Myrna Hilgart, 55, carefully inspects a fishing rod at her worktable at the St. Croix Rod Co. in Park Falls, Wis. (pop. 2,793), making sure threads that attach each guide to the rod are tightly wrapped. She then uses a laser to check that the guides, through which fishing line will pass, are perfectly straight.
“All the guides are wound by hand,” says Jeff Schluter, 47, the company’s co-owner and vice president of sales and marketing. “There’s not a machine that can do it.”
In the close-knit workplace, each of the company’s 90 employees pays attention to detail. “If they see anything that needs to be fixed as it goes through the assembly line, we redo it,” says Hilgart, who’s worked at St. Croix for 29 years.
The company’s manufacturing process is a symbiotic fusion of high-tech and hands-on. Precision machines cut and bake the graphite and fiberglass shafts that become fishing rods, but it’s humans who assemble the prized rods. “From start to finish, about 36 sets of hands touch a fishing rod,” Schluter says. “It’s a labor-intensive process that takes three to four weeks.”
That human element has become the backbone of the family-owned business. “The greatest strength of our product is our high-quality workforce,” Schluter says. “They take pride in ensuring what they build is the best it can be.”
That pride has helped St. Croix become the largest full-line fishing rod manufacturer in the nation, producing more than 175,000 rods annually.
The company dates back to 1948 when brothers Bob and Bill Johnson founded the St. Croix Rod Co. in Minneapolis, supposedly naming their new venture after the nearby St. Croix River. In 1954, the brothers moved their business to Park Falls, a remote fishing village 60 miles south of Lake Superior. During the next few years, the company introduced the first three-piece telescopic fiberglass fishing rod and the first ultralight rod, which was lighter and stronger than other rods of the day. St. Croix also pioneered color-infused fiberglass, which eliminated the need to paint the rods.
But despite the company’s inventiveness, it ran into hard times as mismanagement and foreign competition twice pushed St. Croix to the brink of bankruptcy.
In both instances, the savior was Jeff’s father, the late Gordon Schluter. In 1962, he and four other Park Falls investors purchased St. Croix, and Gordon took the helm as CEO, bringing the company back into the black. In 1967, the revitalized company was sold to Minneapolis toymakers Shaper Manufacturing. Yet a decade later, the company was again “nearly broke” and scheduled to close.
Gordon, unwilling to see St. Croix shuttered, bought the company and together with his sons—Jeff, Paul and David—rejuvenated it. In 1990, Gordon sold the business to his sons and daughter, Pam Smylie, and business has been booming since. Today, the company offers 600 types of rods for freshwater and saltwater fishing. The rods are sold to 2,000 U.S. and Canadian retailers, and range in price from $50 for a 5-foot freshwater rod, to $590 for a 9-foot saltwater fly rod. Over the decades, the company has garnered a large and loyal group of fans. “Our hard-core customer has 12 to 15 St. Croix rods; they live to fish,” Schluter says. “We’ve had children named after our company. Last year, a guy sent us a picture of the St. Croix logo tattooed on his back.” Avid angler Harry Frokjer, a retired school superintendent who resides in Hot Springs Village, Ark., has been catching his limit with St. Croix rods for 54 years. “I think they’re the best rods in the world,” Frokjer says. “They’re light, they’re exceptionally strong, and they’re very, very sensitive. My friend used to say when he used his St. Croix rod, he knew when a fish was looking at him.”