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Fly Reel Makers of Maine

Maine’s storied history of fishing tackle includes men who designed and built early salmon reels

By Steve Woit

Maine has a storied history of fishing tackle makers, including Hiram Leonard and modern tackle retailers like L.L. Bean, but much less is known about the men who designed and built the early salmon reels used to fish for Atlantic salmon.

Leonard Atwood’s innovative hinged fly reel design patented in 1902, shown here with the patent paperwork. Photo courtesy Rick Bannerot Some of these classic salmon reels have become highly valuable and the object of desire for collectors, inspiring several generations of bench reel makers, including some who still build salmon reels in Maine today.

Perhaps the most iconic salmon fly reel from Maine was the Philbrook and Payne reel designed by Francis J. Philbrook and Edward Payne for the pioneering tackle maker Hiram L. Leonard of Bangor. Philbrook was a gunsmith machinist who assigned his 1877 patented reel design to Leonard to manufacture his first reels. The patented pillar design for the reel cage above the circumference of the reel allowed for more line to be stored with less weight than other reels of the time.

Philbrook collaborated with Edward Payne, who worked with Leonard in the rod-making business.

The beautiful salmon version of the reel has gorgeous marbleized orange and black end plates made with a special process molded from a special mud and then carefully machined. The raised pillar nickel-silver reel frame, itself a work of art, was set in a steam-heated cast-iron mold. Orange and black granules were then sprinkled on the hot mold surface. This would result in many different patterns, with no two reels being identical.

Leonard Atwood’s prolific inventions included the elevator and airplane flaps, as well as intricate fishing reels. Photo courtesy of Farmington Historical Society Later versions of the Leonard reels were made with bi-metal and black hard rubber side plates for nearly 100 years. The reels were later made (from about 1900 to World War II) by the famous New York reel-maker Julius Vom Hofe and sold by the historic William Mills and Co.

Perhaps the most colorful reel-maker to hail from Maine was Leonard Atwood. Atwood was born in Farmington Falls in 1845. He served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. After leaving the Navy, he started working for Flagler and Rockefeller, a firm that later became known as the Standard Oil Company.

Atwood had a keen interest in anything mechanical, and in the 1870s he installed elevators in buildings and hotels, using machinery he designed, manufactured, and patented. In the early 1800s, he sold his elevator patents to Elisha Graves Otis, the founder of the Otis Elevator Company. Atwood is sometimes known as “The Father of the Modern Skyscraper” for the elevators that allowed builders to build higher and higher structures. He went on to organize one of the first coastal railways, including what became the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway, of which he was president. He was also granted patents for a bottle opener, a spark arrester for locomotives, a process for drying brewer’s grain, and the movable flaps for airplanes that are still in use today.