Spare the rod
Chico fly rod maker Walton Powell died defending his honor after selling his family’s name and image to the Schwab family
The legend shall not die, [my father’s] dreams and ideals shall not end, and the greatness that is the Powell Rod shall continue to live and grow.
Press Powell has a legacy represented inside his Chico Fly Shop.
His grandfather, E. C. Powell, is about as big a name as you can get in the world of fly fishing, having perfected the use of bamboo fly rods in the 1930s and ‘40s. Press’s father, Walton Powell, who died a month ago, is remembered for his innovative rod construction and teaching others the magic of fly fishing. Press Powell is a respected craftsman in his own right, focusing on graphite rods. When the museum is completed inside his shop on West Eighth Avenue, it will serve as a testament to three generations of master fly rod makers.
From a row of rods that look distinguished even to the uninitiated, Press Powell’s hand automatically seeks out the first graphite rod he and his father made together.
“He was a great teacher,” Powell reflected. “He taught people the common-sense factor of fishing. I always felt that was my dad’s greatest contribution in many, many ways. He was a great rod maker, but so much more important is that you help bring people into fly fishing.”
Almost every photo on the wall captures a moment of glory: Walton Powell and his pipe-puffing pal Bing Crosby. The women of the family tying award-winning flies. A distance-casting record shattered by Walton’s brother, Albert (known as Buddy), who died in a car wreck in the 1930s. In the family scrapbook, a note to Walt from former President Jimmy Carter referring to his “great experience” fishing and the fact that “we’ll think of you each time we enjoy the beauty and design of the Powell Rods.” A 1954 newspaper clipping calling Walton Powell simply, “Bamboo Rod man.” A poster from the Robert Redford film A River Runs Through It, for which Walton was hired to consult and construct rods. A copy of the letter from the state of Alaska granting him the first nonresident fishing license in history.
But when Walton Powell died June 29 in Fall River Mills at age 85, the longtime Chico craftsman had some unfinished business. He was in the midst of suing stockbroker powerhouse Charles Schwab for allegedly tricking him out of the Powell family name and forcing the company from the family’s hands.
The lawsuit against Schwab, his son, Sandy, and Powell & Co., Inc., filed in June 2000 by Walton Powell and his second wife, Diane, also a rod maker, charges that a partnership with the Schwabs quickly went sour as the Schwab interests moved the rod factory from Chico and all of the Powell family members who worked there were squeezed out of the company.
Today, no Powells work for Powell & Co., and the new firm, in Rancho Cordova, doesn’t even make the models carried before the reorganization, although the Web site pictures E. C. Powell with the caption: “Powell was shaped by the man who started this company and inspires us still: E. C. Powell.” Another passage opens, “We’ve been around for forever (91 years to be exact).”
John Eustice, a Portland angler who became friends with Walton Powell in the late ‘70s and gave an upbeat eulogy at his Chico funeral service, said it was this type of identification of his family name with an unrelated company that “broke his heart.” That Powell was unable to legally make and sell rods, which “was really his joy of life,” was intolerable.
Dan Fallon, a Sausalito-based sportsman and journalist, called the failed Schwab alliance “the black mark at the end of his life.”
“He was the kind of guy who was old school, and made deals by shaking hands. You didn’t need 10 lawyers, and you didn’t need affidavits,” he said. “Walt felt completely betrayed. He told me that.”
“He couldn’t believe it happened,” Fallon said. “He said it over and over.”
Fly fishing is a sophisticated sport embraced by only 5 percent of the total fishing population, with stateside sales of less than $100 million a year, and it has proved to be a hobby largely of the more moneyed classes.
“It was always somewhat elitist,” acknowledged Dick Spurr, who writes about and sells old bamboo fly rods as The Classic Angler in Colorado Springs. “They like to keep the image that it was very difficult—the average Joe couldn’t do it.” Plus, in the heyday of the 1930s, it just plain took a lot of money to buy all the gear and travel to the fishing spots. Today, the early Powell bamboo rods easily can sell for $2,000.
But fly-fishers form a tightly knit group in which three generations of Powells hold seats of honor.
When rods from imported bamboo first started being made in the United States, between 1910 and 1920, most came out of production rod companies. “No one person sat down and built one rod,” Spurr said. That changed with a handful of craftsman, with then-Red Bluff resident E. C. Powell—"an icon and a legend"—being one of two prominent West Coast rod makers during the 1930s.
After soldiers returned from World War II, the market for outdoor recreation boomed, and Powell and his few contemporaries were doing a booming business. Soon, rod makers began experimenting with new, lightweight materials such as fiberglass and graphite. Walton Powell, born in 1915 in Marysville, had begun working alongside his father when he was only 7. His mother, Myrtle, was a fly tyer, and his first wife, Earline, was a respected teacher of tying techniques.
