Few of today's anglers are aware that the
Shakespeare Company name and trademark were at one time associated with products of the
finest obtainable quality. While it is true that the Shakespeare Company has always
produced tackle with "Everyman" in mind, the company has also produced, at one
time or another, tackle of such high quality that it commanded the respect and envy of the
trade, and invoked a great sense of pride in the tackle owner. The capability of the
Shakespeare Company to produce high quality tackle is obvious to anyone who has seen the
full-jewelled Deluxe "Professional" level winding reel, with its hand-engraved
fishing scene on its nickel-silver alloy head and tail plates; or the beautiful
"Miller Autocrat" big game salt-water reel.
However, it must be remembered that the
Shakespeare Company's longevity was due in part to its ability to produce good affordable
products during America's many economic recessions and depressions, which so often left
men without work, but gave them plenty of time to fish. Several of the other tackle
manufacturers, who did not enjoy such a broad base of support, and who emphasized high-end
tackle only, now belong to the distant past.
The Shakespeare Company founder, William Henry
Shakespeare, Jr., was born on September 21st, 1869 in Kalamazoo Michigan, at a time of
seemingly endless economic depression which had plagued America from the mid-1850's to the
His father, William H. Shakespeare, was
Michigan's youngest soldier to fight in the Civil War, enlisting at the age of seventeen.
Upon hearing the news of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the young William
Shakespeare was the first volunteer from Kalamazoo to step forward and form Company K of
the 2nd Michigan Infantry on April 12th, 1861.
He enlisted as a Corporal, and had obtained the
rank of First Sergeant by 1863 after fighting in such engagements as Blackburn's Forge,
Bull Run 1st, Bailey's Cross Roads, Munson's Hill, Fair Oaks, Yorktown, White Oak Swamp,
Malverns Hill, Bull Run 2nd, Chantilly, and Fredericksburg. He was wounded by a bullet
through both legs at the hips, and by other bullets that struck him as he lay wounded on
the battlefield during an infantry charge on enemy lines at Jackson Mississippi on July
11th, 1863. The young Sergeant was not expected to survive, and was told by the surgeon
that he had only hours to live, and was awarded a battlefield promotion to Brigadier
General. He barely survived the 33 day transfer from Mississippi through Confederate lines
to a General Hospital in Cincinatti, Ohio where he lay for the next nine months recovering
from his injuries.
Upon his discharge in the summer of 1864, he
quickly re-settled into civilian life in Kalamazoo, obtained a law degree and entered into
a law practice with his friend Nathanial Balch. He served as Quartermaster General for the
State of Michigan from 1883 to 1884. In 1896, he opened the Central Bank of William
Shakespeare, and continued to serve as an officer in the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the
Such precociousness seems to have been a
familial trait. One warm spring morning, while on his way to school, the young
Wm. Shakespeare, Jr. came upon two men with a fishing rod and reel. The unusual manner in
which they manipulated the tackle caused him to pause and watch with great interest and
curiosity, being himself an enthusiastic and competent angler. The man holding the rod had
attached a small weight to the end of the line, and after making his cast, attempted to
reel the line back onto the spool evenly with a rather crude device which he had made for
this purpose. The men were getting frustrated when the invention wouldn't work, due to
what Shakespeare recognized as a fault of design and gross mechanical inaccuracies. The
inventor threw the rod and reel to the ground in anger and declared that "It ain't
possible to make one (level-wind reel) that'll work."
"I think it is possible," the young Shakespeare answered, "and someday I'll
make one that will work." This remark was met with laughter, and a red-faced William
Shakespeare Jr. went on his way.
In 1888 at the age of 19, William Shakespeare
Jr. resigned his clerk's position at M. Israel and Company, a Kalamazoo dry goods store,
to work for George F. Green, the inventor of the electric street car, electric dental
drill, and pneumatic photo shutter.
Then in 1889, Shakespeare formed a partnership
with Garrett W. Low, and founded the Kalamazoo Shutter Company, building precision
behind-the-lens camera shutters. Shakespeare and Low received several patents between 1890
and 1893 for photo shutters. It was during this time that he began using his mechanical
abilities to create elegant casting reels for his friends. "Soon", he said,
"I had a great many friends". It was also during this period that the principles
for the level-wind mechanism were finally visualized by the young man, as he sat on the
edge of his bed pulling off his sock. "It seems senseless, perhaps, to mention
the sock," Shakespeare later told in a newspaper interview, "but very likely men
who call themselves psychologists would say that it was important." One can almost
imagine the young man tracing a spiral pattern with his finger across his Argyle sock, and
creating a mental picture of his idea.
