Early Leonard: Firm Dates and Guesses
By Mary Kefover Kelly

When a collector views a fine old fishing rod with the stamp that means made by that master craftsman H. L. Leonard, many emotions are kindled - awe, goosebumps, and eventually a curiosity about the age of the rod. To help satisfy that curiosity here follows a history of Hiram L. Leonard as it relates to his rod making career. This is correlated with the appropriate maker's stamping and other marks along with a time frame. Assigning a date in many cases, with the aid of old advertisements and notices, is not too difficult and there is very little guesswork involved. However, in spite of all research studies some mysteries remain, and in these cases knowledge of a mark is replaced with speculation and/or the time period is in years rather than months.

Leonard, who was born in 1831, was by profession a gunsmith. Living in Bangor, Maine, he worked sometimes for himself, and at times for others. He loved fishing, and eventually built for himself a solid wood rod. In a letter dictated by him to one of his family, circa 1905, he stated he never intended to become a rod maker. yet this first rod found its way to the Boston wholesale/retail tackle house of Bradford and Anthony. Impressed with his workmanship and unable to keep up with demand for rods of split cane construction, Bradford and Anthony asked Leonard if he could build this glued-up type of rod, and, if so, would he build such rods for them? Hiram, confident he could easily build split cane, agreed to become their supplier. Variously the date for this arrangement is given as 1869, although Leonard himself in the 1905 letter just mentioned (on file at THE MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FLY FISHING), gave the date as 1871. The first entry in the Bangor area Directories listing Leonard as rod maker occurs in the 1871-1872 Directory.

Whatever is the exact date of his venture into split cane rod making, it is thought that at the start, Hiram's total output was shipped to Bradford and Anthony and therefore was not likely to be marked with Leonard's name, but rather the Bradford and Anthony name. Also, according to a letter Hiram later wrote to Forest and Stream, which appeared in the December 12, 1878 issue, during this period, circa 1872, he was supplying the large wholesale/retail tackle house of Andrew Clerk and Co. New York City with salmon rods. According to other sources, these rods, which were six and twelve strip, were being exported to England under the Clerk label. Calculating the man hours spent in completing a quality rod, times the numbers ordered by large wholesale firms, it seems unlikely that Leonard was given the opportunity to build and to begin to market rods under his own name. Thus, it is probably after Hiram hired an assistant in 1873 and increased production that he stamped his rods as being of his manufacture.

The first of his maker's marks consisted of a narrow rectangle, each of its four corners a concave line. Inside the rectangle appears to the top "H. L. Leonard" and centered below is "Maker." The argument for cataloging this as the first stamp is due to its presence on a magnificent old rod distinguished both because of being so atypical of rods described in the 1870's literature and because of the uniqueness of the ferrules.

This rod, with the stamp appearing on the butt cap, is a three section, 12 foot trout (fly) rod. It is six strip, and rounded in the desiderative fashion of the time. The butt tapers gently away from the rattan covered grip, which is located above the metal reel seat. All fittings are of the highest quality German silver. Significantly, the ferrules which are tenon (also called doweled or spike) are neither capped nor split. Guides are of the ring and keeper type with a tip-top that is a flat ring soldered to a small tapered tube. The tip-top is not pinned but the ferrules and reel seat are.

The ferrules, which compared to Leonard's later ones have to be considered primitive, but are informative for what they lack. They bear the Leonard hallmarks as to style and quality with the female reinforced at the top with a welt and the male shouldered, but there is not a hint - not the tiniest suggestion - of either of Leonard's two ferrule patents. This indicates that his ferrule improvements and patents came later, so that this rod, with the unique primitive ferrules and the maker's mark, date to the early period in Leonard's career - somewhere around 1873.

Hiram, who was granted only these two ferrule patents, stamped the issuance date of each of them at the top of the first female ferrule on every rod, a practice that the H. L. Leonard Rod Co., successor to Hiram, continued well into the 20th Century. Needless to say, locating one or both of these dates on the ferrule can help to establish time of manufacturing.

