Thursday, May 21, 2015

What a President brings to the River: A look inside Calvin Coolidge's Tackle Box

by Peter Nardini

Calvin Coolidge with his catch of the day

This past week we said goodbye to some of our favorite items on display in our Leigh Perkins Gallery, returning Calvin Coolidge’s fly tackle to the Calvin Coolidge State Historical Site in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. During the 1970s (and again in the 1990s), the site received a donation of a wooden packing crate full of Coolidge’s fly-fishing equipment. The staff made note of the contribution and intended to catalog the collection after buildings were renovated and exhibitions were installed. In the fall of 2010, after successfully opening a new visitor center, the site’s regional historic site administrator, Bill Jenney, contacted the American Museum of Fly Fishing for help with the identification of that fly-fishing collection. Yoshi Akiyama, deputy director, was called into service.

After several visits to the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site to unpack and identify the collection, Yoshi was able to witness firsthand the largest known fly-fishing collection belonging to President Calvin Coolidge. The collection includes several hundred trout flies, six bamboo rods, some leather fly boxes, and a few bait- and fly-casting reels. (Coolidge took a lot of flak from fly-fishing enthusiasts when he commented to the press that he would periodically use worms to catch trout.) None of the fly tiers can be identified, but it appears that some flies were store bought and some may have been tied specifically for the president.

We were fortunate enough to have a few of those items on display at the AMFF as part of our Wonders of Fly Fishing exhibition until last week. I helped Yoshi inventory and inspect the equipment and carefully wrapped it up for safe transport back to Plymouth, my hands shaking at the thought of being as close as I would probably ever come to a President or anything belonging to one. Among the first items laid out on the table were two Meisselbach reels owned by President Coolidge. Of all the items in the collection, these reels showed the most significant signs of wear. These were not simply thrown into the usual pile of unused gifts of state - the black finish on one reel in particular was chipped off in multiple places, an impressive feat considering that the President only used it for anywhere from 5 to 7 years. Calvin Coolidge had been a lifelong angler and picked up fly fishing in 1926 during a summer trip to the Adirondacks. By the time he vacationed in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1928 (for three months!) it had become a full-time obsession. His Secret Service Chief and Presidential Fishing Buddy, Edmund Starling, was a fly fishing enthusiast and hedged his bet that he would make President Coolidge a fly fisherman by making sure ahead of time that all of the places the President would be fishing were stocked full of trout. After duping stocked rainbows and taking fishing lessons, Calvin Coolidge had the fever, spending most of his presidential vacations fishing at many locations across the country – from Maine to Georgia and back again. In fact, in an excerpt from Grace Coolidge’s memoirs she writes: “Enthusiasm for the sport had so taken hold of him that at the close of the fishing season he was reluctant to give it up. He scanned the New York State fish and game laws and learned that while fishing was not permitted in the county in which we were living after the first of September, it was not prohibited in the adjoining county until Labor Day, a fact which was not known to the guide or to the caretaker of the camp, himself an ardent sportsman.” If Calvin Coolidge set out to catch a fish he was going to do so, not sacrificing his chance of success on the idea that fishing only with a fly rod was considered the “pure” way. In politics he was similarly removed of all pretense or snobbery, stepping up and providing the country with a stabilizing presence after President Warren Harding died in office then picking up and moving on despite calls for him to run for President. The allure of the Oval Office did not get to Calvin Coolidge.

Perhaps my favorite item in the collection is the most utilitarian piece of equipment. Rod cases don’t have the same appeal that rods, reels, and flies do; however, this case was the essential “Cool Cal”. The “Name” field the luggage tag reads very matter-of-factly, “The President”. If “duh” were an expression used back then it probably would have prefaced that title. The luggage tag also gives us clues as to Coolidge’s destination, Reynolds Mansion in Sapelo Island, Georgia. A summer retreat for the President in 1928, the mansion started as Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War. After being damaged by Union troops during the Civil War, the home was damaged and fell into disrepair. In 1912, construction of a rebuilt version of the house was started by Detroit automotive engineer Howard Coffin completing in 1925. A history of the home tells of Coolidge having a suite on the second floor complete with an office containing a phone line that was a direct connection to the White House and capitol. Secret service workers also stayed in rooms on either side of Coolidge during his stay. In the good old days the leader of the free world could actually get away with unplugging from the daily rigors of the presidency. Many of the early presidents including John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, and Coolidge turned to fly-fishing as their escape.

