Fishing Reel History

A Chinese Painting, circa 1200 A.D., provides the earliest evidence of a fishing reel. Primitive reels were similar to a simply fly reel. They consisted of a modified wheel, with a handle, that could be used for storing, winding, and pulling off line. Each turn of the handle was equal to a single turn of the spool.

Multiplier Reels

The first real advance in this simple mechanical system was perhaps first made by George Snyder of Kentucky, although some claim the first modern era reels were made in Britain. Regardless, Snyder did built one of the earliest "multiplier reels" in the early 1800's. It was the equivalent of a simple bait casting reel. The key advance with this reel was the mechanical action; each turn of the handle of a Snyder reel produced four turns of the spool. Mr. Snyder was a watchmaker and silversmith and he made a few reels for himself and some friends.
In the 1840's two brothers (J.F. and B.F. Meek), also watchmakers, partnered with B.C. Milam and began producing what are now know as Kentucky Reels. They designed their reels from a description of the Snyder reel.

Who owned the rights to the Kentucky Reel?

Here is an interesting bit of trivia concerning the manufacture of these reels:

JOHN W. MILAM, of Frankfort, is active head of the business originally established and developed by his father, the late Benjamin C. Milam. This firm, B. C. Milam & Son, are manufacturers of "The 'Milam," the original "Frankfort Kentucky" fishing reel, a perfected device probably known to every follower of the sport of fishing in America. These reels have been manufactured by the Milams for over eighty years. They have been awarded four international first prizes and medals : World's Fair, Chicago, Illinois, Fisheries Exposition, Bergen, Norway, World's Exposition, Paris, France, St. Louis Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri. They have been used by three presidents of the United States, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Joseph Jefferson was also a great admirer of this reel, having four.

A number of years ago a competing firm began manufacturing what they called the Frankfort Kentucky reel, and finally the Milam Company asked the courts for protection for their rights. The case was argued before Chancellor Shackelford Miller, later Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, who on November 2, 1901, rendered an opinion asking for an injunction in favor of the Milam Company. The evidence brought out during the trial and the decision of Judge Miller constitute an interesting history of this famous reel and of the business of B. C. 'Milam & Son.

Before taking up the facts brought out in this trial something should be said of the Milam family in general. The Milams are of Welsh descent. Moses Milam, grandfather of Benjamin C. Milam, came from Wales to this country and married Pattie Boyd, and their son, John Milam, was born in Virginia in 1780, and at an early date settled in Franklin County, Kentucky, where Benjamin C. Milam was born in Franklin County, near the City of Frankfort July 1, 1821. He was a nephew of Col. R. 'Milam, of Alamo fame, he haying captured the fort and delivered it to Travis, Crockett and others. Mr. Milam was also connected by blood relation to Richard M. Johnson, once vice president of the United States.

When about sixteen years of age Benjamin C. Milam went to Frankfort, and from the evidence adduced at the time of the trial mentioned he soon became an apprentice with Jonathan Meek, a Frankfort jeweler. In 1839 Jonathan and B. F. 'Meek formed a partnership known as J. F. & B. F. Meek, with B. C Milam associated with them. It was a watchmaker, Theodore Noel, who had made a fishing reel at Frankfort about 1830, and the manufacture of reels was an incidental part of the business of the firm of J. F. & B. F. Meek. B. C. Milam, not liking watchwork, took up the reel business and developed the multiplying reel to its present state of perfection, and devoted practically his entire life to that business. In 1848 B. C. Milam was taken into the firm, which became J. F. Meek & Company, Mr. Milam doing all the work of making reels. These reels were stamped "J. F. & B. F. Meek."

In 1852 the firm failed and Jonathan Meek removed to Louisville, while on January 1, 1853, B. F. Meek and B. C. Milam formed a new firm as Meek & Milam, continuing the business of jewelers and reel making at the old stand on Main Street. Mr. Milam had entire charge of and did all the reel work on the second floor above the watchmaking and jewelry establishment. Their partnership agreement was to the effect that upon dissolution the reel making outfit was to go to Milam. By mutual consent the partnership was dissolved in 1855 and Mr. Milam continued at the head of the independent business on the second floor of the old quarters. During the partnership the reels were stamped "Meek & Milam," and after the dissolution the reels had the same stamp until 188o, a period of twenty-seven years, though Meek had no interest in the business.

During that time the Meek & Milam reel became famous not only throughout the United States but was known to the anglers of Europe. In 1882 B. F. Meek removed to Louisville and began making a reel, and in 1898 sold his business there to others who formed a corporation to continue the manufacturing of reels. Meek then returned to Frankfort. The following quotation from the opinion of Judge Miller reveals the important points in the legal controversy and something further concerning the history of the business itself: "The plaintiffs, B. C. Milam & Son, now complain that the defendant corporation B. F. Meek & Son, with the design and purpose to get plaintiff's trade and to deceive the public is now and has since its purchase from Ben F. Meek in 1898, been manufacturing reels in Louisville, which it puts on the market advertised as the original 'Frankfort, Kentucky Reel' by reason, whereof, it is claimed the public are deceived into buying defendant's reels as the reels of plaintiffs' make. No one of the Meeks are interested in or employed by the defendant corporation B. F. Meek & Sons."

Prior to 1882 the Meek & Milam Reel made in Frankfort by B. C. Milam, had become generally known in Kentucky as the Frankfort Reel and outside of the state as the Kentucky Reel or the Frankfort, Kentucky Reel, and was so advertised . by Milam in 1882 and was so stamped by him in 1896. The descriptive term or phrase Frankfort, Kentucky Reel was first used by Milam. Furthermore B. F. 'Meek was never engaged in the manufacture of these reels at Frankfort after 1855, while Milam had been continuously in that business at the old stand, 318 Main Street, from 1848 to the present time, a period of more than fifty years. "The plaintiffs' reels have become famous during a period of nearly fifty years of exclusive manufacture at Frankfort, Kentucky — in fact they became so popular as to be generally known and subsequently advertised as the 'Frankfort, Kentucky Reel.' To allow the defendant corporation to reap the benefit of the plaintiffs' long and honorable course in business by indirectly naming or calling its reel made in Louisville and as the Frankfort Reel or the Frankfort, Kentucky Reel — something that Ben F. Meek, its assignor, never attempted or claimed — would be in violation of the broad and equitable rule of fair trade laid down in the many authorities above cited." Benjamin C. Milam died at Frankfort in 1904, several years after his controversy was decided.

In closing.....

Many of today's reels share a special connection with the originator or modern reel design. As a watchmaker George Snyder would undoubtedly have appreciated the fine design, crafting, and smooth action of most modern reels.

Information adapted from: The History of Kentucky, By Charles Kerr, William Elsey Connelley, Ellis Merton Coulter