Manchester's Mary Orvis Maybury is the fly-fishing icon you should know

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Dear readers: In 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and Susan B. Anthony's 200th birthday — which is Saturday, Feb. 15 — many cultural institutions are proclaiming this as "the year of the woman." With that in mind, we're pleased to offer an occasional series of profiles of Vermont women past and present who have confounded expectations, shattered stereotypes and made important and lasting contributions to Vermont and our world.

— Greg Sukiennik, Southern Vermont Landscapes editor

MANCHESTER — Ask fly-fishing anglers who Mary Orvis Marbury is, and they'll likely be able to tell you: she's the woman who helped standardize American fly-fishing.

But for people outside of the angling world, she's largely unknown.

She worked for her father's family business — the C.F. Orvis Company, founded in Manchester in 1856 and now known as the Orvis Company, an outdoor sporting goods retailer specializing in fly-fishing, hunting and dog products.

More than 125 years ago, under Mary's keen vision, intellect and effort, a standardized American fly-fishing classification system was born, and the sport was brought into the modern age. She broke ground for women in sports, business and literature at time when women were bound to the home, and she essentially defined modern American fly-fishing.

So why have so few people outside of the sport's community ever heard of her? The answer is both simple and complex.

"Mary Orvis Marbury is very well known in the fly-fishing community," says Wes Hill, Orvis' historian and an outlet store sales associate. "Her book classifying fishing flies became the standard for the industry."

And the reason for her relative obscurity? According to Hill, "She is not known outside the fly-fishing world because she went into seclusion after the death of her only son," John Morton "Jack" Marbury, in 1904.

That's the simple explanation.

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The more complex one may have something do with Marbury's gender, but also with being part of such a successful family.

The C.F. Orvis Company was founded the year of Mary's birth, in 1856. From the outset, the company was a preeminent name in outdoor living, and fly-fishing in particular. And her uncle, Franklin Orvis, was the proprietor of what is now the Equinox Resort, also in Manchester Village. From day one, Mary was in the middle of it all.

Born Mary Ellen Orvis to Charles and Ellen Orvis of Manchester, she was their oldest child and only daughter. According to "A Graceful Rise," an online account of Marbury's life on the American Museum of Fly Fishing website, Mary was full of expectation and promise and did well in school, graduating from Burr & Burton Seminary (now Burr and Burton Academy) in 1872.

By the time Mary was finishing school. it was clear she was both interested in, and adept at, tying flies, according to Hill. Her father encouraged her, and brought in a master in the art, John Hailey of Scotland and New York City, to instruct her on British fly-tying.

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It paid off. According to "A Graceful Rise," after four years, Mary became the manager of the C.F. Orvis Company's fly-tying operations. Under her watch, the Orvis fly-tying department hired local women, whom Mary trained personally. During all the years she was with the family company, she employed anywhere between seven and ten women at a time.

By 1890 the company was tying and selling more than 400 different fly patterns. But thanks to regional differences in the sport's nomenclature, customers were occasionally confused by the differences in what they thought they had ordered and what they received. Therefore, to standardize American angling, Charles Orvis decided it was time to create a fly pattern standard for fishing in North America. He sent out countless letters to anglers and fly-tyers in the United States and all over the world, asking them to contribute their designs.

According to "A Graceful Rise," the company was inundated with thousands of responses, and the task of organizing, compiling and cataloging each entry was given to Mary. She poured over them all in painstaking detail. Scouring every single one, she looked for the origins of each specific fly; its history, the insect it was based on, where it was found, techniques used in tying it, drawings and diagrams, along with other vital and useful information.

Once assembled, they were collected in one volume: "Favorite Flies and their Histories," published in 1892.

The book went through nine printings in four years, according to "A Graceful Rise."

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Her legacy also includes her work at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, according to Sarah Foster, executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. To compliment the book, she represented the C.F. Orvis Company at the exposition with plates, panels and displays showing hundreds of North American flies. More than 27 million people passed through the gates of the Chicago Worlds Fair, further exposing her work.

Mary Orvis had a short-lived marriage to William C. Marbury that brought her a boy, her beloved Jack, according to Hill. Then, just over ten years after her seminal work's initial printing, John Morton Marbury died of Bright's Disease — a catch-all term, no longer used, for a range of kidney ailments now known as acute or chronic nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys.

When Jack died, accounts from family and friends make clear, a massive piece of Mary Orvis Mabury died with him, Hill said. His death "made it all that much worse she went into a severe depression," Hill said.

Shortly after Jack's death, Mary handed over the Orvis Company's fly-tying department to her sister-in-law, Anna Graves Orvis, then disappeared from public life, according to Hill. She became a recluse, seldom making public appearances or taking in the occasional house guest. She passed away in relative obscurity in 1914 at her home in Manchester. Her funeral was held at the home of her father, Charles, who died the next year.

Clearly, Mary Orvis Marbury made an impact on the world of fly-fishing. But why don't more people know about her, or view her the way they do other groundbreaking women of that era?

Foster has a theory as to why Marbury is not a household name.

"It's likely her contributions aren't well known outside the fly-fishing community probably [for] the same reason so many innovations and contributions aren't," Foster said. "Much of what women and minorities added to our world tended [not to] make it into more general history summations."

"Having a famous father or family member likely only added to the difficulty of her receiving the recognition she deserves as an individual," Foster added. "Most people who look a bit deeper into the story of fly-fishing, especially avid fly tiers [sic], do tend to at least know of her."

Dru Hiram Clyde contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Pownal.


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