Despite the economic hardships of the times,
Shakespeare's business flourished due to the high demand for camera shutters by the many
photographic studios which sprang up in small towns all across America in an attempt to
capitalize on the publics new fascination with the modern techniques in photography which
had rendered the delicate and costly deurragotype, ambrotype, and tintypes obsolete.
With the even more promising outlook of new
wide-spread economic growth in the early 1890's, William Shakespeare Jr. became engaged to
his long-time sweetheart, Miss Cora Monroe, and the two were married on November 10th of
For five years he devoted much of his spare
time to designing and crafting his level-winding reel concept into a physical reality.
Once perfected, Shakespeare filed for the patent rights for his "fish-line reel"
on May 13th, 1897 and was awarded patent #591,086 on October 5th, 1897 for his invention.
He was now prepared, with some financial assistance from his fathers' bank, to produce for
the angling world the first functional level-winding reel, the "Style C".
This was not the first patent for a
level-winding reel. Other level-winding reels and devices had been patented now and then
for nearly forty years earlier by other inventors. It was, however, the first functional
level-winding mechanism to be issued a patent, and this is an important distinction. A
unique feature of this reel was its use of two parallel carriage screws between which
travelled a looped line-guide on a block, instead of the single endless-thread carriage
screw which had been tried unsuccessfully by other reel inventors. The earliest
"Style C" reels have screws only on the headplate, while later reels were
improved with screws holding the reel foot on both head and tail plates for added
The Shakespeare Reel Works was first located in
a four story storage building on Water Street in Kalamazoo that had once housed the
Hanselman Candy Company. William Shakespeare Jr. had rented this building since 1889 for
his camera shutter business, and together with Walter E. Marhoff and twelve other
employees, crafted his elegant handmade oxidized silver-plated reels on the third floor
using the same small jewelers lathes and watchmakers tools that were used for making the
The first Shakespeare catalog, titled "The
Fine Points of a Reel", featured only this reel, called simply The Shakespeare Reel,
Style C. Garrett Low died before the two partners received their final
photographic shutter patent in June of 1900, and Shakespeare received another patent for a
fishing rod handle that same month.
Shakespeare's young wife Cora died on January
15th of 1901 from "consumption" or tuberculosis, a disease which was ravaging
the nation, leaving William Jr. as the single parent to his two young children, Mildred
A few weeks later, on February 5th, Shakespeare
received the patent rights for a 'mechanical bait', which he and Wm. Locher, a local
sporting goods retailer, had applied for in July of 1900. This lure was marketed as the
"Revolution" bait, and was basically a pair of wooden floats with spinner blades
and hooks attached. Another more complex "Revolution" lure, which replaced the
wooden floats with watertight aluminum floats, was patented on April 9th, 1901.
A second reel design was submitted for patent
on April 27th, 1901 and the patent for this non-level winding "Vom Hoff" style
reel was issued on November 12th. This elegant little reel was made of jet black hard
rubber with decoratively turned pillars and handsome silver plated end plates. Like the
"Style C", this "Quadruple" reel featured a thumb controlled slide to
engage the click. And like the "Style C", it too was marked
Also in April of that same year, Shakespeare
became a partner in the Yonkerman Chemical Company, which soon occupied half of his
factory's third floor and produced the copper sulfate consumption "remedy"
It appears that he continued to build camera
shutters as the mainstay of his business, since the Kalamazoo city directory for 1901
listed him as manager of Kalamazoo Shutter Company at that same address, and his interests
in the shutter company were not sold to Garrett Low's widow until January 16th, 1902.
However, a greater interest toward fishing tackle was beginning to emerge. Mr. Shakespeare
knew of the differing needs of fishermen and sought about to satisfy the varying tastes of
anglers who would buy practically any fishing tackle gismo if it were well made, and if it
worked well he knew that they would buy even more.
The 1902 Shakespeare catalog added three new
reel models: The Service, The Standard, and The Professional. These reels were stated to
be precision made to within one four-thousandth of an inch from the finest German nickel
silver and English Stubbs steel, and ranged in price from $5.00 to $15.00, and this new
catalog also included bait casting rods, lures, and lines.
Mr. Shakespeare re-married on December 23rd,
1902 to his daughter's school teacher, Miss Lhea West. In 1903, the Shakespeare catalog
introduced the Level Winding Reel "Style B" which was built of nickel-plated
hard-drawn brass and featured the newly patented Shakespeare-Marhoff Harmonic Click and
Graduated Drag which helped to eliminate "backlash", or the tendency of the reel
spool to continue spinning from inertia after the lure had slowed down, creating a
terrible tangle in the line, as the spool continues to unwind line that has nowhere to go.
