Heddon Museum showcases history

Published 3:11 pm Friday, December 13, 2013

Joan Lyons with the Heddon delivery truck. Photo by Jill McCaughan

Joan Lyons with the Heddon delivery truck. Photo by Jill McCaughan

Long before the stocking of steelhead and salmon began, southwestern Michigan was a fishing mecca. Local fishermen still speak of the time when the top five tackle manufacturers in the U.S. were all located in Michiana. While that vibrant era of Midwestern lure manufacturing has long since passed, a glimpse of it can still be seen at the Heddon Museum in Dowagiac, Mich.

“You think ‘fishing tackle,’ and you think ‘ho hum,’ but fishing tackle is attractive,” said Joan Lyons, who owns the museum with her husband, Don, who is also the mayor of Dowagiac. “As we say, you have to catch the fisherman before you catch the fish, so it’s an interesting thing to see. It’s visually eye-catching. Women or kids who really don’t know anything about fishing can still find something interesting here.”

Since 1991, when they first bought the rambling Heddon factory, the Lyons have filled over 3,000 square feet of the building with memorabilia. The collection includes 170 reels, 265 rods and more than 1800 Heddon lures, including some that are highly collectable, like an original James Heddon frog lure.

Visitors can also see a model of the 1920s Heddon “flying fish” airplane, and a number of vintage cars, including a replica of the 1925 Dodge Heddon delivery truck that Don restored himself. They even have a small Heddon boat from the 1950s.

A visit to the museum, located at 414 West St. in Dowagiac, is like stepping into a time machine. With Joan as a tour guide, the history of the Heddon family’s company comes alive. Her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious — despite the unintentional way that she and Don became a part of Heddon history.

“They started in 1902 as the ‘James Heddon and Son Fishing Tackle Company,’” Lyons explained. “They were always innovative. James’ claim to fame was the ‘top-water’ lure. At that time, most things were either live or they sunk. His first lure floated on the water and splashed. It had a collar. That made a noise and attracted the bass to grab it.”

At its height, Heddon was the largest manufacturer of fishing tackle in the world. As such, it played an important role in the rich manufacturing history of Dowagiac. And, because it employed so many area residents over the course of the years, people all over southwestern Michigan still can claim ties to it.

“My grandfather worked at the Heddon factory,” said Brian Klimczak, an angler who grew up in Dowagiac, and who now runs High’s Marine in Decatur, Mich. “It’s amazing, really, what they’ve manufactured in Dowagiac.”

While the company was very successful under the direction of the original owner and his sons, the twists and turns of life and business finally led to the sale of the company to outside parties in 1951.

“It went through a series of four owners until the last owner, which was called PRADCO, bought it in 1983, and closed the doors in 1984, moving everything to Fort Smith, Ark.,” Lyons said. “You can still buy Heddon lures in the big tackle shops. Then, in 1986, PRADCO, unable to find a buyer, gave the building to the city of Dowagiac, and then it sat.”

That’s where Don and Joan Lyons stepped into the story.

“My husband, Don, is a hometown boy, born and raised here, and every day that he went to work, he had to pass the building,” Lyons said. “Don was afraid they’d tear it down as a health hazard, so we personally bought the building in 1991 for two reasons. One, we needed more warehousing room for our manufacturing at Lyons Industries. And two, Don’s hobby with his dad had always been restoring old cars since he was 14. And, he knew that when dad passed away, we would need a place to store the cars. So, we bought the building, and we restored it.”

“Then, in 1994 a family friend came to us, named Stan Hamper, who had just retired from starting the Southwestern Michigan College museum. He said, ‘There’s an older gentleman in town, by the name of Trig Lund, who is 83. He used to work for Heddon, and he has a lot of Heddon items, and he wants to sell them. Once he sells them, they’ll be gone. If you’ll buy the collection and set aside the space, I will donate my time to show you how to set up a museum and save this history for Dowagiac,’” Lyons explained. “Don and I said, ‘Oh, Why not? ‘How hard can it be?’”

“We started at 750 square feet, figuring that local people would come through. And they did, but the collectors came through, too. Their philosophy was, ‘You have a museum. You must know all the answers. Here are my questions,’” Lyons recalled. “We knew nothing, absolutely nothing. We both grew up fishing, but that was it. So, after a year, we basically educated ourselves. Only about four percent of what you see here is what we actually bought from Trig. …We try to buy anything that will tell a story, and basically save the history for Dowagiac.”

“We get roughly 500 visitors per year,” Lyons said. “We have a website at www.heddonmuseum.org,” Lyons said. “The museum is open Tuesdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and on the last Sunday of each month from 1:30 to 4 p.m.”

However, Lyons is willing to open up the museum on other days as well. Would-be visitors need only call (269) 782-5698 to set up an appointment.

“Just call us. If we’re here, we’ll come open it up for you. Just give us a little bit of notice,” Lyons said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday or a weekend.”

Visitors can also take home a piece of Heddon history from the gift shop. It offers duplicates of original Heddon items that the museum already has on display. Pins, boxes, signs, T-shirts, art prints, catalogues, patches, tote bags and books are also available.

“We do not charge anything for anyone to come in. We never wanted anybody to not be able to come in. So, we call it a community service for saving the history,” Lyons said.