Family dynamics were always interesting among the Powell households, and members butted heads more than once. Press Powell said that while his father, Walton, wanted to progress into the graphite market, E. C. did not. Later, Press and his father would disagree over the senior Powell’s belief that rods should be sold directly to consumers, while Press advocated using dealers to increase exposure. “Walt believed that the marketing should be one-on-one,” said Diane Powell. “He didn’t like merchandising his stuff in retail stores because they take 40 percent.”
“We were always friends and we were always different,” Press Powell said of his at-times feuding family.
Press Powell, one of five children, remembers fishing with his father and grandfather in such local spots as Big Chico, Butte and Battle creeks, but beyond that the memories of the Powells as individuals all run together. It seems like they always made rods, and it was always a collective effort.
Press Powell credited his father with teaching people about fly fishing and thus exposing more people to the sport. What he loved best was selling rods. “The method of selling was often education—you sold by teaching,” he said. (Walton Powell, who attended the University of California at Berkeley, had also been an assistant professor in recreation at Chico State University.) “The fishing tackle work is very competitive. The everyday fisherman thinks they know everything about it. You have to learn to maintain your silence. … My dad, he did what he wanted to do.”
Spurr, of The Classic Angler, was more blunt: “Walton was a curmudgeon. Even his friends, and I guess I was one of his friends, would say he was a cantankerous old man. And you could say that to his face. He had that reputation, and he cherished it.”
Spurr said the family’s different approaches to rod making worked out well for collectors and fishermen. Walton Powell went on to earn a name as an innovator, while E. C. “stayed with their tradition and their heritage” until his death in 1966.
Fallon favors Walton Powell’s work. “He is a god,” Fallon said, and his fans’ devotion to him borders on “idol worship.” Powell is a household name to fly-fishers as far as Scandinavia and Japan, continuing today with Press Powell.
In 1997, Fallon fulfilled a longtime dream of fishing with Walton Powell, joining him in Fall River Mills, where he and his wife had moved.
“I was giddy like a 5-year-old kid. I couldn’t sleep,” he remembered. For a weekend, he was “at the foot of the master Powell.” They stayed up late talking, often about Powell’s heartbreak over the Schwab suit. At one point, Powell opened up a closet that was filled with cans of salmon. He’d go up to Alaska, catch his fill, and have the take canned to serve to guests as hors d’oeurves. (Powell was proud of and talked often of having taught some of the natives there to eat more healthfully, including vegetables in their diets.)
Fallon said that while he was out fishing with Powell—who was already into his 80s and had trouble getting in and out of the boat—they saw a game warden approach. Vaguely worried they were about to be hassled, Fallon was awed when, instead, “the guy came in and he just wanted to have Walt sign a few things and get a picture with him.”
“Everywhere we went it was as if I was in the presence of the pope,” he said. “Walt was the poet guy, [like] Damon Runyon. He was the bigger-than-life character.”
Fallon has one of the last rods made by Walton Powell and said, “It’s such a treasure. And I use it. I don’t just put it on the wall. … I wouldn’t sell it for a million dollars.”
Fallon travels all over the world fishing and writing about the sport. “Whenever anyone mentions Chico, Calif., the Powell legend and the Powell name is the first thing that comes out of their mouths.” In Sweden, in particular, he said, “they revere him like Hollywood reveres Clark Gable.”
Fallon said there’s a “mystique” to fly fishing and fishing with bamboo rods in particular. The classic, Powell-built rods, he said, bear “sort of a poetic significance that sportsmen can touch.” Bamboo grows near water, and using one to fish completes the circle, he said.
But Walton Powell, he said, “didn’t get stuck in the idea that bamboo was it.” He was innovative both in the use of materials and how to put them together. Intuitively and organically, Fallon said, Powell knew more about “this esoteric sport of throwing bugs at fish” than virtually anyone.
About 30 years ago, Walton and Earline Powell helped found the Chico Area Fly Fishers, having moved their family to Chico in 1954. Current group President Mark Adams said Walt Powell was always willing to share a story or donate a rod for a raffle. “I just always took it for granted that I’ve had Powell fly rods,” Adams said.
The rods put out by the new Powell & Co., he said, are not as high-quality. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that it’s not the Powell family [running the business] any more,” said Adams, who remembers when the shop was moved from Chico to Rancho Cordova. “It was virtually overnight. It took everybody by surprise. That was a shock. All of a sudden, boom, it was over.”
In fall 1996, their lawsuit claims, Walton and Diane Powell were running a successful, debt-free rod factory in Chico. Nearby, Press Powell was grossing $900,000 per year through his graphite-rod-making Powell Rod Co., which employed eight to 10 full-time workers, including three of Walton Powell’s grandsons.