The following year, Mr. Shakespeare added his
new "Style A" Level Wind reel to the 1904 catalog. This reel was essentially the
same as the "Style B" only made from German nickel silver by Mr. Shakespeare
himself, with a beautifully hand engraved "Shakespeare" on the headplate. This
reel was priced at $35.00, which was, incidentally, the cost of a good horse in those
Reel collectors are often puzzled as to why the
Style "C" came first before Style "B", then "A". It is the
authors opinion that there were probably two unsuccessful prototypes (A and B) prior to
the Style "C". Then, for marketing purposes, the later reels were designated as
"B" and later "A" to emphasize to the angling public that the
improvements were unique and substantial, and worthy of the price increase. A close
examination of the original patent drawings clearly shows a very different reel design
from the reel which we know as "Style C".
Some have speculated that the original A &
B reels were the non-level wind reels that he made for his friends, but didn't patent.
Obviously Mr. Shakespeare knew the importance of patents through his other enterprises,
and I cannot believe that he would have neglected to patent his own reels, nor infringe on
another maker's patent by reproducing similar reels for his friends.
Perhaps he named it "Style C" (a name
which was already in use for the largest capacity Yawman & Erbe automatic fly reel) in
an attempt to disguise the fact that his level wind reel would only hold 60 yards of line
instead of the standard 100 yards that other non-level wind reels of that size could hold.
Or maybe he named the "Style C" after his young bride Cora. At this point we can
only look back and speculate until documents are discovered which reveal the true answer.
Mr. Shakespeare has been credited with the
early use and advancement of the short rod, which he felt would make the new sport of
baitcasting easier for the novice to learn. The only rods listed in the catalogs in those
early years were baitcasting rods, in nine models, and all were 5-1/2 foot long.
Grade #1 was an all-wood two-piece rod with and ash butt and lancewood
tip. Grade #2 was a two-piece un-split bamboo rod. Grade #3 was a three-piece lancewood
rod with a spare tip. Grades #4 through #9 were built of split-bamboo in a three-piece
design with an extra tip, and varied in grade with additions of cork grips, closeness in
the intervals of silk windings and nickel-silver reel seats and ferrules. These rods
ranged in price from seventy-five cents to fifteen dollars, and like the early Heddon
rods, were built by the former Hiram Leonard Rod Company apprentice, Fred D. Divine of
Utica, New York.
Lures were the money-makers for the early
business, and the company was simply breaking even on the reels due to the amount of hand
craftsmanship necessary. The early lures were The Evolution (a rubber minnow imitation),
The Revolution, The Sure-Lure, The Shakespeare-Worden Bucktail Spinner, and The Tournament
Frog. The profits from these immensely successful baits made it possible for the
Shakespeare Reel Works to move with its employees and business into the old traction
building of the Interurban Railroad nearby on November 26th, 1904.
During the annual employee vacation on the last
week in July of 1905, the entire plant was shut down so that machinery could be
overhauled, and during this down-time a new department was added to the factory, a
complete bamboo rodbuilding shop, headed by Mr. Thomas Perry of Redditch, England. Mr.
Perry brought with him over 30 years experience of rodmaking skills to the Company.
On November 8th, 1905, the company
incorporated, authorizing $250,000.00 in stock, and changed its name to the Wm.
Shakespeare Jr. Company, adding $30,000.00 worth of automatic machinery. Arthur L. Burrell
was named Vice President, and Fred Green was the Secretary.
It was during this period that Wm. Shakespeare
Jr. bought the Kalamazoo Fishing Tackle Company and its machinery from its owner, Jay B.
Rhodes, another local inventor who patented a mechanical frog lure. Jay Rhodes also owned
the patent rights for "The Rhodes' Perfect Casting Minnow" which had been
patented on December 13th, 1904 by his nephew Fred D. Rhodes, and which had been improved
upon by Jay with the addition of a clip hook-hanging hardware. Fred Rhodes had operated
his own lure and rod making and repairing (and bicycle repairing) business from within his
home on Bush Street, and advertised his wooden minnow as "the best bait on
earth". Fred continued to make the lures for Shakespeare after his uncle Jay sold the
business, at least until Mr. Shakespeare became dissatisfied with the poor quality
workmanship that Fred was providing.
The Wm. Shakespeare Jr. Company was now into
the wooden lure, rod, and line manufacturing business, and Shakespeare's marketing
expertise soon made his wooden minnow lures one of the most popular baits among sportsmen,
and the most copied by his competitors. Carl J. Veley was the employee who made the first
Shakespeare wooden minnow. Another local inventor, Bert O. Rhodes (Jay B. Rhodes older
brother) assigned his July 3rd, 1906 patent for yet another mechanical rubber frog lure to
Wm. Shakespeare Jr., and this lure also became a sensation with bass anglers across the
A Shakespeare employee, Walter Marhoff,
developed his own design of level-wind baitcasting reel, on which he was able to adapt and
perfect the single endless-thread carriage screw. A patent was issued to the Marhoff Reel
Company on October 23rd, 1906, and his reels were improved in 1907 with the addition of a
looped wire line-guide, similar to the Shakespeare design, but with a slotted shaft to
support the top of the line-guide. These reels were made in the Shakespeare factory under
special arrangement, similar to the manufacturing arrangements for the private label reels
that Shakespeare was making for the South Bend Bait Company and others.
