“What’s the best benefit of an Ohio History Connection membership?,” I asked in the informal poll I took as I indulged in the buttercream frosted shamrock cut-out cookie from Cheryl’s that my boss gave me for St. Patrick’s Day.
One answer was obvious: “The invitations to members-only events, especially the pancake breakfasts and Memorial Day weekend lunches.”
Another answer was just what I wanted to hear: “Seeing and learning about things from the collections in behind-the-scenes programs.”
That’s the resounding reason I’ll be renewing my membership early this year. Anyone who can make me appreciate fishing gear as much as a rare book, a painting, a textile or a historic manuscript deserves my support.
At the end of every week, Ohio History Connection members receive a “Discover What’s Happening This Weekend” e-mail. “Beyond the Ropes at the Harding Home” caught my eye in one message promoting a recent Sunday afternoon program.
“Get an in-depth look at some items from our collection of original objects associated with President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence Kling Harding,” I read. Right away, I picked up the phone and registered to attend.
Whenever I visit the Victorian Queen Anne-style home in Marion that the future president built as a wedding present for his fiancé in 1891, I say hello to a few star attractions. One is Petey the canary, the Hardings’ pet songbird of happy memory, still perched on a piece of wood under a glass dome upstairs. Another is a pair of carved staircase banister posts resembling owls’ faces, between which the Hardings were married. And then there are the elephant figurines that Mrs. Harding collected for good luck, displayed in a curio cabinet that once stood in the private quarters of the Harding White House.
My new favorite artifact at the Harding Home is a four-bladed knife with mother-of-pearl handles and gilt lettering reading “WARREN G. HARDING” that was made by George Wostenholm of Sheffield, England circa 1920.
Last year, Harding Home staff began offering special programs in which they pull a thematic collection of objects from the collection and share it with small groups of visitors. One featured the Capodimonte porcelain vase that Mrs. Harding bought in Naples, Italy during a 1909 trip to Europe. Another showcased selections from the Hardings’ book collection displayed in the home’s library.
Since this program took place during this month popular for taking spring vacations, it focused on the fishing gear that Harding used during his trips to Florida, dating from about 1901 until the early 1920s. Harding took along his fancy Wolstenholm pocket knife on those fishing trips.
During that time, so many Marion residents vacationed in Florida that they were known as “The Marion Colony.” The Hardings were no exception. Often, they visited Mrs. Harding’s father and mother, Amos and Louisa Kling, at their home in Daytona Beach. Harding was also a frequent guest at the Cocolobo Cay Club, a private fishing club — named after a native species of pigeon, Coccoloba diversifolia — on a small island purchased by Carl Fisher in 1916. Other famous guests of the club included Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Harvey Firestone.
Fishing was Harding’s premier pastime in Florida, and the high-end gear he took with him indicates that he was one serious fisherman. That’s the conclusion reached by two Ohio Department of Natural Resources staff members who traveled to Marion before the program to help Harding Home staff identify these objects, all of which are in pristine condition.
For just over an hour, about a dozen of us sat in front of the Hardings’ dining room table, learning about one fascinating piece after another. Harding’s leather boxes for fishing tackle, reels, and lines were a refined backdrop for a dapper straw hat Harding wore while fishing, which was displayed alongside a photograph of him wearing the hat.
Harding’s collection of hand-tied flies included dry, buoyant flies used for fishing in lakes and streams resembled insects that appeal to trout and salmon. Other flies known as terrestrials looked like nonaquatic insects from that region, like worm lures. Colorful atom’s flies were designed for more movement; feathers were decorated with stripes and spots to appeal to bass and trout.
A moving bait hook for saltwater fish was adorned with a spoon that was red on one side and silver on the other. We learned that the spoon provides visual appeal to fish because it reflects the light as it spins and flips across the water.
Lures included ones with bigger hooks for catching fish in the ocean surf. Red-tipped lures resembling the lips or tail of a fish were designed to be noticed. And a spinner with little propeller-like fins on the side is thought to be a very early model of the Barracuda brand, which became popular in 1928.
We admired two of Harding’s fishing rods, both handmade of split bamboo with extenders. The metal silver alloy band on one of them read “PRESIDENT WARREN G. HARDING.” And we learned about a leather gaff that Harding wrapped around his hand to help pull a fish out of the water into his boat.
Wooden pencil bobbers, in different sizes for different types of fish, floated upright in the water. Harding knew when he had caught a fish when the bobbers disappeared beneath the surface. A silver alloy reel made for deep-sea fishing by the Edward vom Hoff Company of Germany was said to be one of the finest of the day. It had a dial you could turn so you could reel the fish in silently.
Harding owned two versions of the rare “Pork Rind” hook. Named for the fishing bait used often in the South, the Pork Rind was designed to look like a thrashing fish that was being pulled awkwardly across the water. Its abundance of hooks increased the odds of catching the fish a fish thrashing across as possible.
Much of Harding’s fishing gear came from Abercrombie and Fitch, the upscale sporting goods store that outfitted Theodore Roosevelt for his safaris and supplied William Howard Taft and Ernest Hemingway with their own fishing gear.
But the most memorable artifact on display was a mounted amberjack that Harding caught in the Florida Keys. The ODNR fish experts studied it carefully, particularly noting its facial structure by its mouth, and determined it was an amberjack. Now known as “Jack,” the fish can be seen hanging behind Harding in a photograph taken after Harding caught it.
You can tell a lot about a man by his fishing gear, says a researcher who is studying Harding’s collection while writing a book about presidential fishing gear. We’ll have to see what the author thinks these things say about Harding.
The next Beyond the Ropes sessions at the Harding Home will be on Sunday, November 13 at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. The sessions are $10 per person and free for Ohio History Connection members; reservations are required. Other events that the Harding Home has scheduled for 2016 include a silent movie night on June 23, meeting some of the people who worked for the Hardings and hearing their stories on August 4. The annual Warren G. Harding Symposium will be held July 15-16 on the OSU Marion campus; this year’s event is titled “The American Presidential Candidate: Reality vs. Illusion.” For more information, see http://www.hardinghome.org/.