Friday, November 28, 2008

Hello all, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Something this morning is compelling me to put down some thoughts about Thanksgiving. I receive a daily electronic newsletter on business, entrepreneurship, and personal growth. All this week, members of the staff have been taking turns listing their top ten favorite things about Thanksgiving – more to the point, the Top Ten Things they’re thankful for.


For me, as the youngest of four kids spread over 17 years and flung to the four geographic winds, “over the river and through the woods…” has often meant a car trip of 500 to 1000 miles or more: Manhattan, Kansas to Denver, Colorado; New Paltz, New York to Wamego, Kansas; Albert Lea, Minnesota to Chicago; Albert Lea to Lufkin, Texas; Albert Lea to Wamego; Minneapolis to Wamego; Minneapolis to NE Colorado.

Each one of those trips was a long ride in a cramped car, with family not seen in many months and perhaps a couple of years waiting at the other end. I remember listening to self-help books on tape for 1100 miles on my way from Minneapolis to Colorado one year. Another year I had my two small kids, Caitlin and Melissa, sitting in the back seat with stacks of library books, crayons, and toys piled high around them as we cruised through the grey Iowa landscape. When I was young, my parents and I made a loooooong road trip from Albert Lea to East Texas to see my brother Jack and his wife, Carol. Man! I thought that trip would NEVER end! Lufkin, Texas stole my heart however. What a beautiful little city, tucked into the pine woods of East Texas .

And of course, the food. My Mother’s “wet bread” stuffing, which wasn’t stuffing at all because we never did a turkey in those days. “Dressing” is a better word for it, made in a Corningware casserole and baked in the oven, and it was delicious! I wish I had the recipe, but I wonder if I could repeat the dish. Mashed potatoes and gravy… yummmm! Ham or ham-loaf, our family Thanksgiving meat of choice – I didn’t learn what turkey tasted like until I was 19 years old! Peas, green beans, and – OH YEAH! – turnip potatoes, those weird orange mashed potatoes with turnips mixed in and all mashed up together. I never could eat those… couldn’t get past the color. And rolls, and sweet pickles, and olives… and cranberry sauce. My Mother alternately tried making cranberry sauce from scratch – which never jelled – and serving it out of a can. To this day, it really isn’t Thanksgiving for me without cranberry sauce in a lovely crystal dish – with the tin can’s rippled sides molded into the sauce. (Side note: every year my sister still tries to make cranberry sauce from our Mother’s recipe. When we talk across the miles on Thanksgiving Day, she always gives me the report on whether the sauce jelled. She’s always a bit disappointed when it does.)

Which brings us to family. Family is perhaps what we, each and every one of us, are most thankful for. Health, security, world peace, a good hair day, and a clean, ironed shirt are all blessings of course, but having family makes the absence of one or more of those tolerable. I remember the first Thanksgiving that I was able to out-eat my big brother. Paid for it later of course. I remember the time I thought I had to eat everything my kids left on their plates (after cleaning my own) so the food wouldn’t go to waste. Paid for it later of course (ooo… that was a bad one). I remember being a little kid, basking in the warmth of laughter, snacks, and a game of Parcheesi, listening as my family caught up on all the happenings of their separated lives, rejoined for a few days in the late fall of the year.

I remember so many Thanksgivings, traveling in a car across a cold, snowy or icy landscape – west Kansas, Iowa north to south, never-ending Nebraska east to west, Pennsylvania-Ohio-Indiana-Illinois-Missouri, with Family at the other end of the trip. Hugs and handshakes, carrying the suitcases in out of the car, spilling over with news of our lives, and never enough time to get everything covered. But it’s OK. Family understands… and now we have e-mail and cell phones and web videophones, if we remember to use them, all relatively free to use so we can keep up between Thanksgivings.

To you, all my family and extended family, I hope this little missive, describing what I remember and what I’m thankful for, has jogged a few memories from across your years, and helped you reflect on what this holiday means to you. You all mean the world to me!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Brief, Incomplete, and Possibly Imprecise History of Adams™ Reels

Adapted from two e-mails I recently wrote in response to inquiries about the reels, the man, and the company I briefly owned in 2003.


I’ve had a couple of inquiries about Bill Adams and his reels lately, so I thought I’d create this post while the information is still fairly fresh in my mind.

I’ll cover the reels first: They are made of lightweight 6061-T6 aluminum, hard anodized black on the side plates. The anodizing is then machined away on the rims and the “S” handle. The center axle/ spindle, pillars, and all screws are 303S stainless steel, the gear is brass, and the bushing/ bearing is Oil-Lite®. There are a few small internal parts that are non-stainless steel. The rest is aluminum, so unless the reel has been around salt water or was stored wet or never cleaned, corrosion should not be a problem.

The spool is CNC (computer/ numerical control) machined (actually, when I made the reels, virtually all parts were made on CNC lathes and machining centers). Bill always hand finished the spools to remove the machine marks before anodizing. (This is death for anyone trying to sell these at a profit – the hand finishing takes too much time and is a real pain.) My shop and I figured out how to use tool selection, ultra-high tool speeds, and unique automated polishing techniques to get the finish we needed without the hand work. Make sure the reel you’re looking at is nicely finished, with no tool marks under the anodizing. Once anodized, there’s no going back.

Bill hand fit all the parts when he was making them. He made all parts on a small mill and two small lathes in his bedroom-sized shop, which was attached to the back of his house. Such parts need hand fitting during assembly. This is important to note should the reel ever need service or if you purchase a spare spool later on. If you ever do that, be aware that the new spool may need to be worked on in order to fit the reel, if the reel is of Bill Adams vintage (roughly pre-2002). CNC techniques standardize parts and reduce/ eliminate the need for hand fitting.

