Wisconsin’s Winter Wonderland of Rod Building

By Joe Sills - February 15, 2017
There's a place up north, covered in snow, where even now thousands of hands are steadily working on thousands and thousands of holiday toys. The toys they build are magical. They're handcrafted with the power to bring joy to all, year round.

But this place up north-you won't find any men in red suits there. You won't find any sleighs or reindeer. What you'll find is better, an entire factory full of fishing rods. The place is Park Falls, Wisconsin. And it's the home of St. Croix Rods.

For serious anglers, there are few places on Earth like the St. Croix factory. Its massive frame welcomes travelers to the tiny town of 2,400 in the middle of the Northwoods. Inside, some of the finest fishing rods on the planet are brought to life under the hands and feet of Wisconsin's proudest workforce, a small army of rod builders that are carrying on a legacy that began in 1948. And for most of the nearly seven decades St. Croix has been building rods, their recipe has remained a secret.

Now, part of that secret is out. If you drive to Park Falls, you no longer need to stare in wonder at the great rod factory. Now, you can go in. What's more-they'll give you a tour.

The company opened their doors for public factory tours every day of the week earlier this year, and they're still going strong through the winter months, albeit on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays only until May 1. The Northwoods, are, after all, a chilly place to be in the winter.

So what's inside? We took a peak to break down a few of the highlights for you:

The tour starts with a sneak peek, of sorts. Through the doors of the St. Croix Factory Store (a dirty little secret for finding deals on nearly anything on the production floor), you'll meet up with a guide, a St. Croix expert.

Ours guide today is Ken Boness. Not Ken Bone. Ken Boness.

Boness is a decades-long veteran of the production facility. In fact, he tried to retire, but when the opportunity arose to guide factory tours, he found it hard to leave his family inside the factory walls. It's Boness who first takes our small tour group on a crash course of St. Croix history-from the first bamboo rods to their modern day, tech-savvy equivalents-before opening the doors to paradise.

Behind the doors, through the company break room and into a hallway, Boness takes us through the warehouse. It's a place of incomprehensible scale, where forests and walls of fishing rods seem to go on for days. Tens of thousands of rods at a time live here, before making their way out to retail stores around the world.

The rest of the tour, then, is about building perspective outwardly from the warehouse. It's easy to take the rods for granted when they're staked together in the thousands. But leaving the warehouse brings you into the heart of the St. Croix brand-the floors where each individual rod is truly raised from a sheet of treated graphite or fiberglass into a cylinder capable of extraordinary performance.

The guts of the tour lie here, in a factory full of people and machines that are almost dizzying. Making a fishing rod is still very much a mechanical process, and the grey-haired Boness wisely guides us through a labyrinth of lathes, furnaces and other assorted areas of danger that are each manned by a Wisconsinite.

Each builder is focused on their task. Most are wearing St. Croix-branded shirts or hats, which isn't a requirement. It just sort of happens, Boness says, when people take pride in their work.

ICAST Winners are born here: the Legend Glass, Legend Xtreme and Avid Inshore and Sole. Perennial favorites are too, like the Legend Elite, Legend Trek, Tidemaster and Legend Tournament. Many will travel from the small town where most of the builders work and live to lakes, rivers and coasts thousands of miles from their snow-covered home. That's something that everyone seems proud of, and it's the reason that at the very end of the process, once the rods are painted, tested for quality and approved, they get a St. Croix stamp.

Before any of these rods head to the warehouse, they'll need it as a ticket for admission. And they'll wear that stamp proudly wherever they go.

If you make the drive to Park Falls this winter, you'll find a lot of that floating around... pride. This small town in the middle of the woods takes pride in their place in the world. They're proud of the rods they make, the waters they fish, and the company they work for to build quality fishing rods in the U.S.A.

Yes, if you make the drive to Park Falls-because you surely can't fly-you'll find a proud American company, a proud American brand building strong American products. You'll learn how they do it. And, you might even see Saint Boness.


Joe Sills