The Shakespeare Company: Fine Fishing Tackle

Assembling Reels

Photo gallery: Shakespeare Products Company

The Shakespeare Company has been a leading manufacturer and supplier of fishing equipment and other sporting goods since it was founded in Kalamazoo in 1897 by William Shakespeare Jr. This followed his original patent in 1896 of the level winding reel, which enabled fishing enthusiasts to rewind their line evenly on a spool, rather than having to guide it with their thumb. While the reel was the first product to be manufactured by the company, rods, lines, and bait were added. One of the most popular baits was the rubber frog. 

The company was incorporated in 1905. Originally located on Water Street, it moved to 419 Pitcher in 1913. In 1939, operations moved to the old multi-story Kalamazoo Paper Box factory at 241 E. Kalamazoo Avenue. A one-story Art Deco style building was added just to the west of the factory and used as an office building. 

Beyond Fishing Reels

Shakespeare Products was created in 1921 as a subsidiary to The Shakespeare Company and focused primarily on the production of auto and aircraft parts, as well as war parts when necessary. 

The Shakespeare Company made the first fiberglass fishing rods, which had been developed by Dr. A. M. Howald, a famous chemical engineer. He contacted the company with his design and production began in 1945. Along with the actual equipment, Shakespeare created booklets that provided fishing tips and instruction. The company also sold items under the Shakespeare name that were not actually manufactured there. These included hunting clothes, boat oars, and dog leads. Golf and archery equipment also became part of the Shakespeare line.

Strike!

Shakespeare Company Fishing Lure

Despite its continuing success, the company had dark times as well. In September of 1948, contract negotiations had come to a standstill, and Local 3619 of the United Steelworkers went on strike, affecting approximately 700 Shakespeare employees. A riot ensued in December, resulting in a conspiracy trial that broke all previous records for length of criminal cases tried in Kalamazoo County. Finally, in August 1949, a mistrial was declared, in September the strike was declared illegal, and in October, more than a year after the strike began, the picketing ended.

Shakespeare Lives On

The headquarters of The Shakespeare Company moved to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, although the Flexible Controls Division remained in Kalamazoo. In 1979, The Shakespeare Company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of California-based Anthony Industries, Inc. Speareflex bought the assets of Shakespeare’s cable operations from Anthony in 1981 and took over the Kalamazoo location, but abandoned it in 1989. Several older buildings on the north end of the property have been demolished, but the two buildings that face Kalamazoo Avenue have been redeveloped for other uses. The name of the company has been preserved in the Shakespeare Pub, which occupies the smaller art-deco building.

Shakespeare Rod

Sources

Books

A History of the Shakespeare Company, 1896-1952 

  • Steward, Douglas 
  • Papers from the History Seminar of Kalamazoo College, 1958 
  • H 338.8 S849

Local History Room Subject Files

Shakespeare Company 

Websites

"Shakespeare's History"