By Scot H. Dahms; edited by Judy Gonyeau
In the beginning before what I term my “awakening,” I was a casual antique trap collector. I had trapped since I was fourteen years old and had always kept the old and odd traps I found mixed in with the used traps. I never really knew if the ones I collected were worth anything or not. Then I attended a spring meeting of the North American Trap Collectors Association (NATCA) in Sydney, Ohio. I realized that I had only been dabbling in trap collecting up until that point. At the meeting were tailgaters, an indoor sale, and an auction all selling antique traps and trapping paraphernalia. I realized that this is where I should have been long ago. The President of the Association, Tom Parr, oversees a Trap Museum in Sydney, Ohio, where there is every kind of trap and items associated with trapping in there. “Wow” is the only word I can use to describe it.
I had attended several state and national trapping conventions before attending a NATCA event where one odd trap caught my eye as the coil springs were backwards from the usual trap. This odd trap was called an “Easy Set” trap made by the Triumph Trap Company. The company had been in business from 1913 to 1935 and, despite some unusual bumps in the road, made some of the most unique and interesting traps I have encountered.
I talked with a NATCA member who lived in Canada and was looking to buy a Triumph Trap from him when we started discussing the history of the Company. He asked me if I had ever read The Rise and Fall of an Empire, the Triumph Trap Company Story by Floyd Rainey. I said that I had not and he volunteered to make a photocopy of it and send it to me.
The Triumph Company was started by past employees of the Oneida Community-yes, the company well known today for its flatware-who was the Goliath in trap manufacturing at the time.
The Oneida Community: A Utopian Experiment Creates a Manufacturing Giant
The Oneida Community was originally founded in 1848 as a 19th century Utopian Society founded in Oneida, New York by John Humphrey Noyes and his followers. Noyes established the theology of Perfectionism founded on two basic values: self-perfection and communalism.
The Oneida Perfectionists were a religious society that interpreted the scripture in a manner that focused on creating a communal family structure of individuals living and working together in harmony. The goal was to attain spiritual, social, and economic balance.
The need to be self-supporting initiated the Community into the world of commerce, and they started a diverse number of concerns including canning fruits and vegetables, making traveling bags, silk thread, chains, silver, men’s cloth slippers, panama hats, and traps. Soon, the Community became known not only for their unconventional lifestyle but for the breadth and quality of their products.
Sewell Newhouse was a blacksmith who had perfected the creation of hand-forged traps and taught other members of the Community to make them to sell. The trap design and manufacturing processes were quickly improved upon and mechanized, and soon these traps became the most popular used across the U.S. – the Community started making traps for sale in 1852, and by 1860 they were making over 200,000 per year.
In 1879, the Community elected to turn into a business rather than stay as a perfectionist society, and they began planning for the future of their various products. Deciding to focus on the silver industry, the Community’s trap business income was able to pay for the growth of the silverware company; and Oneida used this time to invest in manufacturing practices and improvements that would lay the groundwork for the tremendously successful company it turned into and still is today. The other businesses, including the silk thread and chain manufacturers, were sold off over time. The trap company was sold in 1925, leaving only the silverware business.
Triumph: The Rare and Quality Trap Company Goes to Court
In 1913, a group of members from the Oneida Community decided to take their skills and expertise on their own and began their own trap company. When Triumph first started, it was called the Oneida Game Trap Company, but Oneida Community sued them, as they believed that the use of Oneida in the company name would confuse purchasers resulting in persons purchasing traps from the Oneida Game Trap Company when those persons really wanted to purchase traps from the Oneida Community.
The Triumph Trap Company would be in two more court battles before being bought out by other trap manufacturers. The second court battle was again with the Oneida Community and focused on how Triumph thought that the Oneida Community was copying the unique bend in their springs. The two main traps involved were the Triumph #115 High Grip trap and the Oneida Community #1 Giant. This time, the courts sided with Triumph. The Oneida Community had to stop making their Giant trap and pay the Triumph Company for damages.
The last court case was against Walter A. Gibbs and his Two Trigger trap. He had a patent on the trap and said that the Three Jaw trap made by Triumph infringed on his patent. The court decided in Gibbs’ favor and Triumph had to quit making that trap. This court decision actually led to the creation of the most sought after Triumph Trap, the #2A. Triumph had made some very unique open coil spring powered long springs for the Three Jaw trap, but could not use them. So they used the springs on a #2 sized trap with Triple Clutch Jaws. The pan was machine stamped as a normal #2 would be, but had an “A” hand stamped behind the “2.” Hand stamping means using an “A” stamp and hammer to mark the machine stamped pan. This trap in good condition with a highly legible pan can sell for $1,000 to $1,500.
When a Small Trap Company is Too Small
Triumph traps were good quality traps with a good reputation, but one poor manufacturing decision would be a major cause of their demise. The Kangaroo trap was originally a double under spring, and then changed to a coil spring. The #3X Kangaroo trap was widely used. In fact, E.J. Dailey, a well-known trapper, writer, and Field Specialist for Triumph, said it was his favorite trap when fox trapping.
Unfortunately, some Triumph employees were enamored with a new design called the “Easy Set.” The coil springs on these traps were backwards from their common placement. With this design, the holding power of the trap decreased greatly and more metal was used to make the trap, increasing its cost. Dailey said that they were a waste of good metal and would not use them. Once trappers realized that they were paying more for a trap that did not hold as well, sales plummeted. Triumph tried to rebound with a newly designed Easy Set trap called the Master Grip, but the trap had the same design flaws as the original.
The Master Grip by Triumph is a highly sought after trap because of its unique design. Some models have the Triple Clutch jaws and others have a plain jaw. The Triple Clutch version is the more sought after of the two. These traps can go for around $500.