The piece that carried the most mystery in the collection was Coolidge’s tackle box. The box was not open on display in the gallery so I was excited and unsure what to expect when we opened it. We were surprised to find it virtually empty. On one side sat a couple of conventional trolling lures and everyman items such as some “No-Skeeto” mosquito repellant cream and a scale. As with most things in life, President Coolidge was a very precise man who left nothing to chance. There are many pictures of Coolidge fishing or holding up his catch, not because he was boastful but, according to friends’ accounts, he grew weary of the usual questioning of fish stories and wanted photos and detailed information to procure when called out on it – hence the scale in the tackle box. In today’s terms, Coolidge would be the modest guy with the GoPro who keeps most of his footage to himself and friends instead of publishing it on social media.

The other half of the President’s tackle box contained a case of silk fly line and two conventional tackle lures. These interesting jointed shrimp lures might have been used when fishing in the saltwater on Cape Cod (he was known to fish the ponds around that area for trout) but more likely on his trips to the Reynolds Mansion or the Cabin Bluff resort in Georgia, where he was known to frequent in the summer. While Calvin Coolidge’s tackle box did not reveal any hidden treasures or 24k gold lures (although there was a neat looking mother-of-pearl spinner in one of the compartments) it reinforced his simple persona as “just another” fisherman.

As President, Calvin Coolidge had an inherent advantage at acquiring fishing tackle and, in the few

short years that he did fly fish, he built an impressive quiver of six bamboo fly rods. Two of them, a 7’ H.L. Leonard “Baby Catskill” and a 6’6 Abercrombie & Fitch (yes, that Abercrombie & Fitch-believe me they were less about high fashion, shirtless models, and loud music back in the early 1900’s) both made of bamboo and in fantastic condition, were exhibited at the AMFF. Their length and action make them the quintessential rods for remote small-streams in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts that he fished often (he is also rumored to have been a member of the Mecawee Club in Vermont, where his fishing cap is on display). We passed one such stream on the way to Plymouth and I envisioned Coolidge hiking in and stalking wary Northeastern trout with the short bamboo fly rods just as I had the day before. We pulled up to the site, met with Bill Jenney, and Yoshi went over the list of items that were transferred. As the equipment sat still wrapped on a table, the papers were signed and just like that we bid farewell to a few fantastic loan items. It was fitting that the transfer only took minutes to complete, just as Coolidge would have done it- quick, straight, and to the point.

Coolidge's "Baby Catskill" fly rod

Whether good or bad, a lot of times the title of President dehumanizes the person behind it in a lot of people’s minds. In fact, Calvin Coolidge was an angling crazed man who scoured fishing reports and game laws, had a different rod for each occasion, and would use any method to catch fish if he thought it might work.

…Sound familiar?

Our Father, Julian Hall, was a boyhood friend of Pres. Calvin Coolidge.  Both were born and grew up in the little town of Plymouth, VT.  Their friendship continued over the years, during his Presidency and after.  Pres. Coolidge would always write to our Father, either from the White House or from his home in Northampton, Mass. to inform him of his forthcoming trips to Plymouth.  Both being avid fishermen, Pres. Coolidge would arrange a fishing trip.  Our Father was familiar with all of the trout streams in and around the Plymouth area, and Pres. Coolidge preferred to fish them.  This incident occurred on one of their trips.  Pres. Coolidge always would go ahead of our Father, trying his luck first. The Pres. wasn’t having any luck at all; the fish just weren’t taking his bait.  He glanced around to see how our Father was doing and, to his amazement, saw him pulling them in, one after another.  He turned to our Father and said, “Julian, how are you catching so many fish and I can’t even get a bite?”  To this our Father replied, “Well, Cal, I always use a whole worm on my hook!”

