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 North Manchester, Indiana

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Source: NMHS Newsletter, May 2001LUME XVIII                 NUMBER 2                      MAY, 2001


 
 

Drawing of the Howe Vacuum Bait Company by Allan White, based on the memories of Dr. L.Z. Bunker

 

The Howe Vacuum Bait Company

Presented by William R. Eberly to the North Manchester Historical Society, March 12, 2001

Among the numerous unusual businesses that have flourished in North Manchester in the past was a company that manufactured artificial fishing baits (called lures by the practitioners of the art). The lure was designed to catch the common bass, much sought by fishermen throughout the country. Like the mythical "better mouse trap" a better bass plug should be a hot item in bait shops everywhere. And the North Manchester bass bait seemed to make it to the top of the list for awhile.

The Vacuum Bait was a triangular piece of well-polished cedar

 
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wood painted with bright colors to imitate various natural food items of the bass. The fishing line was attached at the wide end of the bait and three sets of treble hooks were inserted along the sides and end. The hooks were of a unique patented design that would rotate freely in a complete 360 degree circle. This was supposed to prevent the fish from twisting itself free from the hook. But now, back to the beginning of this interesting story!

The inventor of the Vacuum Bait was Francis O. Howe, commonly known as Frank. He was born in Ohio in 1874 and came with his family to North Manchester in 1889. His father was David N. Howe who was the founder of the North Manchester College which was later called simply Manchester College. Frank would have been fifteen years old at the time of the move and had several brothers and sisters. Frank's mother died here and his father later married two more times and had a total of twenty children. Frank married in 1895 and remained in North Manchester after the Howes moved away that same year. One of Frank's children was Bruce Howe, a very colorful character in North Manchester society for many years.

Among other things, Frank Howe was a musician, performing and teaching instrumental music, especially piano and violin. He was associated with Manchester College as a music instructor, at least during 1899-1900. He was a protégé of Maude Quivey, outstanding musician of the community. At the memorial service, one of his brothers said, "Some men are builders of steel; others are strong on finance; some love the gift of speech; but here was a man whose soul was touched by music, the language of the soul."

But Frank had at least two other qualities often overlooked; he

 
Francis (Frank) O. Howe
1874-1924
 
   
   
Page Two


loved to fish, and he was a man of some mechanical and inventive talents. It seemed a natural outcome of these two interests that he would invent (and manufacture and sell) the perfect bass bait. Working in his home in the 400 block of Walnut Street (across from the high school, then) he made 
many of these baits for his own use and for his friends, and eventually started to sell them.

The North Manchester Journal for May 13, 1909, declares that Frank O Howe "...has spent more time in scientific fishing than any other man in this part of the country in the past few years. He has studied the habits of the fish, and when he became interested in the bait question he spent his time trying various baits, and finding the weak places and how to remedy them. The result is Howe's Vacuum Bait..."

His application for a patent was granted October 5, 1909. He formed a partnership with Charles H. Olinger and J. W. Warvel which was incorporated in August of 1909. The capital stock was $5,000 divided into 100 shares valued at $50 each, all of which were owned by the three partners. Demand for the bait (distributed through dealers in the area) was so great that a new location was soon needed. A room in a building owned by Dr. J. L. Warvel was equipped for the new factory. This was previously the location of a bicycle repair shop

 
 
 
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operated by Charles Olinger. Outgrowing that location, Olinger, in partnership with Warvel, went to a new location and soon moved into the automotive business.

The building housing the new factory was a frame house located just east of the Lutheran Church and near the river, somewhat behind another building in what is now the town parking lot. Dr. L. Z. Bunker recalled this quite well. Her father was a fisherman and used the bait and Dr. Bunker herself had fished some and had used the bait on occasion. In a phone conversation with the writer on November 4, 1991, Dr. Bunker described the bait with uncanny accuracy shape, color, general texture of the surface, etc. While I was talking with her, I had in front of me one of the Howe baits. She knew just the main color pattern, i.e., which was with red marks. She described the red markings as if you took a comma and straightened it out.

She described the factory as "an old house, white, with a porch, located back of the Filling Station, a restaurant located toward the west side of what is not the parking lot and market." The restaurant was subsequently operated by Paul Hathaway and named the Flamingo Grill. A Mr. J. J. Martin operated a photographic studio in this complex of buildings. The house/factory could be reached by a rambling walk around the west end of the restaurant. With guidance from Dr. Bunker, Mr. Allan White, an artist and designer from North Manchester, created a drawing of the Vacuum Bait factory.

For a while, at least, wood blanks were made by the Caswell-Runyan company in Huntington, a factory that made cedar chests. They would have an abundance of scrap cedar wood from which to make the bodies for the Vacuum Baits. It appears that the fabrication of the special hooks was done in the Manchester factory. Fred Horne, an outstanding tool maker of North Manchester, installed machinery (probably a multiple automatic screw machine) in the new factory. It is not known where the tin boxes that enclosed the baits were made.

Business was very brisk for a number of years. Bait stores and hardware stores sold the baits almost as fast as they could be produced. The baits came in two sizes and about 30 color patterns, usually duplicated in both the large and small sizes. The company advertised extensively. Some of the brochures not only described the various

 
Page Four
 


versions of the bait but also gave hints and instructions for using it. Some ads contained testimonies. "In about 2 hours casting with your bait I landed 7 black bass, combined weight 22 lbs." "It is the King of all surface Lures." "Was out May 21st, used four kinds and no strikes, put on a Vacuum and caught 10. I consider them a first class Bait." "On June 22nd, caught by actual count 50, largest 7 one-half lbs."

William E. Billings, writing about North Manchester Industries, said, "Many fishermen swore by it, and possibly some swore at it. Tom Peabody, who always believed in efficiency, brought a bait back one Monday morning with the complaint that only two hooks were working, as he could never catch more than two fish at a time."

Eventually, though, the business folded. Perhaps Olinger and Warvel felt they could make more money in the automotive business. Maybe Frank Howe's health even then was beginning to fail. In about 1920, Howe sold his patent and a quantity of unused parts for making the baits to the South Bend Bait Company. It was first advertised in their 1921 catalog and may have been listed up into the 1940s. The South Bend version differed slightly from the Howe version. For one thing, the South Bend company put eyes in their plugs. South Bend also used a more simple hook attachment with the hook swinging only in one plane. They continued almost the same color patterns in both the large and small sizes.

One can always identify a Vacuum Bait; nothing else looks even remotely like it. But they are scarce today. There is always a ready buyer if one becomes available. The containers (both tin and cardboard) are even more rare.

For North Manchester, the Vacuum Bait company ranks right in there along with the DeWitt Automobile, the Blackmore cigars, the bonnet company, the instant water heater company, the folding bathtub company, and other quaint and unusual products manufactured in our town.