Then, Walton Powell met Charles Schwab, who the suit claims was eager to help financially back a new rod company that would re-unify the Powell family members as a business entity, telling Walton “that [Schwab] had made millions of dollars for people he didn’t know and that it would be a pleasure to make millions of dollars for people he knew and liked.”
John McGuinn, the Powells’ San Francisco attorney, said Schwab’s pitch was that “it would put Chico on the map as the fly fishing capital of the West. The community will be proud, and you [the Powells] will be proud and very wealthy.”
The suit states that, instead, “The true intention of defendants Charles Schwab and Sandy Schwab was to gain control of the Powell name, reputation and assets and have defendant Sandy Schwab and his friends, Karry Karavolos and Keith Bryan, run the company, to exclude Walt, Diane and Press Powell from any involvement in the company, and then to move the company from Chico to Rancho Cordova.”
Soon, Charles Schwab’s interests owned 51 percent of Walton Powell and Company, as Walt and Diane Powell turned over their assets, inventory and the rights to use their name on company products and in promotions. In 1997, Powell & Co., Inc. was formed, and Walt’s sons Press and John transferred their interests to that, the suit states.
The suit claims that the Schwabs and their agents promised to “carry on the legacy of the Powell family,” with the implication being that they would keep the company in Chico with Walt, Diane and Press as key employees. But instead, days after they transferred their interests, Diane Powell was barred from the premises and Press Powell was told “that he did not project the new image the Schwabs wanted” and to stay away. Then, the suit continues, “without any warning or notice, and while Walt and Diane Powell were at a speaking engagement in Austin, Texas, Powell & Co., Inc. took Walt Powell’s entire bamboo shop, including all of the equipment he used to make bamboo fly-fishing rods, thus depriving him of the ability to make a living.” At about the same time, the company “ceased employing him as a consultant for which he had been paid $2,500 a month and cancelled medical insurance for Walt and Diane Powell,” knowing that he had prostate cancer and needed treatment and surgery.
“Not one single Powell is with the company,” said McGuinn, and a four-generation legacy, on some level, is lost. “Everyone has signed this noncompete [agreement]. … It carries the Powell name, but that’s the only thing it has.”
Walton Powell, he said, “was angry, bitter and frustrated” over the broken promises. “He [felt] just disbelief that Charles Schwab could do this to him.” When Powell tried to reach the Schwabs or wrote them letters—Sandy Schwab had been placed in charge of Powell & Co.—"they ignored him.” Walton and Diane Powell still owned as much as 10 percent of the shares in the company, and John Powell owns 15 percent, McGuinn said, pointing out that since it’s not a publicly held company they can’t get dividends or sell their stake to reap any financial benefits.
The suit charging “fraud and deceit” asks for compensation for lost earnings and emotional distress, along with punitive damages and other relief. The parties are set to try to mediate the case in September, and if that fails they’ll likely proceed to a jury trial, McGuinn said.
While the attorney for Powell & Co. and Charles Schwab Jr. (Sandy) did not return the News & Review’s call for comment, 63-year-old Charles Schwab’s personal attorney, Alan Seher of San Francisco, elaborated on his defense.
Rather than a hostile takeover of a family business, Seher said, Schwab’s intent was simply “to help an old man.”
The defense disputes Walton Powell’s account of his relationship with the senior Schwab. “They never hung out or saw each other socially,” Seher said. He said that Powell “solicited” Schwab to help a failing company.
“Chuck took pity on him and invested,” Seher said. He said Walton Powell walked out on his consulting agreement, and the other family members quit on their own. Also, he said, Press Powell was on the board of the directors of the new company and had every opportunity to know the factory was being moved from Chico. “There was never any part of the deal that would keep the [factory] in Chico,” Seher added.
“Walt was so old he didn’t remember anything,” Seher said of the deposition that Powell had been giving in the months leading up to his death. “What he knew and what he didn’t know—who knows?
“Absolutely, there is no basis for this [suit],” Seher said. “It’s sad, because he’s this old man spending the last year of his life involved in this litigation [because] Mr. Schwab is perceived to have deep pockets.”
In the deposition, Powell recounts how he came to meet the senior Schwab while delivering a rod that one of Schwab’s clients had bought the stockbroker to a duck club on Butte Creek. Powell joined Schwab and a group of men hunting pheasants, returning more than once for similar sport.
He said it was Schwab who pressed for a partnership as he visited Schwab’s office in San Francisco several times and Schwab came to Chico to tour his and Press Powell’s shops. Walton Powell said during the deposition, “I never had any thought of expanding my business at that time. … I had a very good life and [was] living very good.”
