The first time I met John Cleveland was when we both attended a Michigan Outdoor Writers Association (MOWA) meeting in Bay City, Michigan. He was relatively new to our organization at the time. He sat at a different table, but my attention came back to him a couple of times for what he was holding, not what he was saying. In his hand was what I learned was a “Cigar box guitar,” or CBG for those in the know. Man, it was cool. Handmade, with screws, yardsticks, nuts and bolts, and of course, cigar boxes! Hand-painted neck with assorted wildlife in vibrant colors. I had to hear about these beautiful crafts.

“Does that thing really play?” was my simple, and quite silly question to John as I examined his work.

Monster Lakers “on the fly”… John Cleveland holds his world record.

“Of course!! Acoustic or plug in an amp and away you go!” was his prompt reply with a broad smile engulfed in his snow-white walrus mustache

I had to have one! I bought a fine-looking Brickhouse cigar box model with a brook trout painted on the neck. The three-string sounds awesome! I can’t play a song yet, but I love plucking away… sometimes plugged into a mini amp! BOING! As a display piece, it receives a lot of attention from guests: “Is that some type of guitar?”. Yup. John told me a lot about the history of this instrument, but it would take another complete article to go over that!

After our initial meeting, John and I communicated once in a while online as well as during our ensuing MOWA meetings. John eventually joined me on the MOWA board and we became more familiar. That’s when I decided I needed to get to know him better… and soon learned what I expected, more people should too! This guy should be known.

In case you haven’t figured out where John works by the title of this article, he’s “the man” behind marketing and pretty much everything else at a little business/industry in Dearborn, Michigan… The Eppinger Manufacturing Company. It’s where the family-run business manufactures the iconic Dardevle fishing lure (as well as the Redeye and others). If you don’t know what those look like or have not fished with one, well, you haven’t fished. So many fish (including many records) have been caught with this classic red and white wabbly spoon of all spoons since its inception, it’s impossible to know. Heck, I even caught my first pike on one when I was about 6 years old. I still have that lure… pike teeth scraped and all.

Meeting with John at the Eppinger facility was finally arranged and we sat down for a chat and a tour. Admittedly, I was in awe, seeing the process of making the iconic lure from start to finish, with detailed descriptions from John, was like a dream come true.

The Lure

A little about “The Lure”. History makes for good context to this story. So briefly, here’s the story of “… probably the world’s most recognized lure,” according to Terry McBurney. Most of you probably have one in your tackle box. And I don’t mean the cheap knockoffs, of which there are many. “Often imitated, never equaled” as Eppinger Mfg. Likes to say. The red and white striped spoon was invented by Lou J. Eppinger, a resident of Detroit’s Eastside (then known as Germantown).

Lou was interested in taxidermy and worked and then owned a company at the age of 18. In 1910, he bought a small selection of lures to sell at his taxidermy studio. Sales picked up, he acquired more and more to sell and he eventually started selling a spoon called “The Osprey,”… precursor to today’s Dardevle. There are at least 4 different stories as to how Lou came up with the lure we know today, but it was around 1917 or so that things started to pick up. The lure was known around Detroit, other parts of Michigan as well as Ontario. So, Lou advertised in Field and Stream around 1919-1920—cost for a lure: $.75.

Of course, you all want to know how the lure got its name. Now, there’s another one that has lots of interesting versions. The most well-known and reliable is that Lou wanted to honor the Marines who fought Germany in the trenches of WW I… where they were called “Teufelhunde:” Devil dogs. Makes sense. Marines still use the tough English Bulldog as their mascot. And the unique spelling…apparently, Lou, being very religious, wanted to avoid the word “Devil,” so he changed the spelling. Either way, the Osprey became the Dardevle and the fishing world was never the same. Just think, right here in Michigan, these lures are still handmade, painted to every last detail in a small facility in Dearborn. Born in the USA!

Dardevle Man

“So how did you get this great gig?” was the first question put to John as we relaxed in his office filled with all kinds of stuff, including many awards for running, fishing and other recognitions.

“Well, being from the area, I started my first real career in the seafood restaurant business for about 25 years. Loved every minute of it… especially interacting with my customers. Worked a ton of hours.” John stated plainly.

Listening to John and looking around his office, it became evident immediately that John Cleveland was the least “lazy” person I’d ever met. Living at full speed came to mind.

Growing up, loving the outdoors, shooting bows and arrows with his buddy, trapping, fishing/fly fishing, hunting grouse and woodcock and pretty much running amuck in the bush. It sounded familiar to me! But that’s where the similarity ended as far as careers go. One of John’s restaurant customers was none other than Karen Eppinger. As John was thinking about moving on and retirement, Karen asked him a simple question: “Why don’t you come work with me?”.

And So, It Began

Starting off part-time in the paint room and with Karen as his mentor, he quickly started marketing in October of 2001. Became director in 2002. Things took off from there and he hasn’t looked back. John has a knack for working with his hands. He makes wood furniture, recurve bows, and, yes, CBGs as well (he’s up to about 97 now). To think he started making those about 7 years ago… pretty good production! Of course, he makes fly rods too… and now he does outdoor writing as well (first published in 2013 and has won awards as well for his excellent work).

With his fly-fishing skills, he managed to land a “second job” as a certified fly-fishing instructor with the Trout Unlimited Fly-Fishing School, along with 15 catch-and-release fly-fishing world records with the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

Life At Full Speed

What else? Just a little thing called a “Sprint-Triathlon.” He’s an Ironman, too? Yup. Having just celebrated his birthday in October (I’ll keep his age for him to tell, but he’s on the short side of 70). I can’t run to the mailbox and back, and this guy is doing sprint-triathlons! (actually, I used to do 5Ks, but that’s only 3.1 miles). The Triathlons we’re talking about are as follows (they vary but these are typical distances): ½ mile swim (0.8-K), 15-mile bike ride (24K), and finish that up with a 3-mile run (5K)!

Try that sometime. He’s done 40-50 of them. About 2-3 per summer. Yikes! He’s been running for years as a distance runner and, of course, has completed marathons. I’m not worthy! Doubt this guy goes at life full tilt?

I wasn’t going to mention this, but he also survived cancer and was shot while deer hunting with his son. Without hesitation, he’s a hard man to kill!

When asked how he felt competing in these Triathlons, his quick answer surprised me: “Terrifying.” Specifically, what terrified this guy the most? The swim. His description of the mass of humanity swimming like a school of terrified salmon fleeing a predator, splashing, darkness, arms and legs of human bodies thrashing every inch of your personal space, not seeing but feeling the other competitors as you struggle for time and space, to succeed and finish the swim, pure adrenalin. Is that cool or what?

There’s More

After our visit and interview, he sent me a couple more “I forgot to mentions.” His goal is to run a triathlon at age 80. No surprise there… he’ll do it; don’t doubt him. Did I mention he also has his pilot’s license? Like I said, full speed.

He left me with some words he lives by, passion, purpose, enthusiasm and wonder. All are evident in the life he is living—a wife and three sons. He works on one of the most famous lures of all time. What a life! And don’t give him one of those “lifetime achievement awards…” John Cleveland is far from being done.