1856: Charles F. Orvis Founds The Orvis Company in Manchester, Vermont
The ancestry of the Orvis family has been traced to hazy and incomplete records in sixteenth century England. The first known American Orvis was George, who emigrated from England to Farmington, Connecticut, sometime prior to 1640. From there the family name spread and has been associated with a remarkable variety of pastimes and professions. Five generations after George, on the eve of the nineteenth century, Levi Church Orvis was born in Brattleboro, Vermont. In his eighteenth year, during the presidency of James Madison, Levi moved west across the mountains to Manchester, where he met and married Electa Purdy. They had seven children, the fourth being named Charles Frederick Orvis.
In 1831, when Charles Orvis was born Revolutionary War veterans still lived to weave their magic tales of battles won; deep wild woods still bordered green pastures; and life in the Battenkill Valley still retained much of the flavor of frontier days. For all these romantic attachments, the rural economy tempered its children to self reliance. Charles Orvis developed an uncommon practical inventiveness along with an unusual business acumen. By his twentieth birthday he was skilled with hand and machine tools and had mastered the basics of mechanical engineering.
Charles, like many rural boys, developed an interest in field sports early. Later in life his enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits would be revealed in mature ways, such as his support of improved fisheries management and deer laws, but as a youth he still had much to learn. A major event was his first encounter with a skilled fly fisherman:
I remember- well my first trout; I remember as well, the first fine rod and tackle I ever saw, and the genial old gentleman who handled them I had thought I knew how to fish with the fly; but when I saw my old friend step into the stream and make a casts I just wound that line of mine right around the "pole" I had supposed was just right, and I followed an artist (I never used that "pole" again ) I devoted my time that afternoon to what to me was a revelation, and the quiet, cordial way in which the old gentleman accepted my admiration and the pleasure he evidently took in lending to me a rod until I could get one, is one of the pleasant things I shall always retain in memory.
Before long young Charles was building his own rods, for himself and a few friends.
Both Charles and his brother Franklin were quickly involved in the tourist trade. In 1853, Franklin opened the hotel that became the famous Equinox House, and in 1861 Charles built the Orvis Hotel, on the same street as his brother's establishment. Throughout their lives both promoted the resort business which would be so important to Charles' interests in the fishing tackle business.
The tourist trade was brisk enough for Charles to turn his hobby of rod building into a business. In 1856, he formed the C. F. Orvis Company, with sales rooms in a small stone building next to his brother's Equinox Hotel. The Orvis family prospered as the trains brought ever-increasing numbers of tourists from New York and other cities to Manchester. These customers were the best advertisement possible for the new fishing tackle company. The well made rods and flies that were carried home by affluent sportsmen generated repeat orders by mail.
The community of Manchester, surrounded by the Green Mountains, was gaining recognition as a fine resort area. Eventually it became a prominent summering spot for New Yorkers, but before the Civil War, it was still struggling for recognition. Later in the nineteenth century, an old-timer would remember its condition with amusement:
(Travis had just started his summer resort the "Equinox", the Equinox Pond had just been built, and the road down to the railroad called Union Street was just being built They expected to have a railroad station, but the cars would not stop, and as there were no nets to catch the passengers when they jumped, it failed Many thought that Orvis's mission of making Manchester a summer resort was only a vision and predicted failure but it was not, for he succeeded beyond all expectation and made it a paying business, and also brought the water from Mt. Equinox that used to be thought unfit to drink and sold it. Verily, perseverance and pluck are rewarded
By 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War, the Orvis Company had firmly established itself as a manufacturer of solid wood rods of superior quality. It also was becoming noted for its wide selection of flies, and had started a promising mail order business.
The war temporarily halted expansion, but by the 1870s the company's prospects had brightened. Taking advantage of a growing network of railroads, thousands of sportsmen could travel to faraway lakes and streams. Increased orders for fishing tackle prompted Charles to relocate his business in the now-historic white frame building on Union Street, across the square from his first location. With characteristic thoroughness and caution, Charles Orvis began to explore the ways in which he could improve both his business and his products.
Charles Orvis's inquiring mind asked all the right questions, and got a near-pearfect answer, when he developed his new fly reel. Up to this day fly reels were an odd category in fishing tackle. Many people simply used casting reels. In the 1850s and 1860s a number of bird-cage shaped affairs, mounted sideways on the rod (as are modern automatic reels) appeared on the market. These allowed the silk and hair lines of that day to dry more easily, but still did not satisfy all of the fly fisher's special needs.