Marhoff died suddenly at his Forest Street home
on the day before his 39th birthday on October 25th, 1908, after having suffered from a
long illness with tuberculosis. His friends had seen him working at the Shakespeare Reel
Company and walking around town only a few days earlier. In January of 1909 Wm.
Shakespeare Jr. filed for the dissolution of the Marhoff Reel Company, and took over the
business of his good friend, only two years after Marhoff developed the reel that would
become the level-wind design standard for the entire tackle industry.
Mr. Shakespeare was deeply saddened by the loss of his good friend, and paid tribute to
Marhoff's inventive genius by placing the "Marhoff Reel" in a position of
prominence in the catalogs, its design virtually unchanged throughout Shakespeare's life,
and by continuing to recognize him at service award banquets for decades.
By 1910, The Wm. Shakespeare Jr. Company
employed 100 workers, and had three full-time salesmen travelling the railways selling
tackle all across the nation to the far reaches of the still-wild West. In 1913 a new
factory was built at 417 North Pitcher street which became the permanent Kalamazoo
In the early months of 1913 Mr. Shakespeare was
in court defending his Rhoades Wooden Minnow patent against the Enterprise Manufacturing
Company, a company in Akron, Ohio commonly known as Pflueger. Shakespeare won the suit,
and Pfleuger had to stop producing its "Wizzard Minnow" and "Monarch
Minnow" which had copied the hook hanger assembly patented earlier by Rhodes.
The Wm. Shakespeare Jr. Company was now making
23 different baitcasting reel models; the "Uncle Sam", "Universal",
"Criterion", "Precision", Service", Tournament",
"Intrinsic", "Perfect", "Standard Professional",
"Royal", "Expert", "Pilot", "Crown",
"Triumph", "Crescent", "Vom Hoff's Patent",
"Marquette", "Level Wind B", "Level Wind A",
"Kalamazoo", "Ideal", "Marhoff", and "Professional
On August 9th, 1913, Monroe Shakespeare (then
14 years old) was involved in an accident in which he drove his fathers car into the buggy
of Dr. Wilbur. Fortunately, neither Monroe nor the doctor were injured. Then only two days
later, Monroe broke his arm while cranking the automobile. These two incidences led the
Kalamazoo City Council to adopt an ordinance prohibiting persons under the age of 18 from
driving a car.
On September 2, 1915 the official company name
was changed to The Shakespeare Company. In spite of the shortages of manpower and metals
during WWI (a war which was popularly known as "The Big Fuss") from 1914 to
1918, the company continued to make its fishing tackle, and volunteered to manufacture
trench mortar fuses under a government sub-contract.
Three single-action trout reels were available
in the early 1920's, The Winner, The Featherweight, and The Kazoo. All three were
Shakespeare's versions of the earlier Meisselbach reels, simplified for mass production
methods. The same was true for the Russell single action fly reel which was introduced in
1926. It was designed by Shakespeare's chief reel designer and engineer Samuel Guy
Russell, who had previously patented the new method of riveting the reel foot in 1920,
although many features of the Russell reel were taken from Mr. Shakespeare's personal
"St. George" reel made by the famous Hardy Brothers in England, which was
purchased as the model for the purpose of duplicating. The Shakespeare Automatic fly reels
were introduced in 1922, and were made in three line capacity sizes.
It was around this same time that Mr.
Shakespeare and four other Kalamazoo sportsmen, Dr. Rudolph Gilkey, Dr. Ralph Balch,
Attorney George McClelland, and Dr. Augustus Warren Crane (the internationally famous
X-Ray pioneer) purchased a hotel in Northern Michigan. This spot on the Manistee River was
known as Jam #1 during the logging days only a few decades earlier, and now served as
their "up north" trout fishing retreat. This old hotel, along with a vast tract
of logged-over, and burned-over land in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula became the
Sharon Properties Association, otherwise known to the members as the "Knockers
Club". A report of the annual meeting held on November 31st, 1924 under the Jam 1
Bridge on the Manistee, contained the following motion:
"Moved by Brother Dryflysky that Wm. Shakespeare, Jr. be assessed
four automatic reels for not showing up during the season of 1924." The motion
carried unanimously. Another report, dated June 2nd 1926, discussing cabin repairs and
improvement costs, states:
"Shakespeare seems to have a little of the best of the
improvements but he has promised to keep all members in tackle for the rest of their
natural lives, so we can afford to waive our claim against him."
