PULASKI – Like a salmon battling upstream, a true gem of the Salmon River corridor is battling for its life. The Salmon River International Sport Fishing Museum, four miles east of downtown on Route 13, a transplant really from the Finger Lakes, has been struggling upstream for almost 20 years here, and like the salmon has made it again and again.
But now, it’s in trouble and needs help. This is its history and story.
It begins with an ending. The B.F. Gladding Company of the little town of South Otselic, NY, once the largest manufacturer of fishing line in the world, fell on hard times of intense foreign competition and those brought on by over-diversification into a rapidly-changing technology.
During the heyday of their 160-year-old success story, Gladding asked the world’s fishing public to donate fishing-related objects that have meaning or are important to the history of fishing and Gladding would house them.
In 1968, they bought an octagon building in South Otselic, renovated it, and on Sept. 16, 1972 opened the first museum in the western hemisphere for sports fishing, a subset of all fishing defined by using only a rod and reel and not nets or spears or any other such method to catch fish.
Though very successful, Gladding ran into serious Japanese competition while at the same time diversifiying their success into many other product lines, especially, and disastrously in 1976, the CB radio, or as Mike Riordan, director of the Salmon River International Sport Fishing Museum and author of an extensive history of the Gladding Company, called it, “the iPhone of our day.
“They wanted to be in everything to do with outdoor activities,” he said. “Sleds, hockey, ice skates, electronics, recreation, stereos, RVs, marbles, pool, and sleeping bags.”
The CB radios were handmade. When the federal government changed the regulation on CBs from 23-channel to 40, Gladding was stuck with CBs they couldn’t sell, while the Japanese had 40-channel CBs ready to go at half Gladding’s price. Gladding was left with a $30 million debt and bankruptcy. They were forced to liquidate the museum. All the contents were boxed up and shipped to a warehouse in Connecticut. It sat there for eight or nine years while Gladding searched for a non-profit corporation to donate it to.
“They could not just sell it,” Riordan said. “They could not just forget about it. It was a responsibility, like what I’m feeling right now. If we decide we can’t go further this year, what’s going to happen to this collection? We have 10 acres of land, a building, it’s all debt-free, but we need income to support it, and we need people to support it and to do something with it. So, I’m feeling like Gerald Mayer, former president of Gladding, 30 years ago when he was in the same pickle. You’ve got this wonderful museum, and all these original paintings and all this stuff, and the responsibility of it, and yet, the income has to be there to protect it and support it.”
Back to Gladding and the remains of the museum in storage. As fate would have it, Gladding’s attorney was with the firm Bond, Schoeneck and King as was the attorney for the Oswego County Chamber of Commerce. The topic of the museum came up one day at lunch, the attorney for Gladding saying he needed to find an organization to take over Gladding’s museum and the attorney for the Chamber of Commerce saying he might be able to put something together that could help. And so he did. Raising between $5,000 and $6,000 from local corporate donors, he was able to create the Oswego Collectors’ Club, a non-profit, whose goal was to find a place to put the museum’s collection. They approached the H. Lee White Maritime Museum in Oswego but were turned down. They took parts of the collection around town looking for help in finding a new home for the collection, but it didn’t happen until the Seaway Trail was created and brought Niagara Mohawk into the story who built a visitors’ center a few mile east of downtown Pulaski along the Salmon River corridor. Niagara Mohawk later gave that visitors’ center and the 10 acres of land it was on to the Friends of the Salmon River International Fishing Museum when they were bought out by National Grid, who did not want to continue owning and running a visitors’ center. And so, the Oswego Collectors’ Club and the Pulaski Chamber of Commerce stepped up to put the museum’s collection there, keeping part of it as a visitors’ center manned by the Chamber of Commerce and part of it as the new Salmon River International Sport Fishing Museum. In 2002, plans were drawn up to turn those 10 acres into a dream for the region at a projected cost of $270,000.
