The Charles H. Demarest Company
It would be impossible to write a series about cane rodbuilders without first starting with the folks that have been almost solely responsible for the importation and promotion of Tonkin cane as a rodbuilding material. I just spent a very pleasant part of a February Sunday morning talking with Harold and Eileen Demarest of Charles H. Demarest, Inc. Harold and Eileen told me about the history of the company that supplied the bamboo used in virtually every cane rod from the golden age of bamboo rodbuilding to the present. As we spoke my wife was in the shop, splitting and straightening cane strips from culms supplied by them and couldn't help but feel that we are all interconnected in this wonderful craft.
The story begins with Harold's father, Charles H. Demarest. Charles was born in 1880 and was the youngest of three sons. Upon reaching adulthood he found that there wasn't a place for him on the family dairy farm in New Jersey and so went to work for the Daniel Shaw Company in New York. The Shaw Company was involved in the importation of a variety of natural goods- rattans, Mother of Pearl shells, Buffalo horns for buttons, palm leaf fans, bamboo, ginger and some spices, and it was here that he learned the importation business.
Charles acquired the company in 1911 and company records indicate that at the time he was supplying both 'Tonkin' and Calcutta cane to a veritable who's-who of the rodbuilding trade: William Mills (a buyer for the Leonard rodbuilding company), Montague, South Bend, Devine, et al. At this time Tonkin cane was known as 'Chinese' bamboo and quickly became the favored species for rodbuilding. (See our previous column-The Rodbuilder's Bamboo)
Charles incorporated his business in 1922 and expanded his operations to include the importation of a number of natural items that were commonly used in products of his day. These included rattan to be used in furniture making, cane webbing for chair seats, natural broom and brush fibers, woven matting and hat bodies, varnish gums, and horns for umbrella handles.
In 1934 Charles made his first Far East trip to meet with his suppliers. Traveling by ship and land he visited India, Hong Kong, Canton and West Africa. He didn't have the opportunity to go upcountry to see the Tonkin growing in its natural state, but did get to meet with his suppliers at the facilities for sorting the cane at Canton. These long-term relationships with the people that grow, process and distribute cane were cemented and strengthened at this time.
Harold joined the family business in 1934 and recounted how upon graduation from college "on a Friday, started working with his dad on Monday!" During the time leading up to World War II, Harold traveled all over the eastern US personally meeting with the company's customers- a tradition that continues to this day. (Indeed, when I tried to reach the Demarests a month or two ago and they were off lecturing at a rodbuilding gathering in Arkansas!)
During WWII Harold served his country in the Navy while his father continued running the business. The war years were lean ones for the company as the men were away fighting and domestic efforts were focused on wartime concerns. But the postwar years saw an explosion in the Tonkin cane business. Men returning from the war were anxious to resume fishing and the tackle trade flourished. Rodbuilding companies at this time had a policy of carrying 4 years worth of Tonkin in inventory and began rebuilding their stocks. In 1950 Harold took his first trip to China and completed what turned out to be his last Tonkin transaction prior to the embargo.
All was not well for the cane rodbuilding companies, however. On the horizon was the coming of the first synthetic rods as well as the 1950 embargo on trade with China including Tonkin cane. Many manufacturers could not make the transition to synthetic materials and one by one closed their operations. As they folded, the Demarest Company would often buy back stocks of cane to help keep cane available for those in need. Charles continued to work three days a week at the company until he died in 1957, when Harold took the helm.
After the embargo ended in 1971, new challenges arose. The growing and distribution of Tonkin cane was taken over by the Chinese government and new relationships had to be forged. The synthetics were rapidly replacing cane as the material of choice. In 1962 Harold met his bride-to-be Eileen while on (what else?) a business trip and credits her organizational and business acuity to the continued success of the company. In 1976 they built a 30,000 square foot warehouse in New Jersey to accommodate their operation.
As the demand for cane ebbed with the switch to synthetics, the market for cane became quite small and mainly limited to home craftsmen and the few remaining commercial firms that continued to build cane rods. The publication of the Garrison/Carmichael book in 1977 as well as the Cattanach book in 1992 helped to spawn a reawakening in the craft and renewed appreciation for the bamboo and the cane rodbuilding craft. Throughout it all-from the good times of the Golden Age to the lean years- the Demarest Company has been there to meet the needs of cane rodbuilders.
Today, the Demarests continue their active roles in providing the highest quality cane to rodbuilders worldwide. In the last five years they have visited China three times; tirelessly searching to improve the quality and service synonymous with their reputation and good name. They are also well known and respected visitors at the many rodbuilding gatherings throughout the United States where they give informative lectures about Tonkin cane. For those interested in building trying their hand at the craft they offer small (three culm) quantities of cane, as well as 20 culm bundles for professionals and serious hobbyists. While the days of shipping railroad cars full of cane to production facilities are gone, they continue to persevere and endure as they have since 1880!
© 2000, 2001, 2002 J.D. Wagner, Inc.
Back To Rodbuilding Pages
Eileen and Harold, Sommerset N.J. Show, January 1999