Later, Dr. Balch penned this letter to his old friend: ...As I look
back it seems to me that the happiest hours that I have spent have been with your products
in my hand. Many of the hours were with you beside me in the boat or near by on the
stream, and so there was added pleasure. We can remember sail fish as they burst from the
gulf stream and walked on their tails as they tried to throw the hook. The bright sun, the
blue water with the white foam flying. We can think of the flashing strike of the blue
fish in the surf or the heavy tug of the channel bass. But I think more often our thoughts
will turn to the waters of the Manistee and the light rod bending with the surge of a
rainbow or the sharp smash of the brookie.
So old friend, 'Here is to the days that have gone and a double draft
to the days to come. Be they few or many may they be spent with a rod in our hands and
peace in our souls.
Around 1920, Mr. Shakespeare bought three bamboo flyrods which were the finest available
American rods of the times and sought to combine the best features of each of these rods
into one rod, a composite, to become Shakespeare's best bamboo flyrod. These flyrods were
made in a three piece design with serrated and blued nickel-silver ferrules, an agate
stripping guide, and a polished aluminum and walnut reel seat. The rod featured a swell of
the bamboo above the grip, and the delicate gold silk windings tipped in black graced the
guides, intermediates, and cluster wraps found at the swell of the butt section.
Mr. Shakespeare's son, Henry, remembered that
as a boy, he was able to persuade the Shakespeare rodmakers to build a lancewood bow
complete with split-bamboo arrows, for his own use.
Henrys' early recollections also include
wandering through the Shakespeare fly tying room, watching skilled hands tie the beautiful
Montreals, Scarlet Ibis', and other wet flies. Although the "Iroquois Double Divided
Wing" dry flies were imported from England, the "Chippewa" bass flies,
"St. Joe River" bass flies, "Shakespeare Hoppers", and "Spring
Brook" wet flies were all tied in Kalamazoo. Later, all flies were supplied by Glen
L. Evans, Inc. of Caldwell, Idaho, and the Weber Lifelike Fly Company of Stevens Point
Bamboo rod production at the Shakespeare
Factory ceased in the early 1930's due to the heavy pressures of the failing economy on
what had always been a money-loosing venture for the Company.
The "Great Depression" nearly
bankrupted the company by 1932. Mr. Shakespeare met with the employees to let them know
that if the situation got much worse, wages would have to be cut. He promised that the
salaries of all management and executives, including his own, would be cut before the
wages of any employees.
Mr. Shakespeare went to Chicago, and then to
New York in an unsuccessful attempt to secure loans from the major banks in order to
continue operations. Emergency loan arrangements were finally made when he found
empathetic bankers in, as he referred to it, the "city of brotherly love",
Arrangements were made for Horrocks-Ibbotson of
Utica New York (formerly the Fred Divine Rod Company) to once again manufacture the bamboo
rods under the Shakespeare name. Later, bamboo rods were made by South Bend Company in
Indiana, Montague Rod Company of and the Heddon Company of Dowagiac Michigan.
The Shakespeare Company held a long termed
relationship with Horrocks-Ibbotson Co., and its predecessor the Clark-Horrocks Co., as
competitor, supplier, and customer. A letter from Edward D. Ibbotson dated May 16, 1947
"Well do I remember the first day I met you when you came to Utica
to see our concern. Then a few months latter I climbed up the stairs in the old building
and wandered around in various rooms and finally found you hard at work developing a new
level wind reel".
Although Mr. Shakespeare was ever vigilant to protect his patents from
unauthorized usage, he was at the same time very willing to help his competitors when they
needed his advice or assistance, and he was called upon to assist these fledgling tackle
In a letter dated May 27, 1947 to Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Ivar Hennings of
the South Bend Bait Company wrote:
"Very clearly do I recall visiting you at Kalamazoo along about
1912, and how graciously you agreed to again start manufacturing reels for us and did so
speedily to help us out. Also well do I recall a meeting in Cleveland a few years later
when you informed the so-called, in those days, prominent fishing tackle manufacturers
that our company was or would become a factor in this field."
When W. F. Eger of Barlow Florida dreamed up
the idea of his now famous Eger Dillinger bait in 1935, he could not find a supplier for
the spinners, hooks, eyelets, and screw eyes. No manufacturer would furnish the small
quantities that he needed. Mr. Shakespeare told his Sales Manager to sell Mr. Eger
anything he needed. Marathon Bait Company of Wausau Wisconsin was in its infancy in 1932
when it needed and received "helpful and sage advice" from him, and Louis J.
