History of Gayle Reels

In the 1800’s, the world turned to Kentucky clock and watch makers to create and improve upon a multiplying gear casting reel.  The first of these reels was made around 1820, but it took a number of these men to improve and then perfect this new idea in reel making.  Most were clock makers and jewelers who were experienced in working with metals and precision tools.  After George Snyder’s first reel, it was the Meeks and the Milams and later a clock maker named George W. Gayle and his son Clarence that followed the this endeavor.  It is the Gayle family connection that provides the following interesting history.

George William Gayle was born in Kentucky on June 3, 1834.  It is reported that he worked as an apprentice in his early years in the J.F. and B.F. Meek shop and later with B.C. Milam.  George then went to work for and later managed a jeweler’s shop for Worsham P. Loomis in Frankfort, Kentucky.  It was there he mastered his skills as a watchmaker and jeweler.  Next door to the Loomis shop was the Meek and Milam shop that opened in 1853 specializing in clocks and reel making.  George Gayle was employed at the Loomis shop until the death of Loomis in 1870 at which time he went into business for himself.

George Gayle had a son, Clarence, who was born on November 15, 1866.  It is believed that Clarence joined his father in his shop around the age of 16.  Clarence had worked as an apprentice a the Meek and Milam shop prior to joining his father.  It was while at the Meek and Milam shop that his interest turned more to the art of reel making.  It was in 1882, that George and his son Clarence began to make reels.

History is not clear if George ever actually made any reels even though he had the opportunity while he was an apprentice to J.F. and B.F. Meek.  It is further plausible that he shown his son the art of making these casting reels.  It was only natural that Clarence with his love for the sport of fishing on the Elkhorn Creek would be drawn into the business of making fishing reels.

A self taught craftsman with only a third grade education, Clarence Gayle learned never to trust his own eyes, but to rely on his trusty micrometer as he developed into a fine craftsman and mechanical engineer.  It is believed that the first Gayle reel was crafted in 1882.  The earliest known and dated reel is a brass No. 3 size that was made for a relative Lent Tanner dated 1884.  In 1885 he made a brass No. 1 size for Sadie Tanner.  They were both stamped with the George W. Gayle & Son.  Prior to Clarence’s marriage to Emma Kavanaugh on June 18, 1890, he made her a reel out of hard red rubber also in the No. 1 size.

In the mid 1890’s Clarence Gayle was making two styles of casting reels.  One was the traditional Kentucky style or Frankfort reel.  The other was his new style with its raised gear box that become known “New” style or top hat.  Clarence made reels from brass, German silver or hard rubber.  He would later make some out of aluminum.  Gayle reels were made is sizes ranging from the No. 1 size for women and children to the larger No. 10 designed for tarpon and other large saltwater fish.

George Gayle died in 1896 leaving the company named “George W. Gayle and Son” for Clarence to continue.  Clarence’s workmanship was becoming more well known.  The Gayle reels were being advertised in several of the nation’s premier catalogs such as William Mills and Son of New York as well as VL&A out of Chicago.  The “Intrinsic” reel made for William Mills did not carry the Gayle name.  The reels made for VL&A did carry the maker’s name.  The Meek & Milam name though had been around for many more years and had the more recognizable name and thus market share. Clarence was trying to make a living in a tough time and had to leave Frankfort in 1905.

He went to Flint Michigan and went to work for Buick Motor Company in their tooling department and then to Aurora, Illinois for Harley Davidson in the same department.  It was while working there that he expanded his knowledge in the tooling line.  He returned to Frankfort, Kentucky in 1915 to revitalize his shop and the reel making business.

It was in the early 1920’s that Clarence introduced a line of inexpensive single action fly reels.  This line of reels was called and stamped Gayle’s Simplicity. They were further identified with the No. 0,1,2,3,5, and 6.  Each was a little more advanced and used different materials of construction.  There became a large demand for these reels both in the United States and abroad particularly in the Scandinavian  countries.

In the mid 1930’s, Clarence learned that the Japanese had copied his “Simplicity” reel even to the point that they left his name including Frankfort, KY on the reel but marked “Made in Japan” on the back side.  They were able to manufacture and sell the reel for less than Gayle could make it.  This basically shut down his reel making.

Clarence had been approached over the year after he came back to Frankfort, to do various projects for the government due to his fine craftsmanship and a precision machinist. In the early 1940’s, Clarence was approached again with a government contract that called for 20 various parts.  He was provided drawing and told he had two years to complete the work and all parts were to be kept secret as well as the drawings.  He was to even keep any spoiled parts.

Clarence realized he would need the fine tooling lathe he acquired when he purchased the contents of the Milam shop following the death of John Milam in 1928.  He had sold the lathe to Edmund Rodman.  He contacted Rodman and borrowed the lathe for the next two years to use in the government contract.  It was not until after WWII ended that Clarence learned that one of the parts he milled was used in the atom bomb that ended the war.  The majority of the parts he made were merely decoys and had no intended use.  He had made the statement to one of his grandsons, Joe A. Gayle, who had been wounded by Japanese during the war that he felt he got even with them.

Also during the late 1920’s and 1930’s he began to make wooden casting lures.  One a longer torpedo shape he called the “Kentucky Steelback”.  This lure had propellers on the front and rear that was  stamped with the Gayle name.  There was a second version was called the “Shorty” lure he named after his grandson Joe A. Gayle.  This was a diving lure with a lip that was also marked with the Gayle name. Near the end of his career, Clarence made six presentation reels marked with new stamp “C. Gayle”. Each was dated and numbered.  These were the last reels he made.  With his government contract and since he was no longer using the stamping machines to manufacture the Simplicity reels he began to make dog tags for the military and became the largest manufacturer of dog tags in the United States.

With the death of Clarence Gayle in 1948, the precision of the Kentucky reel making that had begun 125 years earlier had come to an end.  The Gayle reel was one of the finest in precision and performance due to the fact that Clarence Gayle was not only an avid fisherman but also perfectionist when it came to tooling.

The Gayle Reels are some of the most sought after by collectors that know the workmanship has not nor ever will be duplicated.