In 1874 Orvis received a patent on a new design in fly reels. Patent Number 150,883 is now regarded as a milestone in American fishing tackle history. The 1874 reel was in some ways a major break with previous reel design. Its spool was narrow, quite unlike most fly reels then in use. The perforations on the side plates, which lightened the reel considerably, permitted air circulation through the line when it was on the spool. As the patent claimed, "A current of air is continually forcing itself through the wound-up line, and all mildew and rot thereby avoided, as under these circumstances the line soon becomes thoroughly dried."
Orvis sent an introductory model to Charles Hallock, the editor of Forest and Stream. Hallock loved it:
"C. F. Orvis, the celebrated rod maker of Manchester, Vermont, has sent us a beautiful German Silver, perforated trout reel, which he is now manufacturing, the most unique we have seen, and we might say, equal to any other reel in its various features. In some respects it is unlike other reels, and the improvements which the patents cover are quite marked. It is a narrow reel; its diameter is larger in proportion to its width than is usual, so that it winds more rapidly and lays the line more evenly than if the spool or cylinder were wider. Its perforations make it quite light—yet heavy enough to balance the line comfortably, and also serves to dry the line rapidly by admitting circulation of air. For our own preferences we should wish a click but others would think differently. It is a pretty toy, as well as a useful implement and can be carried in a very small space by unshipping the crank. Price is $5.00 in case..."
By the summer of 1875, Hallock's preference for a click was honoured.
As hard as he searched for better products, and as fine as some were, it was his understanding of the angling market that made him a success. His approach to advertising was unusual in his field, since after 1872 he relied almost completely on his catalog. In the following years very few of his ads were found in the popular periodicals of the day, at a time when most major dealers advertised regularly in those magazines.
We must put the Orvis business enterprise in context with Charles' other concerns, one of which was conservation. Just as many modern tackle companies take an active interest in protecting the resources on which their sport is based, Orvis was an enthusiastic supporter of enlightened fish and game management. Among his friends were distinguished fish culturists like Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, Seth Green, Fred Mather, and A. Nelson Cheney. Such friendships enabled him to follow conservation events closely, and take an active part in the dialogue. He began an Orvis tradition by his almost proprietary attitude about the Battenkill. As earily as 1882 he observed that the river was troubled by siltation, too many anglers, and not enough protective management, and became an active compaigner on behalf of the river and its needs. And so his tackle experimentation, which was nurtured and encouraged by his many associations in other circles, went hand in hand with his civic and conservation interests.
In 1883 Charles Orvis co-edited an important new book, Fishing with the Fly: Sketches by Lovers of the Art, with Illustrations of Standard Flies, "collected by Charles F. Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney." It was a cloth bound book of 333 pages, the ocver lettered in gold, containing twenty four articles by well known fly fishers and lavishly illustrated with colored plates of 149 standard, trout, bass and salmon flies.
It was really an irresistible catalog, a "forever book" in which the authors took the reader by the hand and introduced him to trout streams he would never see, let him shake hands with outdoor writers he would never meet, and give him the opportunity to drink in the beauty of flies seductively arranged for his appreciation and appraisal.
Fishing with the Fly was one of the best of America's angling books for it reflected an age when the American fly fisher was developing his own graces. He was a sportsman tourist anxious for the full creel, yet at the same time the deep woods and waters became pastorals he could remember. Certainly both Orvis and Cheney were sensitive to the sportsman's love of nature and perceptive in their understanding of his environment. Adjacent to each page of colour plates were quotations from angling literature, many taken from authors who had contributed to Fishing with the Fly. The book was so well received that it was continued in print for four editions. At the same time, the use of colour was promoting sales for a wide variety of artificial flies. For $2.50, as the annual catalog stated, the purchaser enjoyed "colored illustrations, the most correct and the finest ever produced."
Still, as good as it was, Fishing with the Fly was only the prelude to a later, greater, book that would establish for Orvis at least artistic supremacy in the commercial fly tying world, and bring enduring acclaim to another Orvis, named Mary.
Charles's two surviving sons, Robert and Albert, took complete charge of the company after their father's death in 1915.