Eppinger (of Dardevel fame) felt that Mr. Shakespeare's assistance was essential to the
success of his business.
Employees of the Company received frequent
visits in the factory from Mr. Shakespeare, and he knew them all by name, as well as the
names of their wives, husbands and children.
Shakespeare Products Company was formed in 1921
and was made up from the Kalamazoo Fibre Broom Company and The LoVis Company, which
manufactured can openers and parts for the "Roamer" automobile. This was not
Shakespeare's first attempt to diversify. In the past twenty years he had been a partner
in two patent medicine companies, the Prof. Stephen G. Burridge Co. LTD and the Yonkerman
Consumption Remedy Company, manufacturer of the tonic 'Tuberculozyne'. In 1911 he had
developed and patented a gasoline carburetor, and among his other personal involvements
were a roller rink and movie theater (The Kalamazoo Amusement Palace), and a corset
manufacturing company, the Kalamazoo Corset Company.
The trade name of the "Kalamazoo Tackle
Company" was reinstated by the Shakespeare Company in 1935 for the purpose of
manufacturing a line of less expensive baitcasting and flyfishing reels, allowing
Shakespeare to sell directly to dealers, eliminating the "jobbers" or
distributors and keeping the costs and prices down where they could compete with the other
discount brands on the market. This new division added 20,000 feet of factory space and
was supervised by Monroe.
In 1939 the Shakespeare Company introduced Mr.
Shakespeare's latest reel concept and design, the "Wondereel", which incorporate
several new features including an automatic compensating adjustment cap on the spool end
bearings, and improved drag mechanism.
During the Second World War the skilled
Shakespeare craftsmen worked around the clock on National Defence Work, and used their
precision machines to make the Norden bomb sights, the Sperry .50 caliber automatic
computing sights, self-locking irreversible quadrants for naval planes, and flexible
controls for tanks. The company was awarded three of the prestigious Army/Navy
"E" awards for excellence along with a Silver Star for its role in helping the
war effort. Post war production resumed the manufacture of the choke controls for
carburetors at the Products Company.
In 1944, Dr. Arthur M. Howald, Technical
Director for the Plaskon Division of Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company, was on a trout
fishing trip in northern Michigan when he broke the tip of his pet bamboo rod. Because
replacement tips were impossible to obtain during the war, he used his knowledge of glass
fibre/Plaskon resin fabrication to attempt a replacement tip of fiberglass. Although it
proved to be satisfactory, he continued to experiment with rods made entirely of
fiberglass. Dissatisfied with these results, he revealed his experiments to Mr.
Shakespeare's son, Henry Shakespeare, the Company's new Vice President and General
Dr. Howald asked Henry what the ideal rod
should cast like, and Henry told him that no one had yet made an ideal rod, since each
fisherman and each fishing situation would require a different rod action in order to be
considered "ideal". Dr. Howald then wanted to meet with the foremost authorities
on fly rod casting and rod design. He met with Paul H. Young, the famous bamboo rod maker
from Detroit, on the North Branch of the Au Sable river, and later with Henry's friend
Charles Ritz of France. Howald returned from these meetings with the impression that there
was room for two more flyrod authorities, namely Henry and himself.
Patent rights were secured to produce the
world's first fiberglass fishing rod, the "Howald Glastik Wonderod", and Henry
put the Shakespeare Company back into the rod making business.
At the Tackle Manufacturer Association meeting
that year, the president of the Montague Rod Company asked Henry if he was not making a
big mistake in thinking that the American angler would abandon split-bamboo for a
fiberglass rod costing nearly sixty dollars, and speculated that perhaps they might sell
fifteen or twenty rods in the first year. "We already have orders for that many
thousand!" Henry replied.
The first "Wonderod" test rods were
made as flyrods, made up from natural gray colored fiberglass blanks and had bright nickel
silver ferrules. The first "Wonderods" to appear on the market in 1947 were
bait-casting rods, since casting rod tapers were easily designed, and flyrod tapers were
more complex. Flyrod Wonderods were available to the public later that same year. These
first production "Wonderods" fly rods were model #1390, a 8-1/2 ft. three piece
weighing under five ounces, and model #1290 7'9" two piece weighing three and
one-half ounces. Both sported the now familiar milky-white colored fiberglass shaft with
the spiral markings of the cellophane wrap, and featured a genuine agate stripping guide,
serrated nickel-silver ferrules finished in black, and a ring hook keeper.
By 1949, there were two more flyrod Wonderods
added to the product line; Model #1288 7 foot Fly/Spin combination weighing four and one
half ounces , and model #1289 7'3" weighing 3.4 ounces.
