One of the big reasons why I started doing this blog is not only to talk about bamboo rods and fly fishing but also to try and preserve, for posterity, a little bit of the history of this craft. I was very fortunate to get my start in rodbuilding during the end of the major rod shops (and when almost everyone had declared bamboo obsolete) so I was also lucky enough to have a personal, as well as professional, connection to many of the folks who came from the earlier generation.
One worth mentioning, and that came up recently in reminiscing with another rodmaker who got his start in those catskills shops, was Tom Bailey. His name probably doesn’t mean much to any but the real bamboo historians out there, but he was in the Leonard shop when I was first hired there in the 1970’s.
At Leonard, Tom was known as the metal guy, the one in charge of making ferrules, and it was a critical job in a shop like ours. He was pretty old then–well into his 70’s–and I can remember watching him cut up parts on an old South Bend lathe and then assembling and finishing them on a Schaublin, a smaller swiss machine.
Bailey was a pretty quiet guy for the most part, and to many of us youngsters in the shop he seemed to belong mostly to another age. Individually, none of us knew that much about him, but over time we were collectively able to piece together enough of his background to know that he had probably forgotten more about rodbuilding than the rest of us knew.
Tom was supposedly born around 1900 on Harriman Mountain in southern New York along the New Jersey border. His sister Bessie was working at Leonard at the time, and Tom himself also joined the shop some time around 1918 (some others have since told me it was 1920). At Leonard he started doing general rod work there as an apprentice under Frank Oram.
Around 1925, Oram left to join Jim Payne’s shop and Bailey was asked to come along too, where, once again, he was doing a lot of general rod work for the famous maker. This was at the beginning of the company’s golden years, of course, when Payne and Oram began developing their famous heat tempering method for bamboo, one which, along with a fanatical sense of craftsmanship, helped make Payne the name it was. During this period Bailey worked with George Halstead and a number of other notable craftsman who would go on to become master rodmakers in their own right.
As often happened during those years in Central Valley, many workers moved back and forth between the Leonard and Payne shops, so much so that keeping track of who worked where has always been something of a puzzle to bamboo historians. When the Payne company started dwindling in the late 1960’s Tom Bailey was pretty much the only one left working with Jim, and when Payne finally died in 1968 and the company was bought by Gladding Bailey moved back to Leonard for good. I’m not sure exactly when he became the head machinist in the Leonard shop but it must have been some time between 1968 and when I started there a decade later.
To all of us at the Leonard shop Bailey was not much of a conversationalist and so it was easy to forget the fact that he had devoted most of his life to bamboo. But I also remember that once in a while something would sort of set him off and that’s when you’d really get the good stuff, all of the stories and information that he’d stored up over the years. And you’d sort of stop what you were doing and think to yourself “My God — this guy has been doing this his whole life.”
Looking back on it now, with the benefit of age, I wish I had taken the time to ask Bailey a lot more questions. It would have been great to get down some of the history that he witnessed and to help keep some more of that history alive.
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