If there’s one thing Kim Walchko of Cobleskill has learned in years of fly-fishing for trout with her husband, Mike, it’s that wading in a rocky, rushing trout stream can be tricky. Lose your footing, and you’re in for an unpleasant dunking – or worse.
So she was delighted in September 2002, when Mike gave her a Folstaf – a collapsible walking stick that folds up into a holster while casting, but snaps quickly into place when it’s time to move to another spot. Walchko can use it to test footholds and keep her balance, and lean on it to brace herself against the relentless current.
“I use it all the time. Otherwise, I’d fall in the water,” the retired fourth-grade teacher at Radez Elementary School in Richmondville said with a laugh.
A few weeks after acquiring her new-found stability, Walchko learned that Folstafs are handmade by a four-person staff in a tiny home factory down the road in Charlotteville, in the Schoharie County town of Summit. That’s unusual – anglers are accustomed to their gear coming from faraway states or other countries. The connection tightened when the CEO of the company that makes Folstafs showed up at the parent teacher conference for her fourth-grade daughter, Abby Dufresne – one of Walchko’s students.
“I just couldn’t believe how it all fell together,” Walchko recalled. She bought her husband a Folstaf for Christmas that year.
The CEO, Lee Stoliar, is the daughter of a New York City couple who most trout anglers have never heard of, but whose ideas have impacted the pursuit of trout – and the conservation of their pristine habitats – around the world.
Her parents invented the Folstaf and several other handy angling gadgets. And her mother conceived Trout in the Classroom, a program where public school students raise trout from eggs in specially equipped aquariums and release them into the wild at the end of the school year, having become stewards of the environment in the process. It has spread from four schools in the 1980s to more than 200 today.
The Folstaf story began in 1970, when Stoliar’s parents, Arthur and Joan Stoliar, had a moment similar to the one the Walchkos had.
“My father decided it was about time my mother had a wading staff to carry,” Stoliar said. “She didn’t want to carry one all the time. The challenge was how to have one that would be there when you want it but not when you don’t need it.”
It didn’t take long for Arthur Stoliar, an engineer at Unisys, to figure something out. He settled on a series of 9-inch metal tubes with a bungee cord running through them. The tube at the top end had a cork handle; the one at the bottom had a carbide tip. A flick of the wrist would snap the tubes into a sturdy cane.
“It became known initially through word-of-mouth,” Stoliar said. “There was never any form of marketing done other than fishermen talking to fishermen. Then important dealers picked up the product and put it in their catalogs,” including Orvis Co., the iconic fly fishing outfitter in Manchester, Vt. Suddenly, the Stoliars’ modest brownstone in Greenwich Village became a tackle factory.
“Its first factory was my parents’ bedroom, and their bed was the factory floor, which meant they couldn’t go to bed until the Orvis order was packed,” Stoliar said, laughing at the memory. “One of the bedrooms was the assembly plant and the packing plant, but there were also the components down in the basement, where parts were pressed together on equipment that my father either created or modified.”
The family cranked out between 3,000 and 6,000 Folstafs per year this way. Lee Stoliar went off to Bennington College, became a celebrated sculptor specializing in sensuous, high-relief terra cotta, taught art at New York University and married artist Leonard Dufresne, all while still helping to fold Folstafs and ship them off.
“As much as my parents loved being anglers together, they loved inventing things together,” Stoliar said. “This company was their creation. It was a love letter in which they existed. It was the centerpiece of their relationship.”
But they didn’t object in 1990, when Lee proposed moving the company – Fly Tyer’s Carry-All, named for another invention, which is no longer produced – from the Manhattan brownstone to Charlotteville, where Lee and Leonard had visited friends. In addition to relieving the brownstone of factory duty, the couple wanted to consolidate their art studios under one roof. And besides, Joan was now focused on Trout in the Classroom.
“It was small, but it was a really happening thing,” Stoliar said. “It grew and grew and grew. During these years, this was where the center of my mother’s heart was. She was struggling with cancers she had had for years and they were starting to really take hold of her, and she was concentrating her energies on this program.”
Meanwhile, local chapters of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group made up mainly of anglers interested in protecting sensitive trout streams, got on board and began raising money for big fish tanks and special chillers so teachers across New York and in other states could raise trout. In 2004, the national Trout Unlimited office hired a coordinator for the program as it leaped from district to district, winning praise from teachers.
Joan Stoliar saw only the beginning of the program’s success. She died in June of 2000. “Finally, the cancers caught up with her after 20 years of living with it,” her daughter said. “Until then, Trout in the Classroom had been my mother’s project – my father had been a helper, a schlepper of fish eggs, a fixer of tanks. When my father took on the directorship of the program, all of a sudden what I saw was a continuation of their love affair. I saw it being acted out in his continued demonstration of adoration for the thing that my mother had created. It was a continued expression of his love for her.”
Today, Fly Tyer’s Carry-All carries on. The company has added dry-land versions of the Folstaf for hikers called the Volkstaf and Travlr, and also sells Fly Retreev (a gizmo for retrieving a fly stuck out of reach in a tree), QR Thumb (a thumb glove that permits holding a trout by the lower jaw while releasing it without fear of its small but sharp teeth) and Catch-A-Hatch (a foldable insect-catching net, for closer inspection of the aquatic bugs the fish are eating).
Stoliar answers the phone and e-mail and makes products alongside her staff, Jeanette Edwards of Schenevus and Ida Shafer and Christy Dahms, both of Charlotteville.
“I’m the CEO, but Leonard is involved in all things requiring hauling big stuff in this very physical little business,” Stoliar said, “including clearing the vast amounts of snow that accumulate on our very long driveway so UPS can get in and out and our staff can get in to work.”
Abby’s away at boarding school, and Arthur is still in Greenwich Village, helping out with Trout in the Classroom and doing research and development for Fly Tyer’s Carry-All.
“The warm and personal culture that my mother established way back in the beginning is still the culture today,” said Stoliar, who doesn’t fish, but likes to carry a Folstaf and stroll alongside Charlotte Creek in back of their house.
“We’re happy to come to work with each other. I know the spirit of this is conveyed to our customers, because I get the most amazing fan mail. People feel the dedication of this company to this product, and it makes people feel good about having it and using it.”