By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
July 1, 2009 - 9:30 am
Gibson folks changed the world.
Therefore I'm peering at every house and street corner sign as I drive into Kalamazoo, Mich., looking in this vintage factory town for clues about the people who built the mandolins, banjos and guitars that helped spawn the music I adore.
My final destination is 225 Parsons St., once Lloyd Loar's lair.
The motel clerk's directions are a bit off, so I get to see plenty of the town from one edge to the other. I like the historic parts with well-built working class houses and a bit fancier ones down the block for the managers and merchants. I'd enjoy driving through Kalamazoo and looking around even if the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Manufacturing Co. had not begun building instruments here in 1902.
Thoughts about this pilgrimage actually began a few days before at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I attended a writer's conference. The Amway's front portion is the renovated Pantilind Hotel, an opulent structure built in 1913 when timber in the big woods made the lumber barons rich and made Grand Rapids the "furniture capital of the world."
A virtuoso female accordian player wailed waltzes and polkas one evening at a conference bash held in the Pantilind's Imperial Ballroom, which looked like something out of "Gone With the Wind." The room's tall Grecian columns held ornate carvings at the top. I struck up a conversation with the accordion player's husband and mentioned my admiration of the carvings.
"This town was packed with furniture makers back then who were excellent woodworkers," he said. "So there's lots of fine woodwork all over town."
I suppose that explains part of why Gibson once fit so well in Kalamazoo and Michigan, before a corporate move shut down the once-burgeoning factory for a move to Nashville in 1984.
I tip my cap to the craftsfolk on the Gibson payroll now, including the current mandolin makers in Nashville.
But my fascination on this day is seeing Kalamazoo and the factory halls where Lloyd Loar and his fellow craftsmen once roamed.
At last I find Parsons Street, turn onto it, and drive past what was once a sprawling Gibson complex of separate buildings connected with walkways. They all look rather flat and boring, except the noble, three-story, tan structure at the southeast corner—birthplace of the F5 mandolin and the L5 archtop guitar.
Orville Gibson, whose patented mandolin design gave birth to the company that bears his name, may never have seen this handsome factory that opened in July, 1917.
Roger Siminoff—mandolin expert, former Gibson consultant and an accomplished student of both Orville Gibson and Lloyd Loar—writes on his web site that Orville Gibson may have come to Kalamazoo in the late 1800s from upper New York state for health reasons so he could get treatment at a clinic run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in nearby Battle Creek, Mich. Gibson was clerking in stores and building his new mandolin design at his Kalamazoo home as the 1900s began. His instruments had a carved top, back and sides and a bigger sound than most of the bowlback or bent-top mandolins that had popularized the instrument in America. A group of lawyers and retail music sales folks from Kalamazoo incorporated a company based on Gibson's design, just in time to catch the mandolin club craze that would help fund the company's foray into banjos and guitars.
Orville Gibson was back in New York state by 1911, and it's unknown if he returned to Kalamazoo after that, Siminoff said. He died in New York on August 21, 1918.
I wondered as I parked my pickup in front of the old tan factory if my grandfather's 1917 Gibson A1 mandolin was built here. But since the building opened in the middle of 1917, I guess I'll never know.
Loar had formal ties to Gibson starting in 1911 as a music composer, arranger and performer, Siminoff said. He may have visited Kalamazoo when the Gibson Co. made instruments at previous factory sites on East Exchange Place and East Harrison Court.
But by 1919 when Loar began his longest stint as a designer for Gibson, 225 Parsons Street was a modern, state-of-the-art factory building. By the early 1920s he was working at the plant fulltime in various roles, according to Siminoff. The F5 mandolin and other refined carved-top instruments that he helped design and build until his departure late in 1924 would change the musical world forever.
I came looking for what is and shadows of what was.
A worker was having a smoke break outside an arched entryway with a wooden door that says Heritage Guitar Inc. with a cutout of an F5 mandolin underneath. I told him I was looking for Ren Wall. Former Gibson employees started Heritage in 1985 in what Siminoff says "they always kindly referred to as the old building," a place where Gibson built mandolins and banjos right up until they left in 1984.
"Ren's here," the gentleman said. "Go on in. Go down through this door, down the stairs and through the next door and look for him on the left."
I did, and stepped into a large room with offices on my left, a guy gluing binding on a guitar on my right, sawdust and wood and instrument part shapes and equipment in front of me for a long ways.
Curley Holiday, the binding craftsman, was telling me about some longtime Gibson artisans still living in the area when Rendal Wall tapped me on the shoulder and said "can I help you." An earlier phone call to an owner had alerted him that I was coming, as he normally only gives plant tours on Wednesday afternoons, I was told.
Wall is steeped in both the old and new.
His father, Rem Wall, worked for Gibson for 37 years starting in the early 1940s, and he was also a noted musician, songwriter and radio performer in the Kalamazoo area.
Ren Wall followed in his father's sawdust tracks and worked for Gibson for 22 years. Now, he's worked for Heritage for 24 years, doing everything from sweeping floors and public relations work to guitar setups, inventing pickups and stringing up newly built instruments. His photographs of Heritage guitars adorn the company website.
"We produce four to six instruments a day here, depending on the wood mix," Wall said. "We employ less than 20 people. There's no CNC routers here, it's all made by hand, the old fashioned way."
