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40 years on

By Peter Lapsley

Peter Lapsley visits the American Museum of Fly Fishing, based in Manchester, Vermont.

The American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont.
The American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont.
A huge black and white photograph of a Victorian angler, shoes polished, studiously erect, greets one at the entrance.
A huge black and white photograph of a Victorian angler, shoes polished, studiously erect, greets one at the entrance.
Imaginative display techniques have greatly increased the museum's display capacity.
Imaginative display techniques have greatly increased the museum's display capacity.

For almost as long as I can remember, there has been talk of setting up a museum of angling in the UK. There is no doubting the need for one. Few countries can have richer angling heritages. But despite the enthusiasm and commitment of those involved, most of the various projects that have been mooted have been stillborn and none has yet come to fruition.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the Americans have gone ahead and established a number of angling museums – and in a perhaps untypically quiet and studied way. The best and best known of them is The American Museum of Fly Fishing (AMFF), based in Manchester, Vermont, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

The museum houses what must be the world’s largest collection of angling art and angling-related items – more than 1,400 rods; 400 reels; and 20,000 flies, including the oldest documented flies in the world; 6,000 books; more than 700 items of fine art, manuscripts and photographs; and countless other rare or unique angling artefacts. The collections and exhibits chronicle the evolution of fly-fishing as sport, art, craft and industry, both in the United States and worldwide, from the 16th Century to the present day. Reflected in them are the tradition, ethics, philosophy, biology and conservation that go to make the sport as complete as it is. It demonstrates very clearly the old adage that there is far more to fishing than catching fish.

It must be twelve years or so since I joined the museum at the suggestion of my friend Fred Buller, who has written a number of articles for its quarterly magazine, The American Fly Fisher.

The American Fly Fisher neither competes nor seeks to compete with the raft of fishing magazines found on newsagents’ shelves here or in the United States. It has no ‘how to do it’ articles, fishery profiles, angling reports or tackle reviews. Instead, it is devoted to the history of the sport, and the contributions it carries are as remarkable for their ‘internationalness’ as for their scholarship and for the depth in which they are researched. Recent issues have contained articles on matters as eclectic as ancient fishing hooks; the English angler, author and artist, Thomas Bewick; California golden trout; salmon fishing in Iceland; crossing the divide between spinning and fly fishing; and the search for the perfect fishing hat.

Tucked into a quiet valley in the Green Mountains and overlooked by Equinox Mountain, Manchester, Vermont has been a fashionable summer resort for people from New York and other north east American cities since the middle of the 19th Century. It was here in 1856 that Charles Orvis turned his rod-building hobby into a business, setting up the Orvis Company alongside Equinox House, the hotel owned by his brother Franklin. And it was here, exactly 100 years later, that Orvis opened their flagship store.

Lazy, hazy
Today, Manchester is a slightly strange town for so pretty and rural an area. It has become a big and bustling shopping mall, its wide boulevards and marble pavements lined with dozens of designer name factory outlets. But it is attractive, nonetheless, surrounded by the rolling, wooded hills of southern Vermont, with neatly trimmed lawns, immaculate clapboard houses and a slightly ‘lazy, hazy’ atmosphere.

Almost all museums grow from someone’s realisation that they have a collection of curiosities on a particular theme. The American Museum of Fly Fishing is no exception.

It was in 1963 that the late Hermann Kessler, the art director of Field & Stream, combined a holiday on the Batten Kill with research for an article on antique tackle. This led him to the Orvis Company and to the remarkable assortment of historic items they had accumulated over time - including the display of flies and fishing photographs assembled by Charles Orvis’s daughter, Mary Orvis Marbury, for the Chicago World Fair in 1893. The idea of a museum of fly fishing began to form in his mind.

When Leigh Perkins took the Orvis Company in 1965, becoming its president, Kessler put the idea to him. Within two years, Perkins had provided a room for the venture in the Orvis store, donated the Orvis collection, appealed for donations of fly fishing memorabilia through Orvis’s publications, and the Museum of American Fly Fishing had been born. In 1968, it was incorporated as a non-profit educational institution. In 1984, it was re-named The American Museum of Fly Fishing in recognition of the increasingly international nature of its collection, and moved into its own premises. When I first visited the museum ten years ago, it was housed in this neat but unpretentious house on the east side of Main Street, between Manchester Village and Manchester Centre, and the building was already bursting at the seams.

One of the greatest pressures on the museum is space. Those first Main Street premises allowed only four percent of the totality of its collections to be exhibited, a frustration that became more apparent when one moved from the public galleries to the store rooms where vast numbers of rods, reels, books et al lay tidily on row after row of racking. It has gone a considerable way towards solving the problem, in part at least, in three ways – by moving to larger premises, through highly professional curatorship and by touring the country with a travelling exhibition.

The move, in June 2005, took it into a handsome and much larger building, also on Main Street, but on the west side, set back from the road and adjacent to the Orvis flagship store.