The first of these patents was filed August 30, 1875, and issued October 26, 1875, No. 169,181. It specified capping the exposed ends of the ferrule - in effect closing them to prevent moisture permeating the rod. The second patent was filed April 17, 1878, and issued September 3, 1878, No. 207,665. It called for splitting the ferrule where it was wrapped on the rod, thereby reinforcing that point without detracting from the rod's elasticity.

Allowing for some lead time preceding a public announcement, it is probable that Leonard's second maker's mark dates to the winter of 1874-1875. At that time Hiram and his old client, the prestigious Andrew Clerk and Co., which in January 1875 became Abbey and Imbrie, formed a major alliance. Abbey and Imbrie were to be "sole agents" for Leonard, meaning they exclusively would distribute his rods. The first notice of the affiliation was buried in a publicity type statement in Forest an Stream, March 11, 1875. Discussing mostly the ultra expensive trout rod Leonard was building for this old top-of-the-line firm to display as their own in the upcoming Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in '76, the release simply noted the association. It read: "Mr. H L. Leonard, the well-known fly-rod manufacturer, is now making an exquisite trout-rod of Calcutta Bamboo, 11 1/2 feet in length, intended as an exhibition rod for Messrs. Abbey and Imbrie of 48 Maiden Lane, who are his sole agents. The reel-mounting is to be of solid gold and silk thread and jeweled. The handle will be wound with two colors of cane, and the whole, complete with the gold and precious stones, will cost about $2,000." There is no record of whether this gold trimmed rod ever had a mark or stamp to identify the maker and/or dealer.

To increase his production in order to supply the demand generated by this new arrangement with Abbey and Imbrie, Leonard, according to the 1905 letter previously mentioned, enlarged his work force to "eleven men and one woman" - a size that placed him among the larger rod producing firms, exceeded in capacity possibly only by Conroy, Bissett and Malleson, and the Eugene and Leander Bartlett/Montague City Rod Co.

The alliance with Abbey and Imbrie, for whatever reason, lasted less than two years. The estimated time of its termination is based on the fact that Hiram, who had not advertised directly for himself after Abbey and Imbrie became his "sole agents," suddenly in November of 1876 resumed buying ad space; and there was no mention in his ads of Abbey and Imbrie. Abbey and Imbrie ceased to mention Leonard in their advertisements beginning in May of 1877.

This author regretfully has not personally viewed the maker's stamp on rods dating to the Abbey and Imbrie period. However, the notable Martin Keane reports that it reads in five lines, "H. L. Leonard/Maker/Abbey and Imbrie/N. York/Sole Agents." Obviously, the presence, or the lack of it, of the first patent date on the female ferrule coupled with this mark, even more narrowly defines the time frame of a rod's manufacture.

Immediately following the split with Abbey and Imbrie the events in Hiram's rod career are hazy. Again, referring to his 1905 letter, he stated "In 1877 went in company with Mr. Hidder of Boston." Because this letter is hand written and the penmanship such that the letters are not always clear Mr Hidder has been read as Mr. Kidder. Whatever the name is Hidder, Kidder (or even Ridder) the Boston Area Directories have no listing for a man with any such spelling; tracing Mr. Hidder, therefore, has come to a dead end. Still one wonders; was Mr. Hidder a silent financial backer, or did the "in company" mean a working, "sole agents" type of partnership? Was there ever a maker's mark "Leonard-Hidder?"

During the post Abbey and Imbrie period Leonard possibly returned to his original maker's stamp, adding underneath the rectangle the address, "Bangor, Maine." In a report of a rod marked in such a way, no additional data about the ferrules and patent date stampings was presented, an oversight which preents one from making a time judgment. However, there are good arguments for dating the addition of "Bangor, Maine" to the period 1877-1879. "Bangor, Maine" emphasizes the separation from New York's Abbey and Imbrie. Also, Leonard opened his own retail outlet in New York City, in October, 1877; he might have felt it good for business, or to build customer confidence to show the factory address.

