how to make a good rod great.

The above summation was borrowed with permission and written by Dr. Andrew Herd (www.flyfishinghistory.com)

Next week's focus: E. W. Edwards & Sons
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Old 02-20-08, 09:30 PM   #2
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Lest we get ahead of ourselves, let's start at the beginning of the six strip split bamboo rod with gunsmith and violin maker turned bamboo craftsmen - Samuel Phillipe...



"It is generally accepted that the first four strip split cane rod was made by Samuel Phillipe, a gunmaker in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1845. A portrait of Phillipe shows an elderly man with magnificent mutton-chops whiskers, a long face and steel framed spectacles balanced high on his balding crown . Phillipe was an angler of some note who fished with Thaddeus Norris from time to time and he was motivated by the idea of making a rod that was lighter than anything else available. In this he certainly succeeded; an 11 foot four inch rod of Phillipe's, made in three sections, weighed only eight ounces. Compare this with later English rods, which weighed about an ounce a foot.

Phillipe started by making tips and the second joints of rods out of two and then three sections of split-cane, following accepted practice by putting the enamel on the outside, and he finished them with solid ash butts. The three strip rods wouldn't cast true, so he experimented with four strips, which was an improvement. The first four strip rods weren't 'pure' cane, because Phillipe used white ash for the butts, but a year later he eliminated the ash and built one entirely from split-cane. The early rods weren't intended for sale and he didn't put the design on the market until 1848. Quadrate rods built to his specification were shown at the Great Exhibition at the same time as some of the first British three-strip rods, which shows how much Phillipe was well ahead of his time; by comparison Farlow's didn't advertise their first four strip rods some twenty four years later.

The first six strip split cane rods were built by Phillipe in either 1848, or 1849. He did this very quietly, without any fanfare and sold them to Andrew Clerk & Co., in New York. Clerk was Phillipe's source of bamboo, so it was natural for the two to do business. It did Clerk a great deal of good, because the firm subsequently became the patrons of the rod-makers Leonard, Green, and Murphy. Of these three, Hiram Leonard was the one who would build the best rods and the greatest reputation."

(from the website bambooflyfishinghistory.com)



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Old 02-20-08, 10:58 PM   #3
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Cool, thanks for adding the Phillipe bio!

BTW, I believe it is clear that to be considered one of the great bamboo rod builders in history, you gotta have a very big white beard! Time to get started on yours Bill!
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Old 02-20-08, 11:16 PM   #4
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Get article!

Others might like to know this tid-bit of the H.L Leonard piece of more current history. Take notice of the beveller in Ron's shop. It must have been amazing to know these well known names from the early/mid 20th century even though it was after Hiram's time.
http://www.ronkusse.com/aboutus.html
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Old 02-20-08, 11:25 PM   #5
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What do you mean "get started"? I've been growing mine for 37 years now. Although I must admit... it's not going too well.


Here's another great reference to Leonard from George Black's "Casting a Spell"

"In the woods he always carried his flute with him and played it well. Many is the night I hear him wake the wilderness with ‘Nellie Gray,’ ‘The Irish Washerwoman,’ ‘Old Kentucky Home,’ and other tunes now seldom heard.

Mr. Leonard’s powers of endurance were beyond belief, judging from appearances. He never seemed tired and would tramp all day through the forest, returning at night seemingly fresh.

The men are scarce who could carry as heavy a load as long a distance as he could. In 1856 he carried a quarter of moose weighing 135 pounds from Little Spencer Pond to Lobster Lake, a distance of seven miles."



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Old 02-21-08, 09:41 PM   #6
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Default Jebidiah Ezekiel Oyster

Quote:
What do you mean "get started"? I've been growing mine for 37 years now. Although I must admit... it's not going too well.
Man, you gotta love the internet. I did some geneological research and found a reference to Bill Oyster's Great Great Grandfather, Jebidiah Ezekiel Oyster. It just so happens that Jebidah Oyster was also a famed bamboo rod builder in his day. I was able to find this picture in an old archive folder.

Don't worry Bill, your grizzeled rod builder beard will begin to fill out in no time.

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Old 02-21-08, 09:57 PM   #7
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Wow, Bill looks a lot like his grand father, amazing.....

So, is true that bamboo rods were first made in America?



Thanks Buck

Jeff
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Old 02-21-08, 10:05 PM   #8
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I can't believe the wealth of knowledge we have on this site. I had no idea we had such a deep history right here in a backyard. Thanks Buck for teaching us all something new.

And to think I was worried we wouldn't have anything to talk about at the Boo Gathering.
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Old 02-21-08, 10:12 PM   #9
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Also some real good historical reading.

Thanks Buck & Bill.
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Old 02-21-08, 11:01 PM   #10
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Default oh yeah!

Now that's what I'm talking about! As soon as I can rock a beard like that, my prices are going to double!

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