                                                           Norma Hall Vivier & Evelyn Hall Whittemore

Norma & Evelyn were long-time seasonal employees at the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site until 1991 (Evelyn) and 1995 (Norma).

Coolidge's flies in a Weber box

A gift to the President from "The Bug House of America" Butte, Montana, 1927
To date the best name for a fly tying business that I have ever heard.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Line Behind the Fly: The Curious Case of Ernest Hemingway

by Peter Nardini

Hemingway began fly fishing as a young boy

Part of the great privilege of working for a museum is the constant discovery, or re-discovery, of an exciting piece of history and the access to learn more about it. This one, however, was hiding in plain sight in our very own Leigh H. Perkins Gallery. In the gallery sits a lightly used Hardy Fairy fly rod, with cork still in impeccable shape, that was owned by one Ernest Miller Hemingway. The letter accompanying it paints perhaps the perfect picture of one of the greatest writers of our generation. It is common knowledge that Hemingway was an avid outdoorsman, but the literary man's man refused to fly-fish for trout. This is not because he was in pursuit of bigger gamefish, such as the giant marlin he so eloquently depicted in The Old Man and the Sea. This is also not to say that he gave up his childhood passion of fly-fishing altogether; he fished for other species on the fly, mainly saltwater. Rather, the reason he gave up fly fishing for trout is all thanks to a common snafu... as discussed by his son in this 1972 letter to Field and Stream Magazine.

It reads:

To  Whom it May Concern,

This rod, a Hardy Fairy, one of only two surviving items of trout fishing tackle, owned by my father the late Ernest Hemingway, is the one with which he fished on the lower Cottonwoods section of the Big Wood River on the one occasion that he trout fished here in Idaho. It and another rod, a John James Hardy in poor state of repair, were the only items of trout fishing tackle he had with him when he first came to Sun Valley in the Fall of 1939 along with reel and lines and few flies. The other items have since been lost and the balance of his tackle trunk full of flies and other tackle items were lost the following year by the Railway Express Company. (This date is to the best of my knowledge). He was very discouraged by the loss of his accumulation of many years and never trout fished again except for the one occasion mentioned above. The Hardy Fairy was always one of his favorites and with it he fished wet with Hardy Corona lines and a St. George reel, tapered gut casts, usually with two or three flies. His favorite three fly cast was a Woodcock Yellow and Green, for a dropper, Shrimp fly in the middle and a worm fly or Coch-y-bondhu for a tail fly. I hope that whoever bids on this rod successfully will give serious consideration to giving it, or having his estate give it eventually to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. 

Very Sincererely,

John H. N. Hemingway

The leisure equipment of a literary master
Hemingway was famous for using the "Iceberg" technique where his words on the surface were only a front to the hidden world of real hopes, fears, and feelings that his characters were experiencing. As with many things in Hemingway's life and literature, this letter also leaves so many questions to be asked. What made him change his mind agree to go trout fishing one more time in Idaho? Where did his lost equipment end up? One thing is for sure, however, the attendant that lost his luggage probably received one of the most eloquent talking to's in the history of talking to's (our condolences).

Friday, May 8, 2015

The 2015 Heritage Award honoring Tom Brokaw

Tom Brokaw Receives 2015 Heritage Award
by Peter Nardini

A Great Turnout
On April 24th the American Museum of Fly Fishing had the honor of presenting the 2015 Heritage Award to angler, conservationist, and journalist Tom Brokaw. Thanks to the help of a lot of amazing people we were able to put on one extremely successful fundraiser. A majority of the funds raised will go towards our upcoming exhibition On Fly in the Salt: American Saltwater Fly Fishing from the Surf to the Flats. We will be creating a museum exhibition as well as a traveling exhibition that will tour the country. An online exhibition will launch at the same time connecting the digital elements of the project and archiving the same equipment, flies, and stories on physical display. With a relatively new but vibrant history, an exhibition on saltwater fly fishing is a natural progression of the Museum’s mandate to document the evolution of the fly-rod sport through art, craft, industry, and conservation.

