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July 9, 2022 - Vol. 17, No. 1

Miller's Reversible Minnow

(Miller's Artificial Baits for Game Fish)

Combo Engineering Co. Inc. - Union Springs, New York
Union Springs Specialty Company - Union Springs (Cayuga Lake), New York
William H. Miller


Miller's Reversible Minnow - Maybe Earliest Ever?

One of the absolute favorite parts of my business / hobby is that we are still learning. I love to research old lures and companies. We all do our best to learn as much as we can and the die hard collectors devour new books as they come out. Often what we know is passed down as fact from book to book and generation to generation. However history in our hobby is rewritten from time to time as more information is discovered, especially on older and smaller production companies. After all when these companies were making fishing lures they sure weren't documenting their processes and facts anticipating that a hundred years later a bunch of crazy people would be searching the globe for their pieces of wood and metal designed to catch fish, much less scraps of information about the history about them. If only they knew their work would adorn the display cases of collectors and drive us all crazy trying to find out so much about their lives. I bet they would get a good laugh over it.

Well recently I acquired a lure that I think rewrites the history of the Miller's Reversible Minnow. After much research, below you will find not only a review of the minnow but the new information I have found, albeit limited. As with any historic discoveries there may be more of this story yet to be told. If you can help add to this story, please reach out to me. In the meantime, please read on for our Lure Lore Edition on the Miller's Reversible Minnow.

William Hampton Miller was born on April 30, 1865 in South Lansing, New York. He had a successful career in hotel management and after the passing of his first wife, he and his young daughter Esther moved to Cayuga Lake New York where he remarried. There he was the proprietor and manager of the Wayside Inn (now the Aurora Inn) on Lake Cayuga. In 1910 he had a son, Paul and shortly thereafter relocated to Union Springs, New York and became the manager of the United States Motel. Over the next two decades William operated two motels and engaged in several entrepreneurial endeavors. One such endeavor was creating a better artificial fishing lure. Remember at this time, artificial lures (plugs) were very early in their development with companies such as James Heddon only beginning to come onto the scene nationally.

William had a small boat and liked to fish Cayuga Lake for bass and other game fish. It is there we can imagine that he first tested out his new inventions. By 1913 Miller formed Union Springs Specialty Company and was actively developing and testing prototypes of his lure that would become the Miller's Reversible Minnow. By 1914 these lures are in production along with the Miller's Reversible Spinner.

This first version of the Miller's Reversible Minnow is roughly 4 1/2" long and has a skinny body (compared to the later version). The bodies are hand painted red cedar and appear very crude again in comparison to later versions. The hardware wire used on them is very thin by later standards and they also have screw-in hooks with a small washer attaching the back side hooks. The first version is believed to have only come in Yellow with Gold Spots color.

Miller developed a special die to make the spinners for this lure and the Reversible Spinner. The Spinners are meant to rotate in opposite directions. You can see a 1st Version Miller's Reversible Minnow in the photo below.


Miller's Reversible Minnow - 1st Version

By 1915 the Miller's Reversible Minnow had gone through quite an evolution to what we collector's now call the 2nd Version. The body has become thicker and taken on a more rounded shape in the middle. It has still remained at about 4 1/2" long. However now the back body hardware has Pfleuger Neverfail hook hardware and much more polished and varied paint patterns. The lure now comes in the following colors:

No. 1 - Yellow with Gold Spots
No. 2 - White belly, blended red and green spots
No. 3 - White body, red head, gold spots

You can see these changes in the below 1916 advertisement from the Ithaca Journal.


1916 Ad for Miller's Reversible Minnow

Along with the hardware, it is believed the painting was outsourced to Pflueger during this period. The 2nd Version of the Miller's Reversible Minnow was made until production stopped. It is believed demand and World War 1 somewhat limited opportunities and the Unions Springs Specialty Company ceased production and operation sometime around 1920. William H. Miller died on June 19, 1954 in Marcellus, New York. Below are photos of the 2nd Version Miller's Reversible Minnow.