In 1878, to quote again from the 1905 letter, Hiram stated that Mr Hidder sold his interest to William Mills and Son of New York City. They too, were wholesale/retail dealers, but at this time, neither as large nor as respected as Abbey and Imbrie. The angling public might have guessed at a connection between Leonard and Mills, when in February 1879, Leonard, in his ads, changed the New York City address from "193 Chambers St. (upstairs)" to that of Mills' location at 7 Warren St. A public statement of the joining occurred roughly three weeks later, March 6, 1879, when the William Mills and Son ad in Forest and Stream without fanfare simply stated they were "sole agents" for H. L. Leonard’s rods.

Leonard's first maker's stamp indicating this alliance was a rectangle with scrolled sides, inside of which in five lines was printed: "H. L. Leonard/Maker/W. Mills & Son/N. York/Sole Agents." Based on the advertisements, its original appearance date to the early months of 1879.

Besides the dates of both ferrule patents, another stamping can occur on rods with this "Mills-Sole Agents" mark. It is found on salmon and tarpon rods fitted with a heavy locking reel seat. The seat is stamped "Pat. May 31, 1880." This patent date is a mystery since a search of the U.S. Patent Department's records has not revealed either such a patent date or such a patent issued to Leonard or Mills or assigned to either of them. The seat is not dissimilar to one patented by Henry Prichard (sometimes spelled Pritchard) November 30, 1880. No. 235,017. Possible explanations of this puzzling patent date range from: the reel seat is based on Prichard's patent and the date of that is stamped incorrectly on the seat. Or, perhaps Leonard/Mills filed for such a patent and, confident that it would issue - anticipating the event - stamped "Pat." and the date of filing. (Someday this little mystery may be resolved.)

Exactly how long the Mills-Sole Agents mark lasted is not known nor is the precise lifespan of the two succeeding marks. Usually a change in a maker's mark would be reflected in the company's advertisements, for example an addition to the name of "and Co." or adding as "s" to "Son." By observing the ads in sequence one can spot the change and date it. William Mills and Son ran ads without an indication of anything ever changing. In fact, into the mid to late 1920's, long after there had been two different wordings to the maker's stamp, William Mills and Son periodically continued to advertise as the "sole agent for H. L Leonard Rods." Technically this was true, but from a "picky" historian's perspective it is misleading. To be accurate William Mills and Son should have said "sole agent for THE H. L. LEONARD ROD CO.," which was the name of the manufacturing arm of the William Mills and Son firm.

At any rate, it is believed that the second Leonard-Mills mark replaced that of "Sole Agents" circa 1885-1887. To accommodate Mills, Leonard moved his factory closer to New York City, locating in 1881 in Central Valley, N.Y. (The date is substantiated by the Bangor Area Directories which after 1881 ceased listing Hiram L. Leonard). Rumor has it that Hiram thereafter became dissatisfied with the new arrangement - maybe missing the Maine woods and the easy access to salmon fishing in the Penobscott River which flowed through Bangor, or maybe having a clash of values with Mills. Whatever the case, once in Central Valley, Leonard began to sell portions of his interest in the business to Mills. The second mark reflects their increased ownership. In the same familiar rectangle in five lines and centered as before it reads: "THE/ H.L. LEONARD/ROD/ LEONARD & MILLS CO/ MAKERS."

Hiram, who reportedly had been in poor health for several years, died in January, 1907. He may or may not have been alive when William Mills and Son became, if not sole owners, the controlling ones - rumors vary. At this change of ownership the maker's stamp was also altered, although only as to wording. It read "THE /LEONARD/ ROD/ H. L. LEONARD ROD CO/ MAKERS." This mark continued without variation until 1927 when William Mills and Son began to stamp underneath the rectangle "Reg. U.S. PAT. OFF." The original trademark registration bears the date April 24, 1923, No. 167,070, granted to THE H. L. LEONARD ROD CO., New York, N. Y., Thomas B. Mills, President. It was for the mark/name "LEONARD." One can wonder why it took four years before marking the rod "Reg."

