July 09, 2020
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‘Fly Rod’ Crosby: a legend Maine native’s tale more than a mere fish story

FLY ROD CROSBY: THE WOMAN WHO MARKETED MAINE, by Julia A. Hunter and Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Tilbury House Publishers, Gardiner; and Maine State Museum, Augusta; 2000, 209 pages, softcover, $25.

Born in Phillips in 1845, Cornelia Thurza Crosby had to be an exceptional woman, a one-of-a-kind individual whose particular character and environment combined to create one of those figures from the past worthy of the most perceptive biographies.

Like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale and Susan B. Anthony, this tall, frail (her several illnesses took a heavy toll) and engagingly contrary woman had to have been a complex persona, the sort of interior conflicts and compulsions that can nourish a dozen biographies.

At a time in the nation when male chauvinism was all but unchallenged and universal, Cornelia stayed single all of her 92 years. She served no man, and she so excelled at what was a certified male activity that she was not only their equal, but their acknowledged superior.

An eventful century later, it is difficult to grasp the significance of a woman who could hunt and fish – especially fish – as well as this thin, delicately featured woman from the Rangeley Lakes country. But excel she did, and so skillfully that she earned her name, “Fly Rod” Crosby, from the male fishing fraternity that she had joined without ever being invited.

This two-tiered book – one part brief biography and another part a captioned collection of 120 black-and-white, turn-of-the century photographs – tells us almost more about those years in the lakes and mountains of western Maine than it does about Fly Rod. We get a sample of the rich and complex fabric of Fly Rod’s life and are left wanting a closer look at her entire wardrobe. And we are persuaded by even a casual review of the remarkable collection of photographs that there must be more to tell.

The expressions of the men who rode the railroad and the wagons to what then were truly the deep woods of Maine are at once proud and proprietary. Their guns, their dead game hung high or sprawled in massive morbidity, their long strings of trout – necklaces strung between two trees – and the sportsmen’s prideful poses, dressed as they were in those times in suit coats, hats and often vests and cravats, each defiantly proclaims that these men are the conquerors of the great Maine woods and their creatures.

Yet here is this willowy, close to undernourished woman walking among them, not as an equal but as their superior.

It is Fly Rod the men learn from. It is Fly Rod who becomes Maine’s first registered guide. And it is Fly Rod who takes western Maine on the road. She moves an entire log cabin to Madison Square Garden, she cast her flies across indoor lakes in cities from Chicago to Pittsburgh. It is this woman on a mission who plants the wonders of Maine’s wild woods deep in the consciousness of late 19th century city dwellers, much to the delight (and profit) of the men who built the railroads that eventually took the wild out of Rangeley.

Fly Rod, who began her working life as a bank clerk and then telegrapher, was also a writer. It was her outdoors column in the weekly Phillips Phonograph, and later also the Lewiston Journal and the Farmington Chronicle, that eventually saw her words reprinted in many of the Eastern Seaboard’s metropolitan newspapers. Excerpts from those columns appear throughout this book, and it is her own sprightly words that best illuminate the Fly Rod we want to know better.

After her appearance with her Maine woods exhibit at the second annual Sportsmen’s Exposition in New York City in March 1896, she wrote: “Yes sir, Fly Rod with her wild and woolly guides, her speaking acquaintance with the beasts and the birds of the great north country, was looked upon as some aborigine! I think many were disappointed because I did not emit a war whoop every so often. What the men thought, I can’t say, but I am positive the women all regarded me as a first-class freak!”

Yet Fly Rod was no feminist. Far from it. “Don’t you dare forget,” she told one interviewer, “that I am a very strong, anti-suffrage woman. I have too much faith in the men of these United States to want to vote.”

Fly Rod, as this book makes crystal clear, was far from a one-dimensional person. She was most certainly a unique, complex and compelling woman. Her own words, quoted liberally in this all-too-brief biography, give us just a glimpse of the intensity, the bright spirit and the fierce competitive edge that energized her remarkable presence. It is a pleasure to meet her and her times in this handsome book of words and pictures. This reader, for one, hopes now, given this fine head start, a future biographer will tell us still more of Cornelia Thurza Crosby. For surely there is more to be told.


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