Wall is also a musician, and he was one of the people from Kalamazoo who made peace with Bill Monroe and his legendary Loar-signed F5. Bill had angrily gouged "The Gibson" logo off his peghead after the company failed to get some repairs right, which was in the early 1950s according to banjoist Sonny Osborne.
Monroe told a Nashville Tennessean newspaper reporter in 1980 that he'd been introduced backstage at the Opry to a Mr. Wall who talked to him about Gibson replacing the peghead logo. The company had often offered the repair over the years and always been turned down by The Father of Bluegrass, but Monroe finally agreed to the repair after talking to Wall.
"I don't think I'd by lying to say I saw tears in that man's eyes," Monroe told the reporter.
Wall, in research and development at Gibson at the time, remembers being in Monroe's house trailer that served as his business office in the Nashville area for a presentation of the mandolin with the new headstock veneer. Gibson repair folks did that work and some other touch ups. The office was crammed with people and thick with cigarette smoke.
"He wacked on it a couple of times," Wall said. "Then he came over and gave me a big hug and said 'man you did a fine job.' Bill didn't always do that, but he did that day."
We stepped into Heritage offices and walked past racks of finished electric guitars. Heritage at first included acoustic instruments similar to the old Gibsons in their line, but the company now focuses on electric guitars.
"Back in the old days of Gibson, there would be 450 to 1,000 people putting out 450 guitars a day here," said Wall, who started in 1960.
I'm more interested in the days farther back than that, and as we start the tour, I asked where Loar had his work bench? Or at least the one from old catalogs that Siminoff has posted on his website.
"Oh, I have no idea where that was," Wall said. "But he was all over the place, you're walking where Lloyd walked."
I can't blame him for his indifference. Loar was a short timer compared to the Wall family. Many fine designers, builders and craftsman have labored there since his day. The current occupants seem dedicated, too.
The concrete floors and walls, sawdust, machinery and stuff here and there make this feel like a hard working place. The room is a bit dim and certainly must be far more worn than when Loar arrived. It looks old, feels old, is old.
But I really love the place. Real people work here with wood you can smell and see the natural color and grain. Raw lumber or boards cut into guitar parts are stacked here and there. Everything is function, not fancy.
Wall takes me back past a steam side bending machine for guitars that's perhaps 80 years old and still in use by Heritage, back against a wall.
This is an area that Siminoff says once held: "the mandolin and banjo building teams. There were only three mandolin makers there in the 1970s. Then, at the back of the building was the tool crib with tons of incredible finds of old stuff! And, just behind the tool crib, on the very back wall of the bottom floor, was the area where they steam bent rims for banjos and mandolins."
Wall and I continue a circle of the production room, which feels like a basement, even though old windows in the upper part of the walls let light in. In one corner is what resembles a ferris wheel, a wheel on an axel with spokes. Pieces of wood that are glued together for two piece tops are placed on the wheel for the glue to dry, before the tops are carved.
Wall says it was used for mandolins and acoustic guitars in the old days, too.
There's a modern fret press and a sanding machine along with work benches spaced out against one wall. At a work station, employee Katie Flann is hand sanding a guitar body. Watching the way these people carefully work makes me want to own a Heritage archtop guitar someday.
"I wish we were making mandolins again," Wall said. "But it's just something we elected not to do."
He tells me that the tour is at its end, so I ask about the upper two floors. Wall says there's little up on those floors, some space is reserved for use by other firms and they don't take people up there.
I begged, and we went up to the second floor and entered a room that for awhile was a cafe. It's closed now and the chairs are stacked in the corner. I would think Loar might have picked this area for his work because it has more sunlight, a better breeze on hot summer days and a good view outside.
Siminoff said via e-mail: "During the 16 years that I was a consultant to Gibson, I had a chance to crawl through almost every corner of it (old plant). And, being curious like you, we carried the photo of Lloyd at his workbench through the building and I believe that it was taken on the second floor, second room back to the left as you face the building from Parsons Street."
Much of the second floor is walled off now for use by others. It would seem strangely quiet and empty to Loar.
Up on the third floor it's similar, although more open in places. There's some old, unused equipment here and there. The wooden floors creak under footsteps. This was a production area in Loar's day, Siminoff said.
These two upper floors, and the ground floor, they have a lively vibe for me.
I wish a luthier on fire to build mandolins would partner with Heritage or rent space and provide people the chance to buy an A4 or an F5 made at 225 Parsons Street. But what is will be.
Wall and I shake hands outside the front door. He tells me the mandolin cutout on the door was put there late in the Gibson days. Then he goes back inside. I notice how quiet the railroad tracks are beside the plant, and at a house that's caddy corner some distance away. The whole neighborhood seems so Americana, and musical.
I almost expect to see Norman Blake come walking up those rail track ties with a Nick Lucas flattop guitar in one hand and an F4 mandolin in the other. Or perhaps see a Martha White bus pulling up to the front and Earl Scruggs stepping off to carry a pre-war banjo in for a tune up, while kids jump rope in front of a house down the street.
I'm driving away when I stop and photograph what seems to be a one-time boarding house. It's right across the street from the newest part of the old Gibson complex, now occupied by other companies. But the boarding house is a very old structure. It has two front doors and I wonder why? Perhaps one side for men and the other for women?
I wonder how many old Gibson craftsmen found lodging there in days long gone by, or visiting musicians, parts salesmen or even Loar himself in his early visits?
So many questions everywhere at 225 Parsons St., more mysteries today than Loar anticipated.
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