No attempt has been made to date the Leonard rod based on number of strips (4, 6, 8, 12) or the shaping (round vs. hexagonal) or material (solid wood or split cane, Calcutta vs. Tonkin) or grips (rattan vs. cork construction). These are all valid dating tools, but there are always exceptions. For example, Leonard routinely advertised "rods made to order" - seemingly to pride himself in building "special" rods for the customer. This practice means it is likely there is a four strip split cane rod dating long after the time one would expect.

This Leonard story is stopped in the 1920's for beyond that time, to this author, is the period that is closer to current than to history. For the years covered it is regrettable that more information is not available to present here. It is hoped if some readers have additional documented data, they will share it, and help us all to learn the facts.

A Letter on Leonard
By James K. Douglas

In the spirit of your Summer 1991 editorial: that knowledge is gained best through the slow accretion of new data and more refined speculation than through the ex cathedra pronouncements of "experts" I submit further dates and guesses on the stamping of Leonard rods.

  1. The original Leonard stamp. As Mary Kelly noted in her article, the original stamp is quite narrow. Also noted was that Leonard was a gunsmith before he became a rod maker. Because it was customary at that time for gunsmiths to stamp their products on the rib, necessitating a narrow, flat die, one can conclude that the original Leonard stamp was created for his guns and then used for his rods simply because it was ready at hand. Some may ask how Leonard could stamp a round butt cap with a flat die. The answer is that back then round metal fittings (ferrules, slide bands, butt caps, etc.) were made from drawn tubing but from flat stock which the rod maker had to roll and seam. The oldest Leonard rod bearing this stamp that I have been able to locate and inspect, albeit indirectly, is an 11-1/2 foot trout rod with primitive ferrules and of four strip, rounded construction. The butt swell and reel seat spacer are extensions of the butt blank without any other material spliced in; one can only wonder at the width of the strips! Such a rod must have been one of Leonard's earliest.

  2. The reappearance of the original stamp after the break up with Abbey & Imbrie. Mrs. Kelly dates the reappearance at 1877-1879. I have a 14 foot Leonard salmon rod which has the original stamp with the separate "Bangor, Me." stamp. The rod also has the first ferrule patent stamp, "PAT. Oct.26.75", but not the second of September 3, 1878. This would indicate that the original stamp was reintroduced closer to the 1876-77 time span where Mrs. Kelly places the break up.

  3. The change from "...LEONARD & MILLS CO./ MAKERS" to "...H.L.LEONARD ROD CO./ MAKERS." Mrs. Kelly states that this change occurred at or near the death of Leonard in 1907. This cannot be correct. Starting about 1911, after Hiram Hawes had begun producing his own "Leonard" rods in Canterbury, Connecticut, Mills added a caveat paragraph to the introductory page of the rod section of their catalog. It said, in effect, beware of imitations, always look for this stamp on a genuine Leonard rod. Accompanying the text is an illustration of the Leonard butt cap stamp with the "...LEONARD & MILLS CO./ MAKERS" wording. It would have been self defeating at best had the actual rod stamp read differently. The caveat illustration did not change to the "...H.L.LEONARD ROD CO./ MAKERS" wording until possibly 1923, definitely 1924.

  4. The patent stamps on the (first female) ferrule. Word at the Leonard shop had it that Leonard stopped patent dating their ferrules sometime in 1928. But since ferrules were made in large batches, and since ferrule sizes would have been used up at different rates, one should allow a span of 1928 to 1930 for dating purposes.

Information for this letter was supplied by John Bradford, Marty Keane and Tom Maxwell, who have my thanks.