The Schwabs retort that Walton Powell “misrepresented the profitability” of his business, and Walton and Diane did not abide by the agreement to never again make or sell fishing rods for their own account.
Because of his agreements with the Schwab-powered Powell & Co., Inc., Press Powell can’t compete by selling rods with his name on them, so he deals largely in components and blanks—rods without reels attached.
Press Powell was reluctant to talk about the suit, since he is not a party to it, but said he regrets ever signing over his rights to the Schwabs.
“I kind of went [in] on [it] after the fact,” he said. “I did it thinking it would be easier for the other people in my family who came along—nephews and such—but it didn’t work out that way. … They just had more assets that we did.”
Press Powell has gaps in his museum because much of the family’s memorabilia was packed up in the move from Chico. “They took all my personal library, my personal diary, my personal collections and such,” he said. “They took a lot of my dad’s stuff, too.”
Walton Powell’s widow, Diane, is bound by an agreement not to talk about the suit, but she did reveal that her husband was greatly saddened by the deal during his last years, and their lifestyle took a dramatic downturn financially after it was made.
In the early 1990s, Powell bought his new bride a $6,500 wedding ring and lived in an 11-room house. Their rented Fall River Mills cabin was modest, and “the last four years we lived here basically on charity,” said Diane Powell, who is packing to move out since the cabin was sold.
Still, she said, he was happy in many respects. “We had a great life.”
“He wanted, at the end of his years, to be able to live right on the water where he could walk out the door and be on the water and go fishing,” she said. And that’s what they did, in a rented house with a weeping willow tree and a pier in their back yard with a view of Mt. Shasta.
Diane Powell, 30 years Walt’s junior, says she got to see a side of him that his family did not—a kinder, gentler Walt Powell whose “absolute favorite thing in the world was watching the sun set.”
“He was a good father and a good husband,” she said, and he was prouder that he had raised an honorable family—five successful children and their progeny—than of his accomplishments in the rod world. “He idolized the ground they walked on.” Sure, he was cantankerous, Diane Powell said, but “what his family never realized was, that was an act. He was really a pussycat.”
Walton Powell talked often of his first wife, Earline, who died in 1981 and whom he missed greatly.
His prostate cancer had been in remission until five years ago, but even up to the day before his death, Diane Powell said, “he was sharp as a tack.” It was travel that “wore him down.” The morning before he died, she said, Walt woke up, ate a full breakfast, went for a walk, watched a tennis match and talked to his son, John, about the latest great-grandchild. “He was always proud as a peacock every time he had a new grandbaby.”
He was excitedly making plans for a visit with friends that weekend, but a sudden pain sent him to the hospital. The next day he died.
During his last years of life, Walton Powell had an idea for designing a new rod, even though the Schwab deal forbade him from making and selling rods. “He was playing with ideas in the back of his head. He never quit,” Diane Powell said.
Press Powell didn’t plan on staying in the family business after he graduated from high school, and even less after he got his degree at Chico State in biology and agriculture science. He earned a master’s degree at University of California at Davis and began teaching school. But his mother asked him to come back, and he did.
Press Powell formed his own company in 1977 but said, “I traveled all over the world with my father. I had a strong dealer network. He sold direct only.”
Now, Press Powell’s attentions have turned to fighting the colon cancer that has metastasized in his body. He is married and two sons, ages 11 and 16.
As for the future of his business, Powell said, “I just have to work to sell myself. I don’t think it ever was just a name—it was us.
“We are without a doubt the last of the people in the fly-fishing industry [to remain a] family business,” he said.
The movie-consulting gig was a source of pride for his father, although Press Powell said that ironically “that movie did more to hurt our industry than anything else. Everybody joined into the fly-fishing [manufacturing] world. It really caused an influx into our little cottage industry.”
Eustice said his friend had a “hysterical” sense of humor and knack for storytelling but little tolerance for pretentiousness.
Eustice said that while Walt Powell was working on A River Runs Through It, one of Robert Redford’s representatives called Powell and said the famous director was so impressed with Powell’s rods that he wanted to have a bamboo one for himself. If Powell would make one and give it to him, Redford would give him a credit in the movie. Powell’s response, according to Eustice, was, “What the hell would I do with that? Redford’s got a lot of dough. If he wants a rod, he can buy a rod.” And he did. Powell was invited to the movie’s premiere but, unimpressed, said he was too busy to go.
“For him, it was about being out and making a fine tool to do the job,” Eustice said. “He always had some new project or some new vision.
“He was a man of very little arrogance. He had a wealth of confidence and very little ego, and if he was your friend he’d do anything for you," Eustice said. "He was a curmudgeon with a heart of gold."