As an aside, there have in the past been some who have been concerned by what they have seen as the museum’s ‘closeness’ to the Orvis Company. To an outside observer, that seems unfair. Certainly, Orvis has played a leading role in the museum’s history. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to say that the museum owes its very existence to the company. But my clear impression is that both Trustees and staff are studiously objective and impartial in their work, and, as a visitor, I have seen no evidence of commercial bias of any kind.

On its own, the move did not resolve the space problem, nor could it have been expected to. But, combined with imaginative display techniques, including the use of swinging frames in which many of the exhibits are mounted, it has greatly increased the museum’s display capacity.

The museum’s galleries are beautifully arranged and well lit. A huge black and white photograph of a Victorian angler, shoes polished, studiously erect, greets one at the entrance. A silk line braiding machine rattles into action at the touch of a button; I wonder who gets to use the lines it produces. There are gleaming cases of gleaming reels; displays of rods made by great rod builders, including Leonard, Payne, Thomas, Kosmic, Orvis, Murphy and Edwards; there are cabinets of rods owned by a number of well-known figures, including Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Hoover, Ted Williams, Glenn Miller and Dwight Eisenhower; there are casts of fish and framed collections of flies; there are creels, tackle boxes and leather fly wallets.

While the individual items on display are fascinating, at least as much of the museum’s wealth is to be found in the collections it has acquired. It has bought only two of them – the superb William Cushner collection of framed flies in 1991 and Colonel Joseph D Bates junior’s collection of Atlantic salmon flies in 1999. All the rest have been donated, including the wonderful Mary Orvis Marbury panels of flies and photographs, the Frederic Sharf collection of more than 250 reels, over 1,000 flies tied by Edward Ringwood Hewitt, Theodore Gordon’s fishing library, almost 2,000 books donated to the Museum’s library by Roy D. Chapin Jr. and his estate, and a magnificent collection of more than 1,500 books donated by the retired New York publisher, Nick Lyons.

The museum now holds one of the largest public collections of fly-fishing books in America, much of it immediately accessible in the elegant library and reading room on the first floor of the new building.

As the museum has become more widely known, so has the flow of donated artefacts grown into a veritable torrent. Still they keep coming, and every item has to be assessed. To measure the value of such diverse objects as the Histoire Des Poissons, by Rondelet, published in 1558, and five Garcia fibreglass rods owned by Lee Wulff, many factors must be considered. The historical significance, the aesthetics of the object, the craftsmanship and the materials used are just a few of the qualities that give each piece its place in fly fishing history as well as its importance to the museum’s collection.

Careful handling, climate-control and monitoring, coherent and consistent cataloguing, and efficient storage and retrieval systems are all essential if the museum’s mandate to preserve the collection in perpetuity is to be taken seriously, which it is. The professionalism of the staff is as impressive as their knowledge of their subject and their enthusiasm.

Apart from the constraints placed on public access to the museum’s collection by finite space, having it housed in one place inevitably restricts the number of visitors, especially in a country the size of the United States. No matter where its home was, a single location would inevitably make getting to it difficult for many people. The museum has addressed this problem by taking the show on the road.

Since the late 1980s ‘Anglers All’, a marvellous travelling exhibition has been seen by literally millions of people throughout the United States and abroad – in Canada and New Zealand as well as in places as diverse as California, Chicago, Colorado, Denver, Minneapolis, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Wisconsin and Yale. It was the success of its exhibition at Yale in the early 1990s that led eventually to its most recent venture. From September 2007 to February 2008, the AMFF and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History ran a joint exhibition, Seeing Wonders: The Nature of Fly Fishing, artefacts and displays on loan from the AMFF being augmented by the Peabody Museum’s wonderful ichthyology and entomology collections.

From June 1 this year, the museum will host The Sporting Grand Tour, an exhibition of Ogden Pleissner’s paintings, sketches, photographs, fishing tackle, journal entries and other memorabilia. Pleissner, one of the greatest of the American ‘realist’ painters of the 20th Century, was a passionate angler, and fly fishing featured in many of his paintings which, personally, I find immensely attractive.

Funding for the AMFF comes from club and corporate supporters, from members’ subscriptions and donations (there are currently 1,450 members in all fifty US states and in 18 other countries around the world), from legacies and from benefit dinners and auctions. At a very reasonable $40 per annum (£20), membership brings with it four copies of The American Fly Fisher each year, free admission to the museum and a discount on items from the excellent gift shop. More important than all of this, though, is a sense of involvement in the history of our sport and of being able to contribute to a most remarkable venture.

For those who wish to visit the museum, and it is very well worth a visit, it is open pretty well every day from 10am to 4pm, only being closed on Sundays from January to April and on major US public holidays.


  • The American Museum of Fly Fishing can be contacted at 4104 Main Street, Manchester, Vermont 05254. email Becky Nawrath (Administration & Membership) on: amff3@amff.com. The museum’s website is at www.amff.com

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