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Handcrafted history in Frankfort

IF YOU ARE A BASS ANGLER, you probably enjoy the smooth casting and laser-like accuracy of today’s baitcasting reels. But did you know that several precursors to modern reels were first developed in Kentucky in the early 1800s? 

You can experience the story for yourself through the Crafting & Casting exhibit at the Capital City Museum in Frankfort. I met up with Betty Barr and Don Kleier, who were instrumental in creating the exhibit, for a personal tour. Their enthusiasm and love of Frankfort’s history was evident, and their knowledge of the subject was amazing. Here’s just a snippet of what I learned. 

Fishing for bass along the banks of Kentucky’s many rivers and streams, watchmaker and silversmith George Snyder thought there had to be a way to make longer casts. Snyder was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—also the birthplace of Daniel Boone—in 1803. He later moved to Paris, Kentucky, then known as Hopewell, where he used his talents as a precision metal worker to build the first American multiplying fishing reel, a design that would become known as the Kentucky Reel. With a multiplying reel, the spool turns multiple times with each turn of the handle. This design makes retrieving the line quicker and helps make longer casts. 

Later, brothers Jonathan and Benjamin Meek, who were silversmiths and clockmakers in Frankfort, improved on Snyder’s design. Kentucky Circuit Judge Mason Brown brought the Meek brothers a fishing reel, possibly one of Snyder’s own, and asked them to improve it. The Meek brothers accepted the challenge and made Judge Brown a new reel. Word got out, and the brothers began to supply growing demand with reels stamped “J.F & B.F. MEEK.” 

A third phase in the story began when Benjamin Cave Milam, a jeweler’s apprentice, partnered with Benjamin Meek. Milam worked as a reel maker and was responsible for many of the improvements to the Meek reels. In 1881, Meek and Milam parted ways, and Milam made reels himself, partnering with his son in 1890. Sometime later, B.C. Milam & Son added the phrase “The Frankfort Kentucky Reel” in an arch on their side plates. 

This short piece about the Kentucky Reel is in no way complete. I encourage you to investigate the history further as there is so much more. Betty and Don have also written a book, Crafting & Casting, which is available at the Capital City Museum, where you can see the expansive collection of history on the Kentucky Reel. 


325 Ann St., Frankfort

Free Admission 

(502) 696-0607 

Open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. 

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