Louis Feierabend: Renaissance Man
A few years back, my wife and I received a distinct honor: an invitation to attend a yearly gathering of a small and select group of rodbuilders hosted by Jon Parker (Parker Rods) and his wife Carol along with their neighbor, Dave Shadrick. This event is held at their retirement home in Wyoming along the North Platte and is notable not just for the graciousness of the Parker's, but also for the quality of the company they keep.
On one of our first evenings there, Jon and Carol had arranged an intimate dinner with a few of his best friends. Seated at the table were noted rodbuilders Charlie Jenkins and the late John Lohman, artist Charlie Ports and to our right sat Louis Feierabend. Our dinner began with a fresh watercress salad that Louis had picked during a float that day, and as the wonderful meal progressed we were captivated by Louis' story.
Louis is probably best known as the inventor of the Super-Z ferrule (more on that later), but this is but one of his many accomplishments. You see, he's what many people would refer to as a Renaissance man- with an extraordinary breadth of talent, knowledge and experience acquired over his life of 90 years. Talking with Louis is a chance to learn much about rodbuilding as well as some of the many luminaries of the fly fishing world.
I recently gave Louis a call at his home in the mountains outside Boulder, CO to check up on him and see how he was doing. He told me that he just turned 90 and was still enjoying life and getting around well. He mentioned that he enjoys the wildlife on his fourteen-acre spread, and has even managed to tame a fox that comes to eat out of his hand! He said that he was looking hopefully forward to spring, when he can get out and fish the uncrowded feeder streams in the area.
Louis was born on February 17, 1910 near Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His family owned a greenhouse that raised flowers for the wholesale market in New York City. As a young boy, Louis learned how to fish at a local farm pond called 'Bullhead Pond' on account of the small catfish that the boys caught there. He recounted that his first fishing outfit was about as rudimentary possible: a stick with a length of catgut.
His father died while Louis was still quite young and after some public schooling he was sent off to a military school in Staunton, Virginia. The officials at the school allowed him to bring his .22 caliber rifle with him from home. One day while target shooting near a stream he noticed some bass in the water, and lacking a fishing rod, traded his gun for his first split-bamboo rod. This Utica rod, Louis laughingly remembers, was a real 'club.'
During his second year at Military School a classmate invited Louis to spend some time at their family cabin along the Gallatin River, near Bozeman, MT. It was there that he was introduced to trout fishing and caught his first fish on an artificial wet fly. The year was 1927, and so began his love for trout and rivers.
Louis went on to college at the University of Miami, but the Depression cut short his dream of a degree. He landed a job in procurement at Wright Aeronautical in Patterson, N.J and through this job became knowledgeable about engineering and also developed a love for flight. Finding that he could advance no further without a degree, he left the company and briefly was employed by a man named Fulton.
During his stint with Fulton he met two women, one a buyer, the second an engineer, and they set up shop in a basement to begin making ferrules for the tackle trade. At this time (1948) the fiberglass looked to be the promising rodmaking material of the future, but the existing types of ferrules were unsuitable for the hollow design of the new fiberglass rod blanks. Drawing on his engineering background, Louis designed and patented the Super-Z ferrule. This ingenious new design worked for both the new fiberglass rods as well as bamboo rods and offered additional strength, easier mounting and manufacture.
Upon hearing of this new design, the noted independent cane rodbuilder Everett Garrison came to visit the ferrule making shop. As a fellow engineer, Garrison himself was quick to see the advantages of Loius' Super-Z design and became an instant convert. Louis also showed his design to Jim Payne who remarked, "I wish I would have thought of that." Although the business grew as they began to supply the glass rod trade with the new ferrules, the size of the market and the going rate for the ferrules ($1.50 a set!) wasn't sufficient to support all three workers, and Louis had a wife and four children to take care of. He turned over the business to the women, asking only for a lathe and continuing patent rights to the design.
For a time Louis went into partnership with John Bishop and they opened a tackle store called Rockland Tackle. The shop was located between New York City and the Catskills and it was there that he rubbed elbows with the famous anglers of the time. Ray Bergman, Lee Wulff, and Jim Payne would drop by from time to time. Louis admits that he probably didn't have the right temperament for the tackle trade, and was perhaps too honest and straight talking for his own good.
Louis next came on board the staff at the newly established Uslan Rod Company in Spring Valley, N.Y. The Uslan Company had found their own niche in the rodbuilding world by manufacturing 5-sided bamboo rods. Louis was charged with improving productivity by designing new machinery as well as redesigning the rod tapers to make these rods much better casting instruments.
Louis set out to improve the Uslan rod tapers in his typical straightforward style. He took micrometer measurements on some of the better rods of the day such as those made by Payne, Thomas and Leonard. These measurements were plotted on graph paper for comparison, and Louis adapted what he learned to the 5-sided rods at Uslan. The resulting efforts were then tested for approval by angling experts such as Wulff and Bergman. It is worth noting that every rod in the Uslan catalog was developed through this method of empirical experimentation and simple graphing of rod tapers.
Louis shared the knowledge he gained at Uslan when he was asked to author a chapter on rodbuilding for McClane's Wise Fisherman's Encyclopedia. This concise treatise on rodbuilding should be required reading for anyone that desires the knowledge of how to build cane rods without wading through superfluous pseudo-scientific mumbojumbo.
Again finding that the pay in the field of rodbuilding wasn't sufficient to support his family, Louis left Uslan in 1952 and took a job at IBM. Although IBM was hesitant to hire Louis because he didn't hold a degree they soon found that his diverse experiences and talents were uniquely suited to facilitating projects. Because he could 'speak the language' of the engineer as well as having the practical experience in the shop to produce things, he found a nice niche for himself. He helped design typewriters and assisted the company in a patent infringement suit. As the company moved into the electronic-age he was responsible for managing teams that developed the first automatic tape recorder, which in turn evolved into the IBM 7330 project- the first tape recording device to be incorporated into a computer.
Louis has led such a full life that it wasn't easy writing this column and attempting to condense his 90 years into such a brief article. I almost forgot to mention that Louis was a welcome guest of Jim Payne at the Payne factory and they spent many pleasant hours together fishing. Or how Jim offered him a job, which he had to politely decline. Louis wanted to also share a bit of his world with Jim, and took him on a ride in his glider. (Did I forget to mention he's got over a 1,000 flight hours?) As I close this article I was happy to find that Louis is still designing, inventing and moving forward with the same vigor and curiosity that we can all only hope to have in our futures.
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