Frankfort Reels: Important Contribution to Fishing History and Industry

Frankfort Reels: Important Contribution to Fishing History and Industry
Frankfort Reels: Important Contribution to Fishing History and Industry

An exhibit at the Capital City Museum in downtown Frankfort features reels made by the four major Frankfort reel makers; their work made the Frankfort reel synonymous with being among the best fishing reels in the world

Many anglers in Kentucky don’t realize our state’s rich contribution to fishing technology and angling history.

Those who use a baitcasting reel to flip a 1/2-ounce black and blue jig to an isolated stump owe a debt of gratitude to Kentucky’s capital city.

“The multiplying reel was refined and perfected in Frankfort, Kentucky,” said John Downs, curator of Capital City Museum in Frankfort. “The reels created by these jewelers were exquisitely crafted pieces. They were highly prized possessions.”

Anyone interested in old reels or fishing history should take a day during the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays and visit the Capital City Museum at 325 Ann St. in downtown Frankfort. Downs and the Capital City Museum opened an exhibit in early November displaying an array of rare, superbly maintained Frankfort, also called Kentucky, reels.


“We have examples of all four of the major Frankfort reel makers: J.L. Sage, the Meek brothers, Benjamin C. Milam and George Gayle,” Downs explained. “All of them apprenticed with the Meek brothers.”


Jonathan F. Meek opened a jewelry business in the early 1830s in downtown Frankfort. After an apprenticeship in Danville, his brother Benjamin F. Meek joined him in 1835 to make fine jewelry. In 1837, Ben Milam joined the firm and would make his mark in the Kentucky fishing reel industry.


Judge Mason Brown came into the Meek brothers’ shop in the early years of their business to have a fishing reel repaired. He was not satisfied with the performance of his broken reel and insisted the Meek brothers make a new reel for him.

The Meeks traveled to Danville to use the only metal cutting engine in Kentucky at the time to fashion the wheels for the spool. They finished the reel with the same care and precision as the most expensive watch.

Delighted with the results, Judge Brown showed all of his friends his great new fishing reel. Requests for more fishing reels spurred the Meek brothers to order a metal lathe and other tools from Switzerland for reel making. These tools were not available in the United States at that time.


Judge Brown’s request spawned an industry where reels made in Frankfort were known throughout the world for their quality. “These reels were completely handmade,” Brown said. “They could only produce a handful a month.”

They also cost a pretty penny.

“Considering in 1861 a Union soldier made only $13.60 a month, these reels mainly went to those with some means,” Downs said. An 1860 ad for B.C. Milam showed his smallest and lowest-end brass reel cost $13, a month’s pay for a soldier.


Milam eventually took over the fishing reel making and the Meek and Milam reels became known all over the country and Europe for their precision, durability and performance. An early Kentucky history book said that U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt all owned reels made by the firm.

“We have an 1850s era Meek and Milam reel that still spins like new,” Downs said.

The exhibit has the metal lathe on display the Meek brothers ordered from Switzerland to make reels. Milam later acquired the lathe for his reel making and it eventually passed to the Frankfort reel maker George Gayle.

The Frankfort reels borrowed their basic design from reels made by George Snyder, who migrated to Paris, Kentucky, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1803. He established a watchmaking and silversmith business.

Single action fishing reels in the early 1800s only retrieved line in a 1-to-1 ratio, forcing an angler to reel extremely quick while fighting a fish. The fighting ability of the smallmouth bass in Stoner Creek that flows through Paris influenced Snyder to build the world’s first multiplying reel before 1820. By using multiplying gearing, the spool on Snyder’s early reels spun three times with each turn of the handle. This allowed him to keep up with a hard charging smallmouth bass determined to throw his hook.

Fishing has not been the same since. Later Snyder reels employed a 4.3-to-1 ratio which became almost an industry standard for more than a century. Many saltwater reels still use this ratio today.

Visitors to this incredible exhibit can see the pieces of art these gifted reel makers created in Frankfort.

“The idea for this came about in 2013 when Frankfort hosted the Old Reel Collectors Association’s national convention,” Downs said. “The exhibit is an offshoot of this convention.”

The Capital City Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Editor’s Note: Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

Bass

Baitfish for Bass: Search, Suspend or Sink Crankbaits

Jason Houser - May 21, 2019

Crankbaits mimic exactly what they eat when hungry — other fish!

Fishing How-To

Your Guide for the Best Catfish Baits

G&F Staff

If you've been catching catfish with the same method for years, it's time to change it up and...

Trout & Salmon

How to Catch the Biggest Trout in the Stream

David Paul Williams

Several factors need to be evaluated before reaching a conclusion about what fly, lure or...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

MLF Pros: What's Your Go-To Lure?

When all else fails, here's what these pros tie on.

Lure Lock Options Includes LED Light Boxes & More

Pro angler Jonathan VanDam showcases new offerings at ICAST 2019, including the ultra-thin, big bait boxes, LED-lighted boxes and backpack-able gear lockers. With Game & Fish Editorial Director Adam Heggenstaller at ICAST 2019 in Orlando.

Berkley's Frittside Crankbaits

World Fishing Network show host Chad LaChance had a chance to visit with legendary crankbait master David Fritts about his new Frittside crankbaits from Berkley. LaChance, host of the Fishful Thinker on WFN, also got a few cranking tips from Fritts, the former Classic and Forrest Wood Cup champion.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Other Freshwater

3 Deadly Bait Rigs For Stripers

J.B. Kasper - April 21, 2005

The colder waters of early spring are prime times to use bait rigs for stripers.

Wild Game

10 Memorial Day Recipes for Your Outdoor BBQ

OutdoorChannel.com Staff

Celebrate the start of summer with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these...

Catfish

Understanding Catfish Spawning

Keith Sutton - June 06, 2006

Unlike many game fish, catfish can be harder to catch during the spawn. Here are some...

See More Stories

More News

News

Outdoors World Mourns Loss of President George H.W. Bush

Lynn Burkhead - December 05, 2018

On this National Day of Mourning after the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st...

News

Game & Fish Magazine Names New Editorial Director

G&F Online Staff - May 23, 2019

Adam Heggenstaller takes over after 14 years with NRA Publications.

News

Summer Angling Adventures

The Revolution with Jim & Trav

This week on "The Revolution with Jim and Trav", we're talking Summer Angling Adventures with...

See More News

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×