Published July 9th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Long before Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s came onto the scene, Kansas City was a hub for the manufacture and sale of fishing tackle.
Shops concentrated in the modern day downtown area lured fishermen from near and far back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Everything from hand-carved lures to highly sought fishing reels to the first fiberglass rods were made there. And sporting-goods giants such as Schmelzer’s at 1214-1218 Grand Blvd. sold about every type of fishing tackle made.
The variety of lures and tackle available pales in comparison to what is available today. But in its day, it was impressive and helped label Kansas City as a fishing town.
“I don’t think it was just Kansas City customers,” said Mike Pollock of Buckner, Missouri, who collects vintage Missouri fishing tackle. “From what I have read, there were a lot of wealthier people who traveled to fish.
“With the Ozarks halfway close, they would stop in Kansas City on their way to buy lures, flies or equipment.”
Let’s hop into the time machine and take a tour.
It’s 1900 and you’re looking for something unique to bait your hook. So you head to 920 Wyandotte St., where Lutz Pork Bait Co. is located. There, jars of pork strips floating in a solution to keep them moist are made. They are advertised as pork frogs and they’re in demand. Slogans such as “Action that gets ’em for all game fish” helped lure business.
Down the street and around the corner, the Arnold Manufacturing Co. at 2328 Brooklyn Ave. also was part of Kansas City’s early fishing trade. The company, established in 1918, made casting weights that could be tied onto the line to increase casting efficiency of the early fishing rods.
“Most of the early reels couldn’t cast very far, nor were the rods very efficient,” said Jack Looney, a longtime collector of fishing tackle. “So companies such as Arnold sold weights to tie onto the line above the lure to get more distance and accuracy with your cast.”
In the early 1900s, the Cadillac of fishing reels was made in Kansas City. Designed by watchmaker William H. Talbot, the high-end reels were first made in Nevada, Missouri, from 1892 to 1913. But the company then moved to 314 E. 8th St. in Kansas City and continued until 1920, when it was sold to a Chicago-based company. The reels were known for their beauty as well as their smooth function. The top-of-the-line model featured sapphire jewels and an ivory handle.
The Shuff Jack Snipe was an early lure that drew attention to Kansas City. Hand-carved by William H. Shuff in the Livestock Exchange Building, the lures were crude without much detail and only sold in limited quantities. The patent was issued in 1918. What makes the Shuff Jack Snipe most popular with collectors was the box they came in. That box included a drawing of a snipe, and the slogan “It fools ’em all by its action.”
In the early 1900s, Kansas City was big in the fly-fishing market. Not only did several companies make flyrods, unique flies also were tied and sold. The Naturalure Artificial Bait Co., 2606 Olive St., made flies with featured bodies made of wood and cork wrapped in chenille and wings made of hair or feathers.
The Schmelzer Arms Co. was like an early day Bass Pro Shop. The store at 1214-1218 Grand Blvd. was advertised as one of the largest sporting-goods stores in the nation. An early promotional postcard showed a multi-story building that advertised featured items including fishing tackle, firearms, fireworks, cutlery, athletic goods, bicycles, Kodaks and toys. The business was incorporated in 1896.
“Schmelzer Arms dominated the market here in Kansas City from the turn of the century until it burned down in 1933,” Looney said. “The company put out fantastic catalogs, with hand-drawn art from staff artists. Those are still big collectibles.”
Fairfax Engineering Co., 2201 W. 29th St., Kansas City, Kansas, made the first solid fiberglass fishing rod in the 1940s. An offshoot named Phantom Products later carried on the sale, development and marketing of the rods and other products, including a trolling motor it produced.
Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, other Kansas City companies made popular lures. One of Looney’s favorites is the Smitty Crawpappy, a plug carved from mahogany, cherry and walnut wood with different models designed to dive to designated depths.
Made by farmers from Cameron, Missouri, the baits were sold under the company name Smith & Yelton. They were distributed in Kansas City in the 1930s.
But the farmers had no intention of getting rich off their invention. The Smitty Crawpappy weren’t widely distributed.
Looney and Pollock both have large collections of Missouri-made lures, the boxes they came in, and catalogs.
Both avid fishermen, they are intrigued by the history of the Kansas City fishing tackle made to hook not only the fish, but the fishermen as well.
“Kansas City has an interesting history when it comes to fishing,” Looney said. “It’s fun to think about what downtown Kansas City looked like years ago.
“I wouldn’t say we were a major hub nationally for the manufacture of fishing equipment, but Kansas City inventors definitely had an impact on the industry.”
Flatland contributor Brent Frazee is a Kansas City based outdoors writer.