The Photographer Who Inherited a Dead Frog

August 8, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

William Cooper's device helped simulate a live frog swimming.

William Cooper's device helped simulate a live frog swimming.

When in 1909 they read the will of Chicago businessman William Cooper, father to Ypsilanti photographer Charles Cooper, it turned out that Charles had inherited a dead frog.

Or, rather, the rights to William’s patent: a complicated bit of fishing tackle that pinned a frog in a lifelike pose.

The “Fisherman’s Friend,” as it was called, consisted of a trident-shaped bit of wire roughly four inches long. The dead frog rested on a little platform on the trident’s center wire, front legs dangling down. The two outer prongs of the trident held the frog’s legs extended backwards. A big hook curled up over the frog’s back. When the contraption was cast on a fishing line and reeled in, the frog would appear to be “swimming” through the water in a lifelike way, to tempt large game fish.

William Cooper had patented his invention in 1906. The patent application said that he had “invented certain new and useful improvements in Fishing-Hooks . . . the invention in this instance resides more particularly in the simplicity of the combination and construction, arrangement, and adaptation of the parts, with the added advantage of cheapness in the manufacture of the device.”

Though it seems a bit complicated, the three-year-old wire device was popular and already being sold around the country. In Ypsilanti, the “Fisherman’s Friend” was sold for fifteen cents [$3.50 today] at E. D. Carpenter’s hardware store at 124 Congress (Michigan Ave) and Shaefer Hardware at 23 Huron.

In 1909, Shaefer’s, on the west side of Huron, was just a few doors south of Cooper’s studio. Cooper’s photographic studio at 39 North Huron occupied the second floor of the onetime post office, at the southwest corner of Huron and Pearl streets. Cooper’s other neighbors on the west side of Huron included the cigar-maker Mathias Stein, the Weinmann-Matthews drugstore, the milliner Marian Clarke sharing a space with the dentist George Mills, and the offices of Ypsilanti physician Ellen Murray. Cooper’s studio was popular—there are many photographs in the Ypsilanti Archives that have the imprint of his name and business.

At his father’s death, Cooper moved all of the machinery used to manufacture the fishing device from Chicago to Ypsilanti, and installed it in the rear of his studio. He intended to carry on his father’s legacy. The local newspaper crowed about this exciting new Ypsilanti business in a front-page, above-the-fold story.

“Within a short time, the city of Ypsilanti will have added another industry,” said the April 27, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“Mr. C. E. Cooper, the photographer whose place of business is situated over the post office was bequeathed a patent by his father and intends to start manufacturing on a large scale in the near future.”

Charles had reason to do so—the device was popular. The Press said, “Cooper’s patented snap swivel or the ‘Fisherman’s Friend’ as it is called, has been manufactured for the past three years in Chicago under the direction of Mr. Cooper’s father.”

The article continued, “The Sears-Roebuck Co., of Chicago, probably the largest mail order concern in the world, recently placed an order with Mr. Cooper for 400 gross.

“The Simmons Hardware Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, in a recent letter to Mr. Cooper declared that within a year, their corps of salesmen could handle the entire output of the Cooper company.

“The little contrivance has a decidedly bright future and Mr. Cooper intends to push it extensively within the next year [1910].”

At this dawning of Charles’ fishing tackle empire, tragedy struck.

Charles Cooper became ill in early March, 1911. The doctors summoned could not help him. He took to his bed for six weeks as his wife Matilda tried to help. It was no use. Charles Cooper died on April 18, 1911.

His death certificate says that Charles died of Bright’s disease, a onetime catchall term for several different kidney ailments. Charles was buried in Highland Cemetery.

His widow Matilda lived until 1931. She is buried with Charles in section 49 of Highland.

The cemetery overlooks the Huron River. It’s possible that long after Charles’ death, local fishermen were still enjoying the device patented by his father and sold in Ypsilanti, the “Fisherman’s Friend.”

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time Ypsilanti history story to share? Contact her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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