GOT ONE: History of Fishing Museum curator Bill Bramsch holds a reel from the collection of over 40,000 tackle artifacts.
Business Spotlight: Hooked on Fishing
An Oklahoma botanist made millionaire amassed a $5 million collection of antique fishing gear, and he’s chosen Branson to house it.
The History of Fishing Museum claims to have the most antique fishing lures, rods, reels, boats and motors entirely collected by one man. That man is Karl White. The collection goes over 40,000 items deep.
“I’ve got everything,” White says with confidence.
He says that’s not a fish tale.
The collection includes a 1730s-era Spike reel, the first reel known to exist, a Snyder reel from 1840, one of only a handful around today, and the first Skeeter bass boat to come off the manufacturing line. The Snyder is White’s prized possession – he bought it for over $30,000 and it’s now valued at $150,000.
“The Snyder reel is the rarest piece I have,” he says. “It was the first casting reel made.”
White moved the collection to Branson two years ago and spent $1.5 million to buy and renovate the former Circle B Chuckwagon and Dinner Bell restaurant building on Wildwood Drive, near the Tanger Outlet mall off the Highway 76 strip. The museum opened last summer, and he hired Bill Bramsch to run it.
“We hauled four tractor-trailer truckloads of stuff here,” says Bramsch, museum curator. “He had it in his house and barns and store buildings for 10 years.”
Now under one roof, Bramsch is charged with getting people in the History of Fishing Museum’s doors at the foot of the Grand Plaza Hotel.
“I decided to go to Branson with it, since it’s one of the travel points in the nation,” White says by phone from his Edmund, Oklahoma, home.
The area’s three lakes and millions of tourists who like to fish don’t hurt, either.
It didn’t happen overnight. White’s collection was built over a lifetime.
He became interested in all things fishing at the young age of 8 and saved up a dollar’s worth of dimes to buy his first lure.
“When I sent my mother down to Western Auto to buy it, it went up a dime, so she couldn’t,” the 77-year-old White recalls like it was yesterday.
Ten weeks of saving allowance grew by one week, but he was hooked by the trade.
And he’s still got that first lure – a Crazy Crawler by James Heddon – in the museum.
“I have never sold a lure or a reel, or anything, except when I had duplicates,” he says.
White almost considered a sale to Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris in the late 1980s.
“He offered me a deal for my collection. He wanted me to meet him in Springfield, and I went up to meet him and he had gone bonefishing,” White says. “He gave me a time and everything to be there, and then he was gone. Since then, we have never made connections.”
To build his collection, White traveled the country buying out other collectors. Trips to view collections – in Hudson, Massachusetts, Shipshewana, Indiana, and Canton, Texas – commingled with business travel and family vacations. One seller agreed to sell $50,000 worth of goods, but only if White paid cash with bills under $20 denominations. White obliged to get the tackle spoils.
“I’ve been around the horn a couple of times,” he says.
The hobby turned serious in the mid-1960s, and in 1976 White and others organized the National Fishing Lure Collectors’ Club. The first meeting was held on the college campus at Point Lookout.
“We formed a club out of Springfield and School of the Ozarks,” White says.
Founding members include area professors Dudley Murphy of Drury University, John Goodwin of College of the Ozarks and Jerry Routh of Missouri State University – now all retired.
“We got together one night and had a trade fest and thought it’d be fun to start a club,” Murphy says.
In a letter dated June 27, 1976, Murphy writes about the club’s purpose following the first meeting: “As a club, we are growing fast and the old lures are starting to show up in members’ collections instead of wasting away in some attic. I think this is what our club is all about … so, let’s keep at it!”
Today, the NFLCC is a nonprofit, educational organization with 3,000 members internationally.
Business or hobby?
White and his wife, Beverly, made their money by collecting pollen and growing mold and fungus. Organized as Crystal Laboratory Inc. in his hometown of Luther, Oklahoma, he’d sell the allergen materials to drug companies.
“They would take my product and extract it, then sell it to the doctors to test and treat asthma and hay fever,” he says of the drug companies, Greer Laboratories among them. “I went all over the nation, gathering different pollens.”
Then, his collection also included weeds and grasses. He sold the lab for $1.5 million in 2004, and he says it sold again a few months ago for $20 million.
That was business. The tackle collection and museum is personal.
“It never was a business to me,” White says. “It was a pleasure.”
As a ticketed museum, White’s hobby effort does have business goals.
“It’s just now getting to where it’s profitable,” he says. “I hope it continues.”
With prices ranging from $7.75 for kids to $17.75 for adults, White says the History of Fishing Museum is grossing about $500 a day. His goal is double that.
“We just need to get more people in here,” Bramsch says of the 20-40 daily visitors he’s working to build to 100. “We really didn’t advertise much last year. It’s getting out there.”
Declining to disclose first-year revenue, he’s hopeful next year exceeds $100,000.
Admission includes a two-hour tour by Bramsch.
“It’s the stories that sell the rest of this thing,” he says. “We say Karl White is the Paul Harvey of fishing. He tells the rest of the story.”