Gibbs Ownership A Triumph
Since Gibbs owned Triumph for a short time period, my collection increased to include Gibbs made traps. These are some of the most unique and sought after traps. One of the most sought after, if not the most sought after, is what collectors call the Armadillo Trap. It is not a trap for armadillos, but looks like one when set off. They are used to catch muskrats for the, then thriving, muskrat market. These traps can go for $2,000 to $2,500 if in really good shape with nicely stamped pans.
In 1913, when Gibbs retired from his other main business, working on electric trains, he bought a marsh in Maryland for duck hunting. This marsh now borders the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. He found that the marsh had a high population of muskrats. Someone brought up that he could probably pay the yearly property taxes on the property by trapping and selling the muskrats. He designed his Two Trigger trap using the marsh as his laboratory. Gibbs quickly found that there was a live market for muskrats as back then people created their own small fur farms and stocked muskrats in areas to harvest for money when prime. The live muskrat market paid a lot more per animal than the fur industry.
The Armadillo trap was his first try with making a trap that could catch a muskrat alive. The trap was set under water and rose above the water level, when triggered, so the muskrat would not drown. There were so many moving parts and things that could go wrong with the trap that he developed a metal net trap which worked better. Less moving parts to decrease breakdowns and increased catch success were the main reasons for the creation of the net trap. I am still looking for a high quality Gibbs Net Trap to add to my collection.
Gibbs had many other uniquely designed traps including a hawk trap. The trap was designed to catch predatory birds which would often eat muskrats in traps before the trapper could arrive to remove their prize.
He also designed a Dope Trap which is a trap with a bar that rises up holding a chemical poison. The animal would eat the poison and be quickly dispatched. There are a lot of moving parts on these traps and ones in good condition with all the parts and a nicely stamped pan can go for $1,000 to $1,500. The poison capsule alone can sell for $150.
Another rare trap is one patented by Gibbs, but made by the Oneida Community in 1916. It is the #111, an under spring trap with two sets of jaws. One in good condition with a nicely stamped pan can go for $1,000 to $1,500.
Another part of my collection is the Diamond Trap brand made by the Norwich Wire Works. So you may be asking yourself “How is Diamond related to Triumph Traps?” If Gibbs is related to Triumph by marriage, then Diamond is related by divorce. A couple of employees from Triumph went to the Norwich Wire Works and facilitated the creation of the Diamond Trap Brand. They even used a few of Triumphs designs in the Diamond traps. Diamond traps are one of the least expensive traps to collect, but there are a few rare ones. The #H-22 can go for around $400 and the Whippet for around $300.
The three trap companies I focus on have some of the most uniquely named traps or parts including the High Grip, Kangaroo, Triple Clutch, Ranger, Easy Set, and Master Grip for Triumph. The Armadillo, Hawk, Two Trigger, Pennsylvania Special, Gladiator, Single Grip, and U.S. Standard for Gibbs. The Diamond Brand has the Whippet and the Walloper. All three companies also have many collectable components besides traps including stretchers, trap placers, and literature. Triumph and Gibbs have many different catalogs, price lists, and brochures. Diamond has a few. My favorite traps are the oddly stamped ones. Some are double stamped or have an incorrect pan. Triumph had a lot of these.
For the Collector
The two most important things with trap collecting are the clearness of the pan stamp and the completeness of the trap. If a rare trap has these characteristics, it has the best chances for selling at a higher price. If the pan cannot be completely read or the trap is missing parts, the amount drops substantially.
Another important feature is patina on the trap. Patina is an aging of the metal which covers the trap with a thin rust-like coating. Trap collectors prefer this compared to a trap shined up with a wire brush. Taking the patina off can actually reduce the value. Some antique traps may have never been set outside and still have factory oil making them a new old stock item. Collectors can easily see the difference between a wire brushed trap and new old stock.
As with anything else potentially involving large sums of money, the buyer should be aware that high dollar traps have been faked. Some are poor fakes and easily identifiable as such, but some are very well done and can fool even the seasoned collector.
I love underdog stories and that is why I was attracted to the Triumph, Gibbs, and Diamond story. I found that I was so interested in them, that I started to research them heavily. I have made two trips to the still-standing Triumph Trap Factory, a trip to the Gibbs Marsh in Maryland, and two trips to the Adirondack Mountains where Triumph Trap Company employees trapped.
Because of the information I found, I have written books about two employees of the Triumph Trap Company. The first book is titled Adirondack Dick: The Illustrated Life of Richard K. “Dick” Wood and the second is E.J. Dailey: The Last Adirondack Trapper. There is an advertisement for my books in this issue if you are interested in purchasing them.
I have also written numerous articles for the official publication of the NATCA called TRAPS (Trading, Researching And Preserving Steel traps) magazine. With membership to the association, a member gets 6 issues of this yearly. It is filled with numerous articles, event schedules, and traps for sale. The NATCA also has smaller satellite events including ones in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, in the Western US and in the Southeastern US. If you want more information about the North American Trap Collectors Association and events, please go to northamericantraps.com. I joined the Association and should have been a member long before I was – I have found my niche. Attend an event, and you may just find yours.
Of Note: Many of the traps and equipment discussed in this article were used around one hundred years ago and are illegal to use today. These include traps with teeth, poison capsules, Hawk traps, etc. One hundred years ago using these items was nothing out of the ordinary.
According to Dave Wattles, Black Bear and Fur Bearer Biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, “The law pertaining to the use and possession of traps varies by state/province. Be sure to check with your local authorities regarding the laws pertaining to the possession and sale of these items.” For more information on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, visit fws.gov