In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Strong, a Mussul Unsquit village

A Legacy of Woods and Waters

"Fly Rod" Crosby

Text By: Ben Godsoe

Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby (1854-1946) was not only a fly fisherwoman extraordinaire, but also Maine’s first Registered Guide and the first person to market Maine as a destination for early tourism. She lived in Phillips, wrote about and guided in the Rangeley region and is buried in the Strong Village Cemetery. Fly Rod attended large outdoor trade shows in Boston and New York, where she advocated for the Narrow Gauge Railroad as a means of accessing bountiful fishing and hunting grounds in the Western Maine mountains. She was a Porter, on her mother’s side, and is buried in the Porter lot. The Porter family has a prominent place in Strong’s history and played a central role in the town’s early development. Fly Rod Crosby left behind a legacy of conservation, equal opportunity and economic development for the people of the Maine woods. Today that legacy lives on in a memorial trail, active guides association and a region still home to some of Maine’s finest fishing and hunting.

Cornelia Thirza Crosby was born in Phillips November 10th, 1854 to Lemuel Crosby and Thirza Cottle Porter, both from Strong. She was preceded by a brother Ezekiel, nine years her senior. Soon after her birth her father contracted consumption (tuberculosis) and passed away. Ezekiel also took sick with tuberculosis and died in 1868 at the age of 23. Early on she was prescribed fresh air; as much time in the outdoors as possible. During a particularly bad spell Fly Rod was carried up to the foot of Mt Blue where she spent some time recovering. It was here that she caught her first “speckled beauty,” Crosby’s affectionate nickname for native brook trout, in Mt. Blue Stream.

The pen name “Fly Rod” first was printed in the Phillips Phonograph. Fly Rod wrote columns describing fishing and hunting adventures in the Maine woods, primarily around the Rangeley Lakes Region. She wrote for the Lewiston Journal, Farmington Chronicle and the Maine Woodsman. Her playful accounts of summer trips describe the social aspects of fishing trips, gear used and fish harvested. Later on she would discuss in detail efforts to conserve natural resources for another generation of sports by placing bag limits on deer, salmon and trout as well as advocating for catch and release fishing tactics.

Crosby was an important contributor to the early tourism industry in the Maine woods. She was engaged by the Maine Central Railroad to help market the Rangeley Lakes as a popular destination for tourism. Fly Rod rarely directly referenced the Maine Central or narrow gauge railroad, instead she implied that people should use rail to access the wondrous, outdoor landscape described in various articles and publications. She attended many outdoor trade shows in Boston, New York and Philadelphia where she regaled visitors with stories about the Maine woods. A full size log cabin was erected as the center of the exhibit in 1895 and affectionately nicknamed “Camp Maine Central.” Lumber for the cabin was provided by Redington Lumber Company and there were exhibits of taxidermy, hunting and fishing gear from all over the state. Over the course of the next 10 years, Fly Rod would attend several such exhibits all over the northeast.

Fly Rod's mother was a Porter, and through her she was connected to some of the earliest settlers in Strong. The Porter family owned and operated wood turning and matchstick mills, built iconic buildings in the downtown area and served the community in the House of Representatives, State Senate and on the Governor’s Council. Jeremy Porter built one of Strong’s most beautiful homes, which later became the Hotel Strong and then served as a 16 bed hospital run by Dr. Charles Bell and owned by the Forster Manufacturing Company. Tourists on their way to or from the Rangeley Lakes often stopped at the hotel (which eventually fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1969). Fly Rod’s mother, Thirza, was the daughter of Ezekiel Porter and sister of Jeremy.

Ms. Crosby owes much of her success to the photos taken by Edwin R. Starbird, of Strong. Edwin (1853-1921) was born to Amos and Mary Jane Gilkey Starbird in Freeman Village. Today, Freeman TWP is located directly north of Strong. Starbird started out as a teacher but soon turned to photography and studied under Francis Stanley in Lewiston Maine. He returned to Farmington soon afterwards and opened a studio specializing in landscape and portrait photography. Starbird released a series of photographs called “The Woods of Maine,” which he worked on for 20 years, between 1883 and 1903. These 600 photographs were taken all over the Moosehead and Rangeley Lakes region. Fly Rod is present in a few of them and occasionally accompanied Starbird on his trips into the Maine woods.

The Maine Central employed Crosby as a writer and sent her all over the east coast to represent the Maine Woods at expositions and on boards promoting tourism. However, with the introduction of the automobile and trucking industry, ridership began to decline. In 1936 the railroad disbanded, ripped up the tracks, sold off its assets and destroyed what it could not sell. Some remnants were salvaged and are on display at the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Museum in Phillips. Visitors to the museum can still ride the railroad along the Sandy River, albeit only for a limited distance.

Fly Rod retired to a quiet life in downtown Phillips. Much of her memorabilia and many of her writings are on display at the Phillips Historical Society. Visitors can see the ornate tea set that Crosby took on fishing trips, numerous photographs and even the shingle that hung outside “Saint Anthony’s Cottage,” her modest house in town. The Historical Society is also home to a comprehensive collection of the Maine Woodsman and Phillips Phonograph publications. Much of their Fly Rod Crosby collection, as well as items from the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc and the Maine State Museum, are temporarily on loan to the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester Vermont as part of an exhibit entitled: “A Graceful Rise – Women in Fly Fishing, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby died on Armistice Day in 1946 at the Marcotte Home in Lewiston. In her final years she had struggled with poor health, failing eyesight and had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926. She was no longer able to live in Phillips year round, but would return to Saint Anthony's Cottage every summer. In the winter she stayed with friends in Lewiston. The Rangeley Record ran her obituary ending with this message: “Rangeley has lost one of its most famous people and America has lost its most famous woman sportsman. May her soul rest in peace.”

Today, Fly Rod’s legacy is evident in Strong and other communities of Northern Franklin County through active guide associations, local celebration of the region's outdoor heritage and grassroots efforts to conserve natural resources. Crosby was a woman engaged in the outdoor and tourism industries at a time when it was overwhelmingly dominated by men. She was and continues to be a source of inspiration for women anglers, hunters, writers and recreators.

Toward the end of her life she helped construct a catholic church in the village of Oquossoc, located between Rangeley and Mooselukmeguntic lakes. Our Lady of the Lakes chapel is still there and holds regular services during the summer. Next door, the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum enshrines the region’s rich hunting and fishing tradition, as well as local luminaries such as Carrie Stevens and Ms. Crosby. The Rangeley Region Sportsman and Guides Association is a very active group that advocates for local guides, habitat and wildlife conservation.

The High Peaks Alliance located in Strong and Phillips, advocates for public access to back-country recreation. This small grass-roots organization has developed a new commemorative trail called the Fly Rod Crosby Trail which will eventually stretch 45 miles and connect the communities of Strong, Avon, Phillips, Madrid, Sandy River, Dallas and Rangeley through back-country hiking and multi-use trails. The goal of the trail is to “help residents and visitors take an active interest in preserving the unique character of High Peaks communities and resources.” Local efforts such as the Strong Historical Society, High Peaks Alliance and Rangeley Region Sports and Guides Association speak to Ms. Crosby’s legacy of conservation, economic development and a commitment to preservation of the “Maine Woods experience” for future generations.