Reuben Wood Forrest Stream
In this Reuben Wood Forrest Stream article from 1896 Vol. 47 we see an account from Mr Fred Mather about fishing with Reuben Wood. One of my favorite pieces that Ill share from later is a 1897 catalog from his fishing tackle company, its a bit worse for wear on the cover, but the content (important stuff) is still intact. I know it looks like a long read, but truly its not. Learning about our American Angling past is part of our duties of anglers, and fishing lure and reel collectors. Its our job to be able to pass this stuff on, as much as it is our job to teach the kids to fish. If no one recants our fishing history it will become like most things now a days, and will become disposable. I know most are here to see the pictures of shinny tough baits, and reels, and I promise they will continue to come. I think that sandwiched in between the lures and reels you’ll enjoy taking a step back in time with me to see with the ads, or read with the stories. I promise there is some really cool stuff out there besides the Heddon 150’s in wood box. You don’t have to come all the way back 125-150 years to find history either, that is just where I enjoy digging around. Take whatever you collect and ask, learn,read and tell others about it and this hobby as much as you can.
You’ll see that Reuben Wood was quite an angler of his period who kept kinship with some pretty famous people such as Mr. Wells from Wells Fargo. Even more yet he would befriend folks like Spencer Baird, who if you’ve done some reading about early American history you will remember him, he was an American naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, and museum curator. Baird was the first curator to be named at the Smithsonian Institution. He would eventually serve as assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1850 to 1878, and as Secretary from 1878 until 1887. That’s a pretty important guy as far as I’m concerned and will do more on Spencer at a later date.
FOREST AND STREAM. MEN I HAVE FISHED WITH
I.—Reuben Wood. This noted sportsman, who for nearly half a century made his home in Syracuse, N. Y., wag well known throughout the State, and it was my good fortune to have him as an instructor in the art of angling in earliest boyhood. We were born in the then small village of Green-bush (opposite Albany), he in December, 1822, and I eleven years later.
Almost every man who has passed the half-century milestone on life’s journey loves to imitate Lot’s wife and look over his shoulder, and usually the retrospect is pleasant because we do not remember clearly; we conjure up the roses in the pathway and the small thorns are indistinct in the distance; a faint humming of the bees whose honey we stole brings no remembrance of the penaltypaid for it; the wound of the sting is cured by the honey in memory, at least. Poor indeed is the man of fift ywho has no wealth of retrospect and who thinks the pun-ishment of Lot’s wife was fitted , to the crime! It was unjust, and in compensation at this late day she be sainted perhaps with the name and title of Saint Salina. Here I pause to ask if there is really any such thing as an occult cerebration which caused my pen to turn to thoughts of Lot’s wife while writing an apology for looking back at the boyhood of a citizen of Syracuse,N. Y., the great salt-producing city of the State?
There are men who never could have been boys engaged in boyish sports and had a boy’s thoughts. Everyone has known such men. Men who must have been at least fifty years old when they were born if that event ever happened to them and have no sort of sympathy for a boy nor his ways; crusty old curmudgeons who never burned their fingers with a firecracker or played hookey from school to go a fishing. They may be very endurable in a business way, but are of no possible use as fishing companions. X speak by the card, for I’ve been in the woods with them.
Reuben Wood was a boy, and was one to me as long as he lived. We were boys together, he being a big boy when I was hut a little one; he was at our house a great deal, and is among the earliest of memories. He was “Reub” all through life to all his familiars, and they were many.
It was a summer day, and I was some some six or eight summers old when Reub came down the street with some fish that he had caught in a stream then the northern boundary of the village, but now in it and Ashless. After much solicitation he agreed to let me in the party next day, Bruin and me. Now, Bruin was a big Newfoundland dog belonging to my father which Reub had taught to pick me up whenever he said, “Bruin, go fetch Fred,” no matter what screams, kicks and protests his burden made, and this was one of Reub’s jokes which I did not appreciate. We started, Bruin and 1 in high glee. Reub cut some poles, rigged the lines, floats and hooks and put on the worms, and he soon had a perch, a monster it seemed then, and does yet, while the sun fish that tried to runaway with my float and which Reub helped to land probably weighed more than the grocer’s scales could tell; it must have been as big as 100 modern ones, and Reub said “it was as big as a piece of chalk.” Such was the first experience in angling, as clear in memory as if only a week ago.
A little pond turtle stuck his head up near the float, looked at it and at us, and paddled to the bottom in the funniest way. Reub called it a “skillypot,” but he hadfunny names for everything. Then I caught a perch, actually bigger than the sunflsh, and a new world seemed to open, but the spines of the fish cut my hand and the world was not so bright. Five fish came to my lot in all, but Reub had about twenty, some perch, sunfish, two bullheads and an eel. He said that I let the fish eat the worms off. I saw a turtle climb on a log while Reub was up the bank after worms and I went out on the log to get it, but the turtle slid into the water and so did I. Ascream brought Reub, who whistled for Bruin and ordered him to “Fetch Fred,” and he did. O, the dripping of clothes and the splashing of shoes as we went home, and the tearful tale of a turtle who wouldn’t wait to be caught! This last seemed the greatest cause of grief and afforded Reub and other boys a text for teasing, which they worked .to an annoying extent, and it was long before he would take me fishing again, saying, “No, you’ll diving for turtles.” This occurred about 1840 and Reub referred to it the last time I saw him, in 1883.
