Martha Henze, the First Lady of PENN

Martha Henze on boat

The PENN name is legendary in the fishing world. Though few people—even PENN gear loyalists—really know the company's incredible story or the crucial role played by Martha Henze, wife of founder Otto Henze.

It's a story about the American Dream and a telling saga of American society in the 20th Century.

When Martha Haecker married Otto Henze in 1935 in Philadelphia, her plans were likely along the same lines as the vast majority of American women of her generation—have children, raise them and support her husband's business pursuits.

She could never have anticipated the sudden misfortune that thrust her to the forefront of the business and sporting worlds when Otto died. In that crisis, Martha Henze stepped in to help lead PENN to international success, in the process becoming one of the well-known anglers of her day.

Back in 1932—the depths of the Great Depression, probably the exact worst time in the last century to begin a new business venture—an ambitious and ingenious German immigrant named Otto Henze started PENN Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia. He engaged the public's passion for fishing with his brand new gear, which Henze was able to price lower than the competition due to his innovative designs and manufacturing techniques. Naming his reels after local fishing hotspots, like the Long Beach (sold for $2.48), the fishing public took to the reels. The company's first year's sales totaled $7,526—equal to about $100,000 dollars today.

Factory worker with Penn hat

Despite the harsh economy, the company enjoyed a decade of success, thanks to the public's great love of fishing, PENN's quality gear at affordable prices and its growing reputation of service to its customers.

In 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese war planes, the U.S. joined WWII, again sending the country into times of difficult sacrifice.

"Some of the things I recall as a boy during WWII were rations on meat and other foods," said Herbert Henze, Otto and Martha's son and later head of PENN himself, in an interview. "You had to be sparing and save things. We had to recycle tin cans, cardboard and other materials. This was after 10 years of the Great Depression. So my parents were products of the Depression and WWII."

In 1942, with the sacrifices of the war growing, PENN moved to its new, bigger manufacturing facilities in the industrial section of North Philadelphia. A section of that plant was dedicated to making ammunitions for the war.

Old Penn Saltwater Reels ad

"At work," Herbert said, "my father lost most of his younger men to the draft. After the war, many came back to work. Many did not," he added.

Among the social changes sped up by the war, women were drawn into the workforce like never before to fill the jobs vacated by men in service. Martha herself probably never thought that she would be one of those workers, but a few years after the war ended, misfortune struck when Otto died unexpectedly at age 51.

"My father died in 1949, leaving a wife and three children," Herbert said in the interview, conducted by the East Falls Historical Society in 2009. "It was a very traumatic time, probably the most traumatic time of my life. My mother wanted to go ahead with his plans."

To step into business in those days as a woman was not too uncommon, but not exactly a well-paved path to success, either. There was no grand tradition of successful female business leaders in America to look to, among other very serious obstacles. However, to step into business as the president of a still very new and growing company that focused on fishing, traditionally a male pursuit, well, that was something else entirely. Martha Henze took that step when she was 39.

At the time, American consumers were getting back on their feet financially after the war, earning more expendable income for recreation than they had in previous years. They were ready to travel, spend that cash and enjoy themselves. It was the perfect combination for fishing expenditures to take off, and they did.

Beach fishing became popular, and it was ruled by the famous PENN Squidder surf-casting reel, which Henze released in 1938. Party boat fishing also grew in those years, giving working class people a chance to "deep sea" fish for fun, sport and food. Party boats established themselves in many of the coastal towns in driving distance from big cities all around the U.S. coasts. Many of the boats were stocked with PENN's popular, affordable and durable Senator reel.

Old Penn Saltwater Fishing ad - World Record Tuna, 864 lbs.

It was also a pivotal time for American companies. Burgeoning global trade ties, including new ones forged by the war, along with emerging technologies in manufacturing and communications were rapidly transforming business landscapes. U.S. companies had competition from overseas imports like never before.

Even amid these pressures, as PENN's leader, Martha was able to take PENN from a well-established American company into a dominant international brand.

One of the foremost chroniclers of PENN gear and the company's early history is Mike Cacioppo, author of numerous books on PENN.

"Martha was not involved in the growth of PENN until after the death of Otto Henze," Cacioppo said. "She became CEO until Herbert was old enough to take the reins and then she became Chairman of the Board. I am told she was very loved by the employees and the Philadelphia business community. She was also a 'fisherwoman' who earned honorable mentions in books, such as Women Can Fish by Chisie Farrington, copyright 1951."

Indeed, adventurous and bold both in business and sport, Martha traveled widely to fish the big game hotspots in the Western Hemisphere. In 1951, she caught a 613-pound bluefin tuna in Nova Scotia. Photos of her fishing appeared in PENN catalogs through the years, along with plenty of other women anglers and their catches.

Anyone watching Martha's moves as head of one of the world's biggest fishing tackle companies could clearly see that changes were coming to the world of sport, to business and to traditional home life, as well. It wasn't just going to be a man's world anymore.

Under her tenure as president of the company, by 1959 PENN manufactured 77 different models for all kinds of fishing. In '62, PENN introduced its first spinning reel, the Spinfisher 700, which made fishing easier for a lot of newcomers to the sport.

Old Penn ad - 'The Unique Testing of Penn Reels'

It was a true family business for the Henze's. Martha remained president until 1963, when her son Herbert took over and she became chairwoman of the board. Her daughter Elizabeth was the secretary and treasurer of the company, and her son Walter also worked for PENN. In the Sixties, Martha's brother Robert Haecker became the director of the Philadelphia factory. "He built up great loyalty with the people in the factory," Herbert said in the East Falls interview. Later in the decade, PENN had three factories in the Philadelphia area.

Martha remained chairwoman of the board of directors of PENN until 1977, when she retired. That year she was honored by the Society for the Advancement of Management for her accomplishments and business acumen. She died on August 19, 1997, leaving a company and a legacy of angling that we still enjoy today.

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