The Fortunes of a Man and a Rod

Fishing tackle is big business in a Vermont village, but the boss gives it an angler's touch
April 24, 1961

In an age of mass production of sporting gear made from synthetic materials, the Charles F. Orvis Company of Manchester, Vt. is remarkable in two ways: it makes fishing rods out of a natural bamboo (called tonkin), grown in China, and the rods are processed by hand. The enterprise is a profitable one, so much so that it is second only to the resort business in Manchester, and in that area of Vermont resorts are the major industry. Established by a native Manchesterite 105 years ago, the Orvis Company "belonged" to the village, which lies in the southwestern corner of the state between the Taconic and Green mountains. So it was not surprising that residents of Manchester were a little aloof with him when an intruder from the South bought this famous old company for a mere $3,000 in 1939. But this lukewarm, almost chilly, reception failed to dismay Dudley Clarke (Duckie) Corkran, a former amateur golfer and a native of Baltimore whose fishing experiences were limited to an occasional "grub-dipping expedition for gudgeon in Maryland's streams." Today, the town considers him almost a native, for he has attracted thousands of fishermen to Manchester.

Since 1856, when Charles F. Orvis turned his hobby of rod-making into a full-time business, anglers have admired the balance, durability and feel of a lively Orvis bamboo rod. Corkran turns out some 2,500 of these hand-processed rods in 70 different weight-and-length combinations each year. The Orvis rod is used by the dedicated fly fisherman who casts for trout on Oregon's Rogue River; the patient plug caster working Lake Okeechobee in Florida for largemouth bass and the surf caster spinning for striped bass in Truro, Mass. The rods range in price from a $52.50 bait-casting stick to a $190 heavy duty 14½-footer for big Atlantic salmon.

At 65, Corkran's stature as a businessman is larger than his 5-foot-5 height would suggest. In 1949, 10 years after he purchased the company from Albert Orvis, Corkran sold $136,000 worth of fishing tackle. And in 1960 he had total sales amounting to $451,000, considerably behind two flush years in the 1950s.

Every rod is numbered

A bespectacled man with a complexion like a Vermont McIntosh apple, Corkran studied civil engineering at Princeton. He toured as a leading amateur golfer in the 1920s and was medalist with 142 for 36 holes during the 1924 U.S. Amateur at Merion Cricket Club. Later, he was a salesman, draftsman and stockbroker before taking over the Orvis Company. His wife, "Skippie," is in charge of the expensively illustrated catalog, which reaches more than 65,000 sportsmen.

Since early 1940, Corkran has inscribed a serial number on every Orvis tonkin rod. "We're over 30,000 already," he says, "and in most cases we know who owns a particular rod, where he fishes and even his success as an angler."

The original Orvis factory, a long narrow barnlike building on Union Street, still houses the company's rod-making machinery. It stands less than 300 feet from the giant oak trees which shade stately colonial houses on Route 7, Manchester's main street. It was in this old frame structure that Charles F. Orvis first turned out his long split-bamboo rods with wire guides.

The new Orvis process consists of cementing and saturating strips of tonkin cane with Bakelite phenolic cement, a synthetic resin which strengthens and seals the tonkin. The process was devised by Wesley D. (West) Jordan, Orvis' 67-year-old vice-president, who first turned out handmade rods in 1919 and who joined Corkran after 20 years of manufacturing rods on a mass product ion scale. Orvis turns out about 45 custom tonkin rods per week, and Jordan follows each one through its entire manufacture, endlessly testing the bamboo for limberness and resiliency. Orvis uses only select tonkin cane, cultivated in a limited area north of Canton, China. First used by rod makers shortly before 1900, tonkin has not been imported into the U.S. since 1950. But Corkran has enough prewar-grade bamboo for about 50,000 rods. At Orvis' present rate of production the bamboo, stored in three Manchester barns, will last 20 years. Corkran doesn't plan to increase his present rate of 2,500 rods a year.

After years of experimentation, Jordan developed the Orvis process in 1942 and first tested it a year later when Corkran acquired a government contract to make 5,000 bamboo ski poles for the Army. Working with a bamboo expert from the Smithsonian Institution, Jordan treated every bamboo commercially available. He found that no bamboo could match tonkin for strength and liveliness.

Fishermen are sometimes invited to tour Corkran's office on the second floor of the Orvis factory and examine intriguing displays of old Orvis rods, flies and factory relics. The collection includes the original U.S. patents for the first fly reel with perforated side plates, designed to dry out the line and lighten the weight of the reel, and the first locking reel seat. Modifications of both designs are found on most modern-day rods. Under a glass-topped table is a bedraggled salmon fly of undistinguishable pattern that caught 249 pounds of trout in Quebec's Grand Cascapedia. Among the hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with animal fur and bird feathers for tying flies, Corkran discovered the lifelike body of a parrot, mummified in moth flakes and lying in a nest of feathers. In the attic is a collection of photographs taken in the late 1880s. One shows men in bowler hats and ladies in hoop skirts casting flies with long bamboo rods on Montana's Yellowstone River. Surrounded by original Orvis fly patterns, the collection won a gold medal in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Corkran has had numerous offers from exclusive anglers' clubs but will not sell the historic collection. In the tiny 1878 Orvis catalog a split-bamboo salmon rod 11 feet long and seven ounces in weight cost a grand total of $25. Today, the modern Orvis counterpart is still 11 feet but weighs an additional 3‚Öû ounces, can be equipped with a matching fly line and sells for $155.

Customers like the tryout pool
A favorite with all fishermen from the neophyte to the experienced fly-rod expert is a heart-shaped casting pool behind the ultramodern Orvis showroom. Filled with lunker brown and rainbow trout and fed by spring water from a tiny brook, the pool is used by customers trying out new rods. Corkran allows only barbless hook flies to be used in the pool. "That way we give the angler just enough of a thrill. He gets a live demonstration of the action of an Orvis rod, and the barbless hooks rarely injure the trout. Sales from the pool vary. We can almost always tell when a man is going to buy a rod or just try it out for fun. It's a gimmick—but fishermen just can't resist it." Neither can the local small fry, who each year poach a number of big trout on worms under cover of darkness, in spite of the night watchman.

PHOTO"Duckie" Corkran keeps track of customers and even the luck they have with Orvis rods.