Frankfort Kentucky Reels Exhibit Spotlights History

Many anglers in Kentucky don’t realize our state’s rich contribution to fishing technology and angling history. Those who use a baitcasting reel to flip a 1/2-ounce black and blue jig to an isolated stump owe a debt of gratitude to Kentucky’s capital city.

Capital City Museum Exhibition

Anyone interested in old reels or fishing history should take a day during the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays and visit the Capital City Museum at 325 Ann St. in downtown Frankfort. Downs and the Capital City Museum opened an exhibit in early November displaying an array of rare, superbly maintained Frankfort, also called Kentucky, reels.

Jonathan F. Meek opened a jewelry business in the early 1830s in downtown Frankfort. After an apprenticeship in Danville, his brother Benjamin F. Meek joined him in 1835 to make fine jewelry. In 1837, Ben Milam joined the firm and would make his mark in the Kentucky fishing reel industry.

Judge Mason Brown came into the Meek brothers’ shop in the early years of their business to have a fishing reel repaired. He was not satisfied with the performance of his broken reel and insisted the Meek brothers make a new reel for him.

The Meeks traveled to Danville to use the only metal cutting engine in Kentucky at the time to fashion the wheels for the spool. They finished the reel with the same care and precision as the most expensive watch. Delighted with the results, Judge Brown showed all of his friends his great new fishing reel. Requests for more fishing reels spurred the Meek brothers to order a metal lathe and other tools from Switzerland for reel making. These tools were not available in the United States at that time.

Judge Brown’s request spawned an industry where reels made in Frankfort were known throughout the world for their quality. “These reels were completely handmade,” Brown said. “They could only produce a handful a month.”

“Considering in 1861 a Union soldier made only $13.60 a month, these reels mainly went to those with some means,” Downs said. An 1860 ad for B.C. Milam showed his smallest and lowest-end brass reel cost $13, a month’s pay for a soldier.

Milam eventually took over the fishing reel making and the Meek and Milam reels became known all over the country and Europe for their precision, durability and performance. An early Kentucky history book said that U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt all owned reels made by the firm.