“They started it, and they raised $56,000,” Riordan recounted. “And, you know, the little thermometer with the amount of money, it just stopped. And the lady who used to sit right here, her name was Margaret Clerkin, she was the secretary and sometimes president of the Chamber of Commerce, said, ‘We’ve collected all this money. We’ve got to do something with it, or we should be giving it back to the people because it’s not right to hold this money.’ They had this money for years. People gave thousands of dollars in the hope there’d be this museum.
“So Margaret decided she would take matters into her own hands, and she single-handedly said, ‘We’ve got $56,000,” and started calling all the Chamber members asking, ‘Could you put the shingles on if I bought them? Could you do the concrete work if I bought the concrete? Could you do this, could you do that?’ And she single-handedly took all the different businesses from around this area, convinced them, with a little bit of arm wrestling, but she got the museum built for $56,000. And that’s how it got here.”
Up until about four years ago, the Chamber remained in that visitors’ center half of the museum and kept their office there. But new leadership decided the office was too far outside of downtown Pulaski and so moved the office into town.
“Unfortunately,” Riordan said, “that hurt us because they were sharing our expenses. Heat, lights, plowing, mowing, all of that was covered, and we took care of all of our expenses on the other half. We ended up with all of it, and that hurt us pretty bad. We took about a $3,500 a year hit. I don’t fault the Chamber, but it was really kind of sad because we couldn’t have handled it on our own, but we had no choice. They were pulling out. Now we were totally dependent on people who came through the door to give a donation to pay all the bills that we have.”
The visitor center still remains and is maintained by the museum even though the Chamber is no longer there to staff and maintain it.
“We do all of that with zero money coming from anybody,” Riordan said. “We take that responsibility as kind of a service to this region.
“Our mission is pretty straightforward. It’s to preserve what we’ve got here. And it’s deep and wide.”
And if ever there was an understatement, there it is.
“We’ve got rods that were donated from across the world. We have things from Africa. We’ve got things from Europe. We’ve got things from Iceland, Greenland, you name it. Whatever people gave to the museum when it was first created is what’s in this collection.”
The assortment alone of homemade fishing inventions is truly awe-inspiring as is so much of this absolutely unique collection.
Some exhibits are absolutely one-of-a-kind. Wooden lures. Numerous rods and reels. And Riordan knows them all inside out. As he described the most basic rod in the entire collection from 1908.
“You go, ‘Mike, it’s just a stick.’ But, we forget that fishing poles weren’t available to everybody. You had to be elite and wealthy to own a fishing rod at the turn of the century. The average fisherman couldn’t even feed their family, let alone go out and buy a fishing pole to go sport fishing.”
And knowing the Gladding Company so well, Riordan knew the history of fishing line too and how it’s made and how it evolved.
“The original Gladding fishing line was all organic,” he said, “made of hemp and silk, and it would rot because there was no way of preserving it. They tried oiling the lines and enameling them. Enameling took months to dry. Then Dupont came out with synthetic, nylon, in the ’50s and that changed everything.”
And then there’s ice fishing, a topic well-covered among the museum’s many exhibits, along with so many of the clever homemade inventions that make it almost a folk art form.
All this and more than could ever be detailed in an article like this. And yet, they are in grave financial trouble over raising a sum that to many institutions or corporations would be spare change.
“$5,000 gets us by (for the year),” Riordan said. “$10,000 does everything that we would need to do.” Their present bank account hovers around $1,000.
To lose this museum would be a sad chapter in this county’s history. Such things as this don’t come easily and don’t come around every day. Oswego County is very fortunate this museum landed here. Many have put a great deal of time and effort into founding it and keeping it alive.
Their address is 3044 State Route 13, Pulaski, NY 13142. Their phone number is 315-374-2997. Any help will be greatly appreciated. Not only do they need funds, they need people. If you would like to volunteer or serve on their board, call Mike Riordan at the museum.