Attendees take a look at the silent auction items

I am...Spiderman!
We also had the privilege of having a few of our previous Heritage Award winners and fly fishing legends such as Joan Wulff and Lefty Kreh in attendance at the event. Our Honorary Event Chair Lefty Kreh introduced Mr. Brokaw, talking about their experiences on the Outdoor Channel program Buccaneers & Bones. Since meeting on the show the two have been inseparable and the admiration he has for Brokaw was very clear from Lefty’s speech. Lefty began with a story (he is well known for them- in this regard he rivals even Brokaw with all he has seen in fly fishing) and recounted how Tom McGuane asked how the first fishing trip with Brokaw, Lefty, and Michael Keaton went, to which their Bahamian guide responded that it was great - "I guided two guys with hearing aids and Spiderman". Brokaw then turned and said to Keaton, "Well, at least they got me right". The rest of the week the first actor to ever portray the caped crusader on the big screen was known around the cast and crew as “Spiderman”. The bond between the entire cast of Buccaneers & Bones has been tight but none like Tom Brokaw and Lefty Kreh. In fact, in Tom Brokaw's acceptance speech he mentioned that of all the people that he has had the privilege of meeting as a result of his profession he was always trying to figure out how he would get to know Lefty Kreh. Buccaneers & Bones provided that opportunity and Brokaw jumped on it. The rest, as they say, is history and it is apparent after only moments of seeing the two together in action that they share many of the same qualities.

Tom Brokaw and Lefty Kreh embrace. Brokaw compared Lefty to Michael Jordan and Sandy Koufax as masters of their craft. He spoke with great admiration about how Lefty goes about his work with such precision and perfection, keeping a grounded personality and constantly eager to teach at 90 years young.

The Speech
Mr. Brokaw was a gracious award recipient and his speech was exactly what one would expect a speech from Tom Brokaw to be- bringing a special blend of candidness and experience to every topic that he touched upon. Just as Lefty did in his introduction, Brokaw talked about the friends that he made on Buccaneers & Bones, Lefty in particular, and also commented on the importance of the media's role in advancing conservation through similar television programs. He also recalled his very first fly fishing outfit, an Orvis 6 weight, two sections of which currently reside at the bottom of the Snake River as a result of him feeling confident enough to show off his improving casting skills to a float trip that happened to be passing by. After his acceptance speech the tables were turned on Mr. Brokaw, as he became the interviewee for a change. His daughter Andie Brokaw Simon engaged him in a loose question and answer session, capping off the event with many thrilling fishing stories that spanned from his time at home with his grandchildren to close calls fishing abroad in Russia and other exotic places. 

"Part of the appeal to me is the camaraderie, the common cause that brings us together, the great idea that people can go out on the trout stream, the salmon river, the flats...or go to the far corners of the world and there you are with a fly rod and some kind of imitation fly and you are in a zone that is unlike anything else I've ever been in my lifetime. Hours go by, and you are surrounded by the most beautiful forms of life, not just in the water, but on top of the water and all around you. And it is, I think, the greatest kind of therapy that you can possibly imagine" - Tom Brokaw

The American Museum of Fly Fishing would like to thank all of those who made this such a special night in support of Mr. Brokaw and the Museum. Special thanks to Andie Brokaw Simon, Lefty Kreh, Nick Dawes, our Event Committee, and our auction donors. We are working to add more content from the event itself, including Mr. Brokaw's speech. In the meantime, check out the video below (part of our increased presence on YouTube and Vimeo) narrated by Andie Brokaw Simon and featuring tributes from Lester Holt, Tina Fey, Yvon Chouinard, Michael Keaton, and others.