Steve Palmisano pulled out a faded mounted dollar bill, then flipped it over to show on May 21, 1952, when his father Hank founded what became Henry’s Sports and Bait.
Tom, Hank’s middle son, opened a scrapbook and pulled out photos showing Henry’s Wednesday progress upstairs in the office.
Henry’s, Bridgeport’s fixture at 3130 S. Canal, will close later this year, ending its run as Chicago’s fishing and outdoor hub.
It’s a classic Chicago hustle and bustle story.
Hank was an instrument specialist for the Army Air Corps during World War II. On the GI Bill, he studied watch repair, then opened a small shop at 2452 S. Wentworth and worked nights for the Burlington Railroad. Aft he also strung a chalk line with carded goods of hooks, lines and sinkers.
“Then he dug a well in the basement and we had minnow ponds,” Tom said.
It’s become a bait shop. Parents participated. Hank’s father, the immigrant Ignatius, was skilled in netting and repaired seine nets and made smelt nets.
“‘One-Arm Phil’ would park his Model A by the lake with a sign on the roof for Henry’s,” Tom said.
In brilliant marketing, Hank made sure every box of crawlers was opened and shown to the customer. This continues to this day. The staff does not count the minnows, but collects and estimates the dozen.
Then Henry moved to 2222 S. Silverton Way, a now defunct link between South Park (King Drive) and Cermak. It was a concession stand at the 1933-34 World’s Fair.
When RR Donnelley purchased the block, Henry had to move, moving to 420 W. 31st in 1968 and then to an empty railroad lot. The Marine Shop became a spin-off part of the business, incorporated separately in 1976.
The fear was that the lakeside move would cost business. But, as Steve noted, “all the pieces of the puzzle were jumping in 1968”.
The coho had just been introduced into Lake Michigan. Smelt and perch were strong.
The activity has quadrupled. Henry’s was right next to the Dan Ryan with off-street parking and was open on top of that, from 4am Friday to 10pm Sunday.
Around 1974, what became Henry’s last home, some condemned buildings in need of serious masonry work on the canal south of 31st, was purchased.
In May 1978, a 7-page ad in Midwest Outdoors advertised Henry’s new home.
Henry’s played a big part in the Pepsi Salmon Contest, including a boat, motor, and trailer. Henry’s hosted spring and fall open houses with local experts, such as pole vaulting seminars with Frank “Pan Man” DeFrancisco, Frank Brzycki, Ron Bridges, Ken Schneider and Chuck Thompson. The food – fried pollock, fries, fried turkey, Italian sausage, jambalaya – added appeal and advertised the cooks.
Henry’s occasionally dabbled in other sporting goods (skates, golf, etc.), but fishing remained constant. However, some baits are for pet food and worms for urban composters.
Hank’s seven grandchildren worked at the store: counting minnows, packing worms, working the counter. All of them went on to success in other areas.
Henry’s, where hundreds of people began their professional lives, has proven to be a fertile path to other careers. Tom and Steve have exposed marine biologists, lawyers, doctors, paramedics, EPA officials, business owners, and more.
“Two guys that used to work here have their own marine shops,” Tom said.
I know two who became Chicago police officers.
One, Brandon Troupe, sent a message: “I remember working for the Rosemont show in 2005-2006. It was a cool moment. Having to be at the store one evening and literally loading everything Henry’s inventory in a big truck. Steve and Tom were not only the great owners, but they also went through the loading process! . . . I’m glad Steve gave me a chance to such a young age.
Rich Pinkowski started working for Henry’s when he was a sophomore at the old St. Joseph’s in 1983. He became a union carpenter, now a construction supervisor across the country. For a few years he was Tournament Director for the Illinois BASS Nation.
He interviewed the eldest son, Henry, who died unexpectedly at 54 in 2006.
“He asked what my perch rig was,” Pinkowski said. “I said, ‘8-pound line and a No. 10 Eagle hook and two separate shots.’ He said, “Dip a few minnows and see how close you are to 12.” That was my first job interview.
“I packed the night bots out the back, but mostly worked at the counter. . . . The big thing that people went crazy for was Catalpa worms. They were queuing when they arrived.
“I was a fishhead. It was a perfect job for me. I have to hang out fishing and talk to people.
Henry’s is one of many long-running bait and tackle stores in the Chicago area. Park Bait started as a family business in 1958 in Montrose Harbor. As early as 1935, Barry’s Bait was there.
CJ Smith Resort in Antioch is the oldest family run bait shop, starting with Smith’s landing in 1929. Triangle Sports and Marine in Antioch has been around since 1948. The Salmon Stop in Waukegan just celebrated its 50th anniversary in April.
Tom and Steve recounted the tough days when Chicago had dozens of bait shops. Seine fishing on the Illinois River was a bare-handed endeavor, and then Hank made a brilliant move to rent a prime location near Marseilles, freezing other stores.
Every Thursday night, they would seine crayfish on golf courses or ponds around Orland Park, Palos Park or Kankakee County, without getting permission. For this clandestine operation, they had a $25 beater. In waders, they jumped in the dark, with dim flashlights, and quickly filled 5-gallon buckets before moving on.
In a pinch, they chose caterpillars from McKinley Park or lawns.
Henry’s is also making history in other ways, including weighing five current Illinois records: skipjack herring (Travis Strickland, 2 lbs, 10.4 oz, May 11, 2022, Illinois River); bighead carp (Jarrett Knize, 72-9, Nov 8, 2021, Humboldt Park Lagoon); smallmouth bass (Joe Capilupo, 7-3, October 14, 2019, Chicago Lakeside); musk tiger (Michael Behmetuik, 31-3, Aug 6, 2004, Lake Will); brown trout (Deva Vranek, 36-11.5, June 22, 1997, east of Chicago).
“I’m proud of what we’ve done, but it’s time to go fishing, to go hunting,” Steve said.
“If anybody wants to pick up the ball and open up on the street, I’ll support them,” Tom said. “I don’t want to have to travel to the suburbs to find bait.”
It’s time for someone to build their own stories.