PARK FALLS, Wisc.— The Chocolate Room. Hold your breathe, make a wish, count to three…. What you’ll see will defy explanation.
A few weeks ago, St. Croix opened the gates to their rural Wisconsin factory, lifting the veil on a rod-building paradise that fans can now book tours of. But before the gates opened to the public, FTR received a golden ticket to go inside. This is what we found.
The gates here are decidedly less intimidating than Gene Wilder’s industrial-era fortress, but they’re no less secure. The official tours (now open to the public) begin in the Croix-run factory store that’s directly connected to the rest of the facility. Here, you’ll see one of the most crisp and clean tackle shops in the country, with no shortage of reminders that the building you’re in houses decades of St. Croix heritage: a gnarled, barely recognizable husk of a lightning-struck rod rests in a case by the register; one of the very first St. Croix rods—which is actually a 60-plus year old cane pole—hovers in a case overhead. Through a door, you’ll find a break room and a long corridor. The corridor, of course, leads into the heart of Wonkaland.
The guide today is Ken Boness. A seasoned veteran of the Croix family, this is his world … we’re just living in it. Behind Boness follows a platoon of outdoor media—other winners of a golden ticket—and we’re in for a treat. Boness waxes poetic on the history of Croix rods for a moment, before leading us down a meandering path through the company’s warehouse, where thousands upon thousands of shiny new fishing rods await their final destinations.
The scale of the warehouse is staggering. Row upon row, stack upon stack of finely-crafted rods. There are thousands here, but that scale of this operation is about to be magnified tenfold, as Boness enters the heart of the plant in earnest. It’s here, in rooms tucked behind the safety-net of the warehouse that we get into the real stuff: the raw materials, the metals, fires, furnaces, paints and lasers that the building’s 130 or so employees use to build these fishing rods by hand every day.
Even in 2016, in a well-organized workplace that’s as clean and safe as humanly possible, the crafting of a fishing rod is a primal process. Future blanks are sliced by blade from massive sheets of graphite or fiberglass before being coated and cured around metal templates with brushes, sweat and man-size furnaces.
From there, the hot metal is extracted from the blank, and the process of applying paint, guides, grips and graphics ensues. In Park Falls, each rod is touched by well over 100 hands before it ever finds its way from the rod blank cutting board to the warehouse. And the factory really is a blur of whirling fingertips
For just over an hour, Bonness guides our band of rookies through this forest of fingers. The hands cut and craft, measure and spin, paint and coat, and thread and stamp. Behind each pair rests a set of focused eyes and more than a few smiling faces that read more like a family welcoming visitors to dinner than intruders into their workplace.
Many employees have been working here for decades. Most are wearing St. Croix branded t-shirts, which the company says isn’t a requirement. They do it, Boness says, because everyone here takes pride in their work. As they should. The Croix brand is in a period of upswing. Under the leadership of the Schluter family, Croix has planted roots as not only one of the most productive rod manufacturers in the world, but a banner company for American success stories. Their rods are popular, their brand is growing, and business is good.
Tours like the one Boness is leading are a byproduct of that success. The Chocolate Room—one of the final stages in the birth of a fishing rod, has been visible through a viewing portal in the factory store for years. Now, visitors and fans can finally get behind the glass and into the room. And if they take a tour with Boness, they’ll get much, much more.
The St. Croix Rods factory is located on Highway 13 in Park Falls, Wisconsin. Visitors can book a tour via the company’s website here.