At this time Greenbush was a very quaint little village on the upper Hudson, whose connection with the outside world was by the Albany stage to Boston and by ferry to Albany. No railroad entered it, and in fact the only one at that time in the whole State of New York ran from Albany to Schenectady, and hauled its cars to the top of the hill by a stationary eDgine before hooking on the light locomotive. The place was favorable for the evelopment of character, unhampered by the conventionalizes which come from contact with outside people, and Reuben grew to manhood there and retained a quaint simplicity all his life, a rugged, honest nature, whom it was refreshing to know and a lovable man to meet. If, as a boy, he ever indulged in forays on the fruit and melon patches of the farmers the fact is unknown to me. That I did is certain, but the disparity of years forbade comradeship in such nocturnal pleasures. He was large, strong and heavy of movement,.with a deep chest voice, even when a boy, that was remarkable. His brother Ira, nearer my age, resembled him in this and other particulars, and in both there was an air of honesty and truthfulness, not so frequent in boys, which was fully borne out in their characters as men.
In later years I had a joke on Reub which was originally on me as a boy, but later knowledge reversed it. With some other boys one day I had been fishing away up the hill in the pond of the locally famous “red mill” and had seen a pair of wood ducks alight upon a tree. We somehow knew that they were wild ducks, but had no idea that the term included more than one kind, for at that day we only knew one sort of tame ducks. To see a duck light on a tree was strange, and I told Reub of it and he spread the incredible story, for he knew nothing of wood ducks, and the laugh was on me. “Seen any ducks light in’ on trees lately?”vaa 9 common and annoying salutation, and years later the question was turned on Reub. I fished with him many times as a boy, never after he left Greenbush for Syracuse, in 1852; hut we met occasionally after 1876 when thrown together at fairs and fly-casting tournaments, and he seemed to be the same boy that somehow had gray hair.
The picture of him gives an excellent idea of his manly face, but the cigar I do not recognize. This is not remarkable, because he used from a dozen to twenty each day, and there are people who might not recognize his picture without a cigar of some kind. The badge upon his corduroy coat is a certificate that he is a member of the Onondaga Fishing Club, of Syracuse, which was always represented at the State Sportsmen’s tournaments. Take a good look at him! That kind, honest face would be a passport anywhere. To me he was always the same lovable boy to whom I looked up as guide, philosopher and friend on my first fishing trip away back in the for-
ties. I think I am a better man for knowing Reub Wood when he was a big boy and I a child. From him I learned that the world was round, “rounder than a marble,” be said, and I saw that the sky was the upper half and that we were inside the world; if he knew better he never explained the matter.
Reuben’s humor was manifested in the use of strange words which he probably manufactured, as I never heard them from anv other person. A bad knot in a fish line was a “wrinkle-hawk,” an excellent thing was “just exebogenus,” a big fish was “an old codwalloper” and along stemmed pipe was “a flugemocker.” What a blank page is a boy’s memory that such things written on it remain indelible for over half a century when more important ones have faded! The name of Reub Wood conjures up these trifling things, which if heard ten years ago would have been forgotten. But be had such a strong individuality that a person who only met him for ten minutes would be impressed by it and know him in after years; what wonder that he should carve his personality on the mind of a child? Impressions of other men and boys in that small village are also quite distinct and, as is usual in such places, there is more profanity and obscenity heard by a boy than in cities, for the tough boy in small places excels in such things, and it seems to me that he was worse then than now. But the worst that I ever heard Reub say was “gosh hang it,” under the provocation of having to cut a fish hook out of his thumb. His mind was as pure as his life, and that is more than can be said of many who live straight enough, but have to resist temptation frequently. A man is not so much to be judged by his actions as by his thoughts, if you only knew them, and Reub’s thoughts were his spoken words.
In Greenbush he was employed in the bakery of Jonas Whiting, where he learned the mysteries of bread and cakes, and when he went to Syracuse he blossomed out as a caterer for balls and parties, and then established a business in fishing tackle, now carried on under the name of “Reuben Wood’s Sons.” His old cash book is still existent, and was not only what its name implied, but was day book, journal and ledger all in one, with a margin for a weather record which contained such items as “Gone hunting,” “Went after ducks,” “Gone a-fishing,” eto. This is indefinite, and one wonders what the result may have been until we strike the entry: “Wood returned from Piseco with 250 lbs. of trout.” At this date no man knows whether they were brook or lakers, fontinalia or namaycush. In that early day, in the fifties, Onondaga Lake abounded in pickerel and eels, and Reub and his companion often, made a night of it, taking them with torch and spear, as was the custom of the time, and the catch went to their friends and the poor. When this mode of fishing became unpopular and unlawful, in later years, Reuben was one of the foremost in suppressing all kinds of fishing that the law forbade, but at the time of which we speak there was no law on the subject, nor public sentiment against spearing. He followed the custom of the day, merely drawing the line at fishing on Sunday.