For the purpose of product testing, and
possibly a little bit of publicity, the top section of a fiberglass Wonderod was attached
to the main door of the Kalamazoo offices, so that the rod would flex each time the door
Old Bill Shakespeare was justly proud of his
new Wonderods, and never passed up an opportunity to demonstrate his rods' ability to
withstand the strain of being flexed in a tip-to-butt arch. During one such session of
showmanship at the factory, the rod fractured at the ferrule, and an embarrassed Mr.
Shakespeare marched down to the office of the plant manager with the splintered rod in his
clenched fist, and made his displeasure known.
Bamboo rods took a back seat to the new
fiberglass, and they were practically hidden on the last page of the Shakespeare catalog.
The Company no longer purchased bamboo rods to sell, and the ones which did appear in the
catalogs were residual stock only. The new Wonderod sold for $49.50, and the bamboo
Triumph, Premier, Au Sable and Spring Brook models sold for $15.00.
It was Henry who introduced the new
"President" Direct-Drive baitcasting reels, which were really more similar to
the original "Style C" reel first made over fifty years earlier by his father,
than the later quadruple geared reels that the "Style C" had evolved into.
In a "Swing to Spin" Henry introduced
spinning tackle to the Shakespeare line in the early '50s with his patented closed face
spinning reel, the Model 1810, which could be mounted below the hand on a fly rod. His
father was not as enthusiastic about spin fishing, and had once commented on the new
technique, saying "Hell, that ain't fishin'."
The notion that William Shakespeare Jr. was a
Communist may surprise some, but was by no means a secret at the time. The national mood
after the Great Depression could have easily shifted to the political extreme of Communism
had it not been for the guidance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mr. Shakespeare's
corporate policies reflected his socialist beliefs through his commitment to his
employees' welfare, which was unknown by the vast majority of corporate managers in those
days. He initiated the first credit union for his workers, and a profit sharing plan that
split the profits between shareholder and employee. This resulted in a bonus of between
$100 and $300 dollars per year for each employee. During the depression years, he managed
to provide work for all his employees by reducing the hours that each worked. He also
provided Life and Medical Insurance for his workers. Mr. Shakespeare was elected to the
office of Mayor of Kalamazoo from 1933 to 1935, and was instrumental in the adoption of
many public policies, such as the Barter and Trade Commission, which allowed an
out-of-work man to maintain his dignity and provide for his family by swapping services
After the end of the Second World War the
Shakespeare Company entered a new era of prosperity, largely due to the ability of the
plant to quickly resume the manufacture of fishing tackle, but mostly to the developments
of the new fiberglass rods and popularity of past-time activity of spin fishing in general
by the returning soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
The new President of Shakespeare, Henry
Shakespeare, lead the Company during this prosperous era, allowing his father to spend
much of his time in Melbourne Florida fishing for sailfish and tarpon, and hunting
turkeys. Henry helped to oversee the purchase of the Soo Valley Line Company in
Estherville, Iowa. This acquisition enabled the Shakespeare Company to manufacture the new
"Wexford" braided nylon fishing line, and flylines.
In 1948 Mr. Shakespeare remarried for the third
time to Mrs. Alice Rebecca Jeska, herself a widow since 1925, and an acquaintance whom he
had known for more than 20 years through mutual friends. He used this "retirement/
honeymoon" to start two new business ventures, the Melbourne Broadcasting Company,
and the Federal Home Mortgage Association.
It was the turkey hunting that truly captured
William Shakespeare Jr.'s interests in his later years. Evening hours were spent sitting
in his favorite red leather chair testing his handmade cedar turkey call boxes, and the
house would be filled with the sounds of sandpaper and 'squaaks'. His turkey call may have
proved to be too good in fact, for he was accidentally shot by one of his hunting
partners, and took several pellets in the leg.
The darkest chapter of the Company's history
unfolded on September 7th of 1948, when the Steelworkers Union (CIO), of which only 30-40%
of the employees belonged, declared a strike against the Shakespeare Company. The
Management didn't recognize the Union as a representative of the majority, and the
contract with the Union was ended. All employees were invited back to work on September
Picketers clashed with "scab"
employees on October 11th at the entrance gate, and several employees were injured. Then
on December 1st a mob of 300 attacked the factory and wrecked the plant. Cars and trucks
were overturned and set ablaze. Windows throughout the factory and office were smashed.
Huge inventories of reel parts were destroyed. Michigan's Governor Sigler was flown in and
the National Guardsmen were put on alert. On September 21st of 1949 the courts ruled that
the strike was illegal, and picketing ended on October 10th.