Miller's Reversible Minnow - 2nd Version


Miller's Reversible Minnow - 2nd Version

Now here is where it gets interesting. Up to now all the of history has been focused on the Union Springs Specialty Company as the beginning. Boxes that been found have all been marked with this company name (or some variation) and included a white label. These boxes are generally on a maroon colored box that matches boxes produced by Pflueger during the same time period. See the photos below for an example.



Miller's Reversible Minnow Boxes

Those are very nice and very, very tough to find boxes. As you can see both are for a 2nd Version Miller's. Now take a look at this box that came with a 1st Version Miller's Reversible Minnow.


Rare Miller's Reversible Minnow Box

A couple of things to note. First it's a white box with a label. Notice the name is different, Miller's Artificial Bait for Game Fish. Yet it is clearly the same lure, a 1st Version Minnow. Here was the big shocker to me, the company is Combo Engineering Co. Inc. out of Union Springs, New York! No Union Springs Specialty Company to be found mentioned anywhere. Same city, same lure, different company. Time to investigate.

Well after investigating all that I can find on Combo Engineering Company is the following:

June 19, 1913 - Combo Engineering Co. was recently incorporated with a capitalization of $20,000. Has established and equipped a plant for the manufacture of steam power plant specialties such as water columns with alarms, electric signaling gauges, automatic regulators, and recording mechanisms. Lewis Beebe is the President and General Manager. Florian W. Shoemaker is the Secretary and Treasurer.4

Well what do we make of this? If I had to hazard a guess I would say that William Miller outsourced his new invention to be produced by Combo Engineering Company very early on, maybe as the very first production point. From there he probably branched out officially on his own to the Union Springs Specialty Company and then finally with some type of partnership with Pflueger. Seeing as though Combo Engineering didn't begin until 1913 that puts the start of this lures production somewhere around there and it was probably a very short time frame. Does this break down the 1st Version into a Combo Engineering Era and Union Springs Era? Both would be very short but also very important in the history of this lure.

Another possible theory is that Combo Engineering continued to produce the lure and box but the labeling was later changed to reflect Union Springs Specialty Company (today's version of "white-labeling"). It seems less likely as the 2nd version box looks so similar to a Pflueger box but it is possible.

After much searching I can find no other notes from this period. The box and lure I have came together and in are good shape for being over 100 years old. I believe the lure was probably never fished. I would welcome any other information that could be found from this period but I believe this find truly re-writes the beginnings of this lure. Below are more photos. What do you think?








Miller's Combo Engineering Box



UPDATE:
After publishing our Lure Lore we have received some further information. Specifically from one very helpful source (thank you very much to this anonymous contributor). First we learned that we are correct in calling this a first generation box. Apparently these have been found before although like other Miller boxes they are quite rare. Based on this person's information we went digging back through thousands upon thousands of National show photos and did find one other photo of this lure and box so we can confirm another one does exist. We also learned that there are at least about a half dozen or so out there (roughly). Lastly below is a photo of this lures "sister" bait box, the Miller's Reversible Spinner in the Combo Engineering Box! What a find.


Miller's Reversible Spinner in Combo Engineering Box


Note: None of the baits shown on this page are for sale.


Sources:

1: "The Search for William Hampton Miller"; Gerry Barrows; NFLCC Magazine Volume 2, Number 2, 1954, December 1992
2: Encyclopedia of Old Fishing Lures Made in North America; Robert Slade
3: 1916, June 7th: Ithaca Journal, New York
4: The Iron Age, Volume 91, Page 1519

Be sure to see all our updated Lure Lore's as we migrate them on our parent site, My Bait Shop. You can see the Lure Lore page here.

If you have any further information on any of the items displayed on this page which you'd like to share, please send your comments to me and I'll update the page accordingly. Contributions of interesting items and/or unknowns are encouraged.

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Web Author: Keith Bell
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