The reels were always a little wide for my taste and I believe Mr. Lacey, who currently makes the reels to Bill’s specifications (see below), is now offering a ¾” wide reel, at least in the 2-¾” size. I think that’s a great idea, and had plans to do that myself when I owned the company. I also had plans to use the wider frames for a large arbor version, and I think Mr. Lacey is also offering something like that. I think they now get $465 for a reel and $200 or more for a spool, so the price you’re being quoted isn’t bad, assuming the reel is in good shape.

They’re a delightful little reel for small to medium fish. They have only a click-pawl drag (and a light one at that). They work fine on smaller streams while chasing fish up to a pound or two. They look great on a cane rod and have some modern features (a palming rim and the ability to quickly change to a spare spool) that make them easier to use. I know people who’ve caught bigger fish – up to five pounds or more, but it’s a challenge to land such a fish. The reel does have a palming rim, so a fisherman who has good technical equipment handling skills can palm the spool to augment the drag and stop bigger fish.

The bottom line is you’re not going to break one of these reels unless you run over it with your car. They are held together with screws however, so they can theoretically work loose from time to time (I’ve never experienced this with mine, and I’ve fished them since 2002). If you chase bigger fish, or fish salt water at all, I would not recommend the Adams, but if you fish smaller streams chasing fish up to 15” – 20” and like traditional tackle with some modern design features, this is a great little reel. I wish I’d been a better business man in those days. I’d love to still be making them.

Now the history:

I'll try to remember as much of Bill’s story and the story of Adams Reels as I can without digging deep for my notes (which are God knows where). So, caveat emptor on some of the details.

Bill Adams was trained as a tool & die maker and was in the Navy on, I believe, a light cruiser during WWII. When the war ended he went home and eventually went to work for AMF, servicing bowling alleys. He was a fisherman and tinkered with reels in his spare time. He generated several designs and prototypes before coming up with the present design. He knows/ knew most of the reel makers around New England - you may know he lives northeast of Albany, NY, near the little town of Cambridge - and they all talk, or did in those days.

Bill really liked the classic look of the 'S' handle, but liked the newer development of a quick release spool. Upon the encouragement of friends in the business, he developed and standardized the current design sometime in the early '90's, I believe. The design is patented, but (I think) the patent is weak and there are some irregularities with it.

Bill made the reels himself in a small shop off the back of his house near Cambridge. He made most parts by hand or typical machining methods (lathe & mill), but had the spools CNC machined at a local job-shop. As he got older he was looking to sell the company. I live in Minnesota and learned about him from a local fly shop owner who’d tried to purchase a couple of reels from him and had heard the company was for sale.

I got ahold of Bill to discuss a possible purchase of Adams Reels. Bill was indeed interested in selling, so I bought a sample reel to inspect and test-fish. I was quite pleased and impressed with the reel and subsequently made a couple of trips to see Bill, the first in late summer of 2002 to see his operation, and again in January of 2003 to consummate the sale, pick up the assets of the company - existing parts, tooling, plans & documentation, the above-mentioned patent, etc. - and to document his manufacturing process as best I could. When I took over manufacture, I redesigned a few parts and had all parts CNC machined, and that eliminated the hand fitting.

Unfortunately, I misjudged how to market the reels - misjudged the market altogether for that matter, and spent waaaay too much on big-time magazine advertising with no increase in sales over the numbers Bill had seen. Thus, I could only keep the business going for about a year. Through the purchase agreement I had with Bill, if the business failed, the assets that I took posession of reverted to him. That indeed happened, at the end of 2003. I spent the week between Christmas and New Years packing up boxes and shipping stuff back to him.

(A little aside here, these things are incredibly expensive to make in small quantities, paying modern US shop rates. That's why you see so much going overseas, to China and elsewhere. And that in turn is why you can now find a very good machined reel still in the $100 range - foreign manufacture. And it's also the biggest reason why you don't find a lot of these reels around anymore. I think if someone was a hobby machinist and didn't need to turn a profit, they could make a nice side hobby business out of reels - these or any other. And of course, that's what is happening with all these modern classic reels. They’re all boutique reels, made in small numbers by machinists, and appealing mostly to connoisseurs.)

I believe Bill made reels for another year or two. I'm not sure though, as I lost touch with him (I frankly was pretty embarrassed about my lack of business performance). I didn't know what became of him or the reels until they showed up in LL Bean's fly fishing catalog a couple of years ago. I know he'd also previously approached Orvis about the reels (Cambridge is near Manchester, VT). I mean no disrespect but I have to say the reel in the photo in Beans' catalog, and also on their catalog website, was of inferior finish. You could see machine marks all over it. I was surprised LL Bean would use such a photo. As I said above, make sure the finish on the reel you’re considering is good.

As alluded to above, a cane rod maker in Georgia by the name of Gary Lacey is apparently making the reels now. I believe he's the same one who made (makes?) them for LL Bean. The gentleman at Just Reels (I can't remember his name - Jim Williams, I think) notes that he hasn't gotten any reels from Mr. Lacey in quite some time, so I don't know the situation there.

That’s an overview of what I can remember about the history of Bill Adams and Adams Reels. There are obvious holes in this history, and some of the facts may be a bit vague, but it’s the overall story. I have to say, I’ve found this exercise inspiring! It’d be fun to pull together a real history of Bill Adams, his reels, and his company.