Dismayed over the fact that so many of the
employees had turned against him, Mr. Shakespeare retreated to his winter home in
Melbourne Florida, where he died a few months later on June 25th, 1950.
Henry moved the Soo Valley Line Company from
Iowa to Columbia, S.C. where the rod factory was already producing Wonderods and
fiberglass radio antennas.
The Shakespeare Push-button Wondercast Reel was
introduced in 1957, and the company was so certain that it would gain wide appeal to men,
women, and children that it launched a special advertising campaign showing how easy it
was to use. The revolutionary design for the Wondercast was a collaboration between Henry
Shakespeare and his top reel engineers Earl Clickner and Dale Harrington.
The first folding bail style spinning reel was
added to the catalog in 1959, and in that same year the Shakespeare Company acquired the
assets of Parabow Archery, Inc. of Waverly, Ohio, and began manufacturing Shakespeare
fiberglass and wood bows and other archery accessories.
By 1960, the Shakespeare Company was a leader
in fiberglass development in the United States and expanded into a variety of fiberglass
The reel manufacturing facility was moved from
the Kalamazoo plant to Fayetteville, Arkansas and began operations on January 1st, 1965.
At the same time, a new 1.5 million dollar factory was built in Newberry, South Carolina
which became Shakespeare Electronics and Fiberglass. Later that same year the Noris
Shakespeare Ltd. of England was established on July 31st, through the acquisitions of S.
Allock & Co. Ltd. and J. W. Young & Sons, of Redditch. Crawford Gordon was elected
as the new President of the Shakespeare Company, with Henry staying on as Chairman of the
The next major expansion moves were the
purchases of the Pflueger Company of Akron, Ohio in 1966, and of the trolling motor
manufacturer, Phantom Products and the Plymouth Golf Ball Company in 1968. Also at this
time, Shakespeare opened a new warehouse facility in Orillia, Ontario Canada. Winpull
Fishing Accessories of Hong Kong now manufactured baits and other terminal tackle for the
Company, and Stephen Trewhella succeeded Charles Crawford as the new Company President.
Saddles and equestrians supply manufacturer
Simco Leather Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Root Archery Company of Grand Rapids,
Michigan became the next acquisitions in 1969.
The Company's headquarters were moved from
Kalamazoo to Columbia, and an arrangement was made with the Omori Manufacturing Company, a
leading Japanese producer of fine quality reels, to build Shakspeare's new spinning reels,
and the new lightweight "President II" baitcasting and flyreels. The Shakespeare
research and development team was performing experiments with graphite in the early 1970's
when the material was first made available to the industry. However, at that time,
graphite sold at $1,500.00 per pound. Henry Shakespeare was able to get his hands on some
of the new material at no cost from a friend in the industry, and this provided them with
enough graphite to complete a few prototype rods.
In 1971, Mr. Trewhella made arrangements for
Shakespeare to market the skis of the Elan Ski Company of Yugoslavia across the U.S. and
Simpson Electronics was acquired in 1974 for
the production of depthfinders, and by 1975, Shakespeare was producing its own
"Graphlite" fly rod as well as supplying the Orvis Company of Manchester Vermont
with graphite blanks for their own series of graphite rods, during the short period in
which Orvis converted its fiberglass rod facility to graphite rod production. The
extremely popular fiberglass/graphite "Ugly Stik" made its debut in 1976 and
annual corporate sales quickly exceeded the 100 million dollar mark, becoming the most
popular line of fishing rods that Shakespeare ever produced. Even the "CB" radio
craze had become a windfall for the company, as fiberglass CB antennas exceeded the number
of fiberglass fishing rods being made.
But by now, the "recession" had
forced Shakespeare to discontinue its archery and golfing lines, and many of the
acquisitions that were made over the past 20 years were also being discontinued.
In February 1980, Anthony Industries of California acquired a majority of Shakespeare
stock and voted these shares in a successful takeover of the Shakespeare Company. Shortly
after, Shakespeare's President Stephen Trewhella and Vice president Ben Hardesty resigned,
and the new owners restructured the management, closing the Fayetteville Arkansas reel
plant and moving its operations to Columbia, S.C.
Early in 1994, the Shakespeare Electronics and
Fiberglass Division assembled a team consisting of plant personnel, marketing experts,
outside consultants, and the Southeast Manufacturing Technology Center at the University
of South Carolina, to begin a new product development project using new approaches and
technologies. With assistance from the university, fishing rod design criteria could now
be quantified and computer simulated, rather than the old empirical methods of design
which relied heavily on trial-and-error methods to make improvements. The results of this
collaboration was the creation of a new rod design, 15-20% lighter, yet stronger, with a
reduction in diameter of 25-30%. Shakespeare is once again regarded as an innovator and
market leader in fiberglass reinforced products.