PARK FALLS — Gordon Schluter tried to retire to the North Woods.

He still moved from New Mexico to Price County but instead of the full-time pursuit of walleye and smallmouth bass, Schluter reversed the direction of a floundering company, helped diversify the area’s papermaking-centered manufacturing base and created a destination for anglers.

St. Croix Rod has grown into the largest fishing rod manufacturer in the country, employs 170 people in the Park Falls area and has become a popular tourist stop for those wanting a behind-the-scenes look at how sheets of graphite are transformed into high-end handmade fishing rods, most of which top $120 with some surpassing $500.

But for Schluter, his proudest accomplishment was seated last week in a second-floor conference room adorned with stringers of jumbo perch and walleye and early versions of rods first made here nearly 70 years ago.

Schluter finally retired in 1990 and sold the company to his four children — Paul, Jeff, Dave and Pam Smylie — who have spent the last 27 years continuing their father’s legacy in an industry rife with mergers and acquisitions and less expensive fishing equipment made in China.

“He’d be proud to see the four of us, in our late 50s and early 60s, sitting here together, working together and maintaining and growing this company,” said Smylie, 62, a retired nurse who sits on the company’s board of directors. “He’d be proud that this company is still here but I don’t think we have ever been closer. I don’t think I’ve loved my brothers more.”

And now their father has a spot in a coveted Wisconsin institution.

Schluter, who died in 2005, was inducted last month into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward. Schluter joins other notables inducted into the hall since 1980, including Lauri Rapala, the Finnish lure-maker; Ernest Pflueger, the founder of one of the world’s largest fishing tackle companies; Ole Evinrude, who invented the first marketable outboard motor; and Carl Lowrance, who developed fish locators in the 1950s.

“He was just a gentleman, but he was also an entrepreneur,” Steve Heiting, managing editor of Musky Hunter Magazine, based in St. Germain, said of Schluter. “He saved that company by putting out a good quality product and having his heart in fishing. And you see that in the rest of his family. It’s a feel-good story.”

Others inducted into the hall this year include Joseph Flater, a muskie guide on the Chippewa and Flambeau rivers; Irv Snell, a Hayward-area muskie and walleye guide; and the Driftless Area Restoration Effort, an initiative from Trout Unlimited formed in 2005 to protect and improve streams in southwestern Wisconsin.

There is no doubting Schluter’s accomplishments have brought worldwide attention to Park Falls, the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World, where the city’s slogan is “bridging nature with industry.” Other businesses include Flambeau River Papers, which employs more than 300 people; Park Falls Hardwoods, which processes more than 11 million board feet of sawed logs a year; and Saunders Wood Specialties, a manufacturer of veneer panels with more than 60 people.

Outgoing Mayor Tom Ratzlaff was in office for about a year when in 2006 the paper mill went bankrupt and closed. It reopened four months later after Butch Johnson, a Hayward timber executive, assembled a group of investors and purchased the more than 100-year-old mill in the city’s downtown. Johnson’s father was one of the co-founders of St. Croix Rod.

“It means a lot to our community, just the way (St. Croix has) approached their business and the way they continually work to improve their products,” said Ratzlaff, who has worked at the paper mill for 38 years. “It’s pretty famous.”

St. Croix Rod was founded in 1948 by Bob and Bill Johnson, who began by making landing nets with wood hoops and handles and hand-sewn nets. They turned out to be too pricey for most, so the duo switched gears and began making multisection, bamboo fishing poles. By 1957, they had expanded into muskie rods that were as short as 4 feet 6 inches long with a price tag of $15. Now the company’s muskie rods can be 9 feet long and cost over $550.

Schluter, a native of Sedan, Minnesota, flew torpedo bombers during World War II and, following the war, became a manager for the Gamble-Skogmo Co. in Edina, Minnesota. He and his wife, Irene, moved to Park Falls in 1951 as part of a company transfer and nine years later he and four others invested in the St. Croix company, which was looking for capital to expand. A few years later, Schluter became St. Croix’s CEO but moved his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1968, a year after the company was sold. During his career, Schluter also owned and operated radio stations, a restaurant and three hotels.

“Dad was very modest but he would be very proud of (the Hall of Fame induction) acknowledgment because it came from people he worked with,” said Jeff Schluter, 56, who was hired at St. Croix Rod in 1984 and is vice president of sales and marketing. “He didn’t get into the fishing business because of his love for fishing. He loved to fish but he loved business, he loved the challenge and he loved rebuilding. He wasn’t afraid to take a risk.”

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In 1977, Gordon Schluter planned to retire but after learning the rod company was headed toward closure, he and two others purchased the company.

In the early 1980s, Schluter became sole owner and brought in his sons to help run the company. Dave Schluter, 53, came aboard in 1989 and is vice president of manufacturing. Paul Schluter, 60, has been with the company since 1983 and its CEO since 1990.

The 60,000-square-foot St. Croix Rod facility along Highway 13 on the north side of Park Falls is all-encompassing and includes a retail shop, customer service center, design and engineering offices, manufacturing, warehouse and shipping. Products include saltwater and freshwater rods, including those used for fly and ice fishing. Bass, walleye and muskie rods are staples.

“None of our rods are built by a contractor,” Paul Schluter said. “Many of our competitors, even brand names that have been around for many decades, the owners of those brands are not manufacturing the product. They’re having contractors, commonly in China, manufacture the product for them.”

St. Croix’s higher-end rods are made in Park Falls, but its less expensive rods have been manufactured for the last eight years in a 40,000-square-foot, company-owned plant in Fresnillo, Mexico, that employs 180 people.

A rod begins with a heavy steel mandrel that looks like a fishing rod without eyelets but is simply a form wrapped with flexible, triangular sheets of graphite cut on a nearly 30-foot long table. The graphite is heated and cured and then removed from the mandrel leaving a hollow, tapered tube called a blank. The rod is then painted and equipped with a cork handle, reel seat and a decal that notes the rods specifications such as length, stiffness and a range for line and lure weights.

Eyelets are added by winders, some who work in the factory with another 23 working from home in a 60-mile radius of Park Falls. The home winders are paid by the piece and wrap thread around the base of an eyelet to attach it to the rod, some of which can have 10 or more eyelets.

About 85 percent of sales are in the U.S. and Canada with Russia, Italy, Lithuania and France making up the bulk of sales overseas.

Paul Schluter said the family has no intention of selling to a larger corporation or outsourcing production to China.

“We’re having too much fun doing what we’re doing now,” Schluter said. “Our customers have grown to expect a certain level of quality and integrity in the way we do business and that’s what we intend to continue to deliver.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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