Zebco Birmingham's Lawson Richards, a friend for 25 years, showed up at my Springville restaurant the other day to announce he had brought me "a little something. Many fishermen in Alabama know Richards as "Mr. Richards always seemed to appreciate my interest in Zebco's most unusual history. Most everyone has heard of Zebco reels but few know the Tulsa, Oklahoma company's legacy or even what Zebco stands for.
In , a west Texas tinkerer and part-time fisherman named J. Hull happened to be at a meat market at just the right time. That was all it took to change fishing history. Baitcasting reels were standard fare for fishermen in those days but their tendency to backlash made them a headache to use.
Hull noticed that instead of putting a revolving spool of twine on a metal bar, the meat market had bolted one end of the wooden spool to a wall. The spool didn't spin and the twine came off one end. The twine didn't backlash.
A fishing reel could be built the same way, Hull figured. Hull's prototype was built from a lager beer can. After several refinements, it worked. The patents on its bombs used to start oil flowing in Oklahoma oil fields were expiring. The company needed to diversify. Someone steered Hull to the company to show officials his invention. By the end of , the first Zebco reel, the "Standard," rolled off the company's production line.
The first reel carried the name of Zero Hour Bomb Company. In , the name was shortened to Zebco. All new and unusual products -- and this one surely fit that bill -- can't succeed without great marketing. They are responsible for much of the success Zebco knows today. In a stroke of genius, the brothers trained a chimpanzee to cast a Zebco reel.
At sports shows across the U. Richards even has a photo of Bart Starr in a Packers uniform getting a casting lesson from the chimpanzee. The reel's inventor, Hull, died in but not before being inducted into the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame. Before he died, he saw more than 20 million of his reels sold worldwide. Many more millions have been sold since. One can only imagine my astonishment as Richards brought several big boxes to me the other day.
He explained that each time Zebco introduced a new reel, he had put some back to keep. He began to unload box after box of new Zebco reels, with their boxes dating back to the original in The Zebco 33 from The model 77 from The from and other models through the years. Richards then produced a miniature straw hat. He showed me a photo. It was the hat worn by the chimpanzee in Zebco's early days. Everyone who has seen the reels speculates that they are probably worth a small fortune, but I assure you that they will never be sold.
My plans are to build a custom, and lockable, display case and put them on display for the world to see. Email him at mbolton bhamnews.