A chum of Reub’s was Mr. Charles Wells, of Wells, Fargo Co.’s Express, and they went shooting and fishing when the spirit moved. Mr. Wells had not only all the railroad transportation necessary, but could have trains stopped anywhere in the woods if necessary, night or day, by flag or fire signal. This brings a sigh not of envy, but merely a wish that such conditions existed today and I was “in it,” as the saying goes. One day in the fall of 1887 a report came to Mr. Wells that there were “rafts of ducks” on Cayuga Lake, one of those numerous large lakes of western New York lying some thirty miles west of Syracuse, and a famous one for ducks; be told Reub just in time for him to gather his muzzle loader and ammunition and get the next train going to Cayuga, at the foot of the lake via the “old ‘road” of the New York Central R. R., a road then so slow that it took the best part of a day to get there. Wells had his camping outfit and they camped for the night. As Reub told me the story years afterward, daylight: found him in an old dugout, the only semblance of a boat at hand, while Wells had a good place on the shore. The ducks were flying down the lake and Wells had killed several, and was signaling him to come and pick them up, when a great flock of blue bills came up the stream and turned directly over Reub’s head. As he let both barrels go the dugout somehow let him go into ice-cold water, but he hung on to bis gun and got ashore chilled to the bone, and took the first train for Syracuse, where he traded his gun and equipment’s for a Knight’s Templar badge and other things, and from that day foreswore the gun and devoted bis energies to wielding the rod.
About this time Mr. Wells learned to fish with the fly and taught Reuben the art, to which he became devoted. It was long after this that I met Reuben, the occasion being the tournaments of the New York State Association for the Protection of Fish and Game, where he was a frequent competitor in the fly-casting tournaments, butnever would allow himself or his brother Ira to win first prize because of a chivalric idea that another competitor—to whom he always deferred—should not be beaten. Either of them could outcast the other man, whose hoggish nature never allowed him to acknowledge the knightly courtesy—if he had the capacity to appreciate sacrifice. Not until the State Association held its tournament at Brighton Beach, Coney Island, in June, 1881, did Reuben Ward ever have a chance to cast unhampered by his sentiment. Here he had a new competitor with a great local reputation, who had never cast in a State tournament before. This was in the two-handed salmon rod contest, and Reuben won the first prize, valued at $50, with a cast of 110ft. His brother Ira came second, with 101ft Harry Prichard cast 91ft., and F. P. Dennison 94ft. All but Prichard were members of the Onondaga Fishing Club, of Syracuse, and cast with the same rod—a split-bamboo, won by Reuben in the tournament at Buffalo in 1878; length, 17ft. lin. As there was an allow-ance of 5ft. for every foot of rod in length, Mr. Prichard was allowed 9ft. lOin. because his greenheart rod (made by himself) was 1ft. lOin. shorter than the one used by the others; hence his amended record of 91ft. had an allowance of 9ft. lO in., making it 100ft. lO in., giving him third prize over Dennison.
In 1888 Prof. Spencer F. Balrd appointed Reuben to take charge of the angling department of the American displayat the International Fisheries Exposition in London, an appointment of which he was justly proud, as he wrote me in a farewell letter, and on June 11 he took part in the English fly-casting tournament at the Welch Harp,where he won first in salmon casting with an 18ft. split-bamboo rod, scoring 108ft.; Mr. Mallock casting 105ft. with an 18ft. greenheart rod. In the single-handed trout contest he won first with 82 i ft. over four competitors. In a contest with two-handed trout rods, a thing unknown in America, Mr. Mallock won first with 105ft., and Mr.Wood took second prize with 102ft 9in. His many trophies in the tournaments in Central Park, New York city, are familiar to readers of Forest and Stream.
He died at his home in Syracuse on Feb. 16, 1884, in his sixty-second year. Mr. R. B. Maraton, editor of the English Fishing Gazette, said of him: “I know many an angler in this country will feel sad at hearing genial, jolly, lovable ‘Uncle Reub’ has gone to his long rest. During his stay in this country he never failed to make friends of all who came in contact with him. I shall never forget the enthusiasm and almost boy-like glee with which he enjoyed a fishing trip with me to the Kennet, at Hungerford. He would stand for hours on the old bridge watching the trout and marveling at their cutenees. The system of dry-fly fishing pleased and astonished him
greatly, and he told me he meant to try it on some wary old American trout he was acquainted with. Then he would show us some of his long casting with a split-cane rod. If we in this country, who only knew him so short a time, feel his loss so keenly, what must those home friends of his feel—his family and that wide circle of acquaintances who were proud to call him friend?’
His death was very sudden. He fell dead while entering his dining room, and his family doctor said that the heart had become diseased from excessive smoking. In addition to his love of the rod he was for many years an active member of the Syracuse Citizens’ Corps, and later of the Sumner Corps, two well-known military organizations. He was also a member of the Baptist Church, and his name was a synonym for all that was honest and manly. The last time I met him he referred to our first fishing experience by saying, “Fred, are you catching many turtles now?” And the answer was, “No, Reub, it keeps me busy watching wood ducks light on the trees.”