For the past nine years – ever since he bought the fabled Thomas Rod Company and returned the purveyor of fine bamboo fishing rods to its Brewer roots – Steve Campbell has had to deal with an unfortunate problem.
“People call from all over the world, asking questions about old rods, asking questions about new rods,” the 41-year-old Brewer native said.
And then … eventually … many of these conversations led to the same place.
“They often say, ‘When I’m in Maine, I’d love to come by the store,'” Campbell said, chuckling wryly.
That was the problem, you see.
Thomas Rod Company did, in fact, exist. It had returned to its original roots – many figure it was always a Bangor firm, but it actually began when Fred Thomas made his rods across the Penobscot River – but not in the way many thought.
“That was always the thing that killed me,” Campbell said. “They pictured the Thomas Rod Company as 50 years ago, 60 years ago.”
That meant they pictured the company legendary rod-maker Sam Carlson bought and relocated to New Hampshire … long before Campbell bought the company, brought it to his hometown, and toiled in relative obscurity … in his basement.
There was no store. There was no factory. There was Campbell, a bamboo- rod fanatic who split the bamboo while splitting time between his basement workshop and the fulltime job he held to pay the bills … and his other fulltime responsibilities, as a National Guardsman who eventually spent a year in Iraq … and a husband to his wife, a father to his children.
Now, while still busy and still making rods on a part-time business, things have changed for Campbell.
Earlier this week, he began welcoming folks to a shop he’d been hoping to build since he bought the company in 1999.
The sparkling new facility is housed in his garage, with a workshop upstairs, and a showroom downstairs. The flooring, appropriately, is made of bamboo.
Outside the shop, a replica of the original Thomas Rod Company sign lets visitors know they’re in the right place to enjoy a slice of greater-Bangor history.
“It’s really a dream come true, for me to have a shop, a place where the Thomas Rod Company exists, because up until now, for the last 10 years, the Thomas Rod Company has existed in my home and on my Web site,” Campbell said. “That’s it.”
Now, a single step inside Campbell’s showroom door does exactly what he hoped it would do: It proves to those interested in fine bamboo rods that the Thomas Rod Company is still here … and still preserving the traditional craft that Fred and Leon Thomas helped turn into a regional trademark.
Campbell will host an open house at the showroom on June 28 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. You can find him at 19 Sargent Drive in Brewer – just head up Eastern Avenue from State Street, take your second right, and go to the last house on the right.
He’ll be open at other times by appointment, which he says will be simple to make: Campbell is eager to share his knowledge of rod-making and the Thomas tradition with others.
Campbell’s showroom features several vintage rods, including some which were not made by Thomas, but which are historically significant, like a Hiram Leonard original built in 1875.
A large display case holds other mementos, including Fred Thomas’s fishing hat, with his favorite flies still in the hatband.
Artwork that was featured in Thomas catalogs are also featured prominently, as is the mount of Campbell’s first Penobscot River Atlantic salmon.
Upstairs, he’ll benefit from a larger workspace, and says that his operation will become more efficient as he avoids moving equipment around between production phases.
According to Campbell, Fred Thomas worked in Brewer from 1898 until 1903, then moved his operation to Bangor. His son, Leon, took over the company after his death. It was eventually sold to Carlson, in 1948.
Campbell said an appreciation for craftsmanship and older items fueled his desire to learn about bamboo rods when he was about 20 years old.
“I always liked the old version of things,” Campbell said. “I liked old fly rods and old cars and old wood boats and stuff like that.”
That interest led to him frequenting antique shops, buying old bamboo rods, and restoring them.
There was a problem, however: He didn’t know much about restoring bamboo rods.
His solution was simple: He read everything he could get his hands on, and talked with anyone willing to share tips.
One such person was rod-maker and artist Arthur Taylor, who called Campbell to ask about a rod the young rod-repairer had restored and put up for sale.
Campbell quickly decided that Taylor had more rod-making equipment and knowledge than he did, and set up a meeting with Taylor at his Lee home. Then Campbell could get a look at how others did things.
That began a friendship that has endured, and provided a link to the past that Campbell would need later on.
In 1990, Campbell built his first rod, hand-planing the bamboo and learning by trial and error. The entire process lasted a year, and he invested more than 100 hours of labor in the project. And while he has picked the brains of many rod-makers, Campbell said he has still never watched another rod-maker make a bamboo rod.
Taylor, meanwhile turned into a valuable mentor who opened doors for his protégé.
“Everything I have done in this whole process, other than the very beginning with George [Snedden], setting the fire for me making my own [graphite] rod, I really owe to Arthur Taylor,” Campbell said. “He knew everybody in the rod-making world when I was first coming into it, and he was just coming out of it.”
Among those people was Carlson, the owner of the Thomas Rod Company.
During their first meeting, Campbell casually mentioned that he’d be interested in talking to the rod-maker if he ever decided to sell the company.
Campbell learned that he was one of many to have said the same thing, and was essentially brushed off by Carlson, who was not ready to sell.
The duo continued to talk regularly on the phone, however, and Campbell continued to ask the veteran rod-maker questions about the craft.
Three or four years after their initial meeting, Campbell’s phone rang. Carlson was calling … and he wanted to know if Campbell was still interested in his company.
Carlson, Campbell theorizes, had decided that the young rod-maker was serious about the traditions of the craft, and could be trusted with the future … and the past … of the Thomas Rod Company.
The veteran rod-maker had made and sold a few Thomas rods, but eventually returned to selling his own models instead, Campbell said. Officially, the Thomas Rod Company still existed, but was not in active production.
A year later – in 1999 – the sale was completed, and Campbell owned the storied rod company.
“That was a pretty cool day,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he knew that there would be some who thought he was just buying the Thomas name in order to increase his ability to sell rods. But he also knew that those who buy and collect bamboo rods are a discriminating lot, and can tell a good product from a sub-par one.
“When I bought the company, it was big shoes to fill,” Campbell said. “Collectors know how to scrutinize a rod, they know what good varnish looks like, they know what good tapers look like. You have to make a product at least as good as they were making just to be accepted as the Thomas Rod Company again.”
And since then, that has been his quest.
He buys the bamboo from the same supplier that Fred and Leon Thomas did business with, and says producing rods that are viewed as authentically Thomas – not replicas – is important.
And while some may choose to say that only truly Thomas-built rods deserve the Thomas label, Campbell points out that Fred and Leon Thomas themselves actually progressed to the point that they did little rod-making work. Instead, they served as managers of their skilled team of craftsmen.
“I don’t want to make a reproduction of what they used to be,” he said. “I want to make [a rod] as if the company had never closed.”
In a past era, Campbell may have been one of those craftsmen. In this era, he hopes to eventually dedicate himself to the craft on a fulltime basis.
Now, he makes about a dozen rods a year. With a new shop and added efficiency, that may increase.
But in the future? Who knows.
Campbell, for one, is eager to find out what happens next.
“This is a dream come true,” he said, standing in a new storeroom, full of new fixtures, but sporting plenty of reminders of the past.
“This little showroom is a place to display my rods, but it’s kind of like a little museum for me,” he said.