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Noteworthy: Indiana's musical instrument industry has the greatest employment in the U.S.

Indiana's musical instrument industry has the greatest employment in the U.S.

Not many industries can trace their founding to an act of violence-a fact even more startling when you consider that's what sparked Elkhart's prolific musical instrument industry more than 100 years ago.

It was the early 1870s when Charles Gerald Conn sustained a blow from a fist. With a severely lacerated lip, Conn's days of playing the coronet were threatened.

Conn-who would later become mayor of Elkhart, a U.S. congressman and the first industrialist to introduce union labor to Hoosier factories-began experimenting with a new spittoon-style mouthpiece. It was elastic-faced to conform to the abnormalities of his lip. Soon, he discovered the mouthpieces were in great demand, and began churning them out on a second-hand sewing machine. By 1877, C.G. Conn Ltd. was Elkhart's largest employer.

For the next 100 years, Conn spun off a number of companies with names that graced the instruments of bands, symphonies and orchestras the world over. King, Artley, DeFord, Armstrong, Emerson, Ludwig and Martin were all names having strong ties to Conn. Other companies also setup shop in ElkhartThe Selmer Co., L.P., and the K.G. Gemeinhardt Co., among others-finding a rich breeding ground for the artisans essential to creating sensitive musical instruments.

"Most of the companies that started in Elkhart were started by people who left Conn," explains Dan Henkin, who in 1981 bought Conn and 12 other companies for prices ranging between $25 million and $80 million (no one is saying how much). "For people who wanted to get in, this was the place where they could find craftsmen," says Henkin, who sold his vast musical holdings in 1985 to Swedish conglomerate Skane-Gripen.

Tom Burzycki, president of United Musical Instruments, which is now the umbrella corporation for the old Conn holdings, explains the nature of the tradition in Elkhart: "It's here where we find the skills. It is here where you find the craft self-perpetuating."

The Selmer Company, originally established in Paris by Henri and Alexander Selmer, came to Elkhart in 1927 when George Bundy decided to move the New York shop to Elkhart. Bundy was operating the company in a loft operation and he saw the talent and craftsmen in Elkhart," says Carl Bovard, a retired Selmer advertising manager. In Selmer's heyday during the 1960s, the Baby Boom school children were s joining musical programs en masse.

Spin offs from the established companies such as Conn were numerous. W.T. Armstrong, a Conn foreman, started his small flute factory in the 1930s. Another Conn foreman, Gus Buescher, became a tough competitor during the sax craze of the Roaring '20s. Emil Karl Blessing, a former Buescher employee, started a flute company in a Middlebury Street barn.

Consider the recent example of Charles R. Walter. A former engineer with the Bendix Corp. in South Bend where he helped develop the Typhon missile, Walter was pink-slipped when Bendix scrapped the program. In 1964, Walter joined Conn under the direction of Dr. Earle Kent, who headed the company's research and development. "He wanted someone who didn't have any preconceived notions about piano," says Walter.

Conn Ltd. had just acquired Janssen Piano. It was in that division that Walter toiled until the parent company decided to sell the division in 1969. In 1970, Walter came up with the Charles R. Walter prototype piano-a completely rescaled instrument. Using a University of Notre Dame computer, Walter reselected the various string diameters and lengths and reshaped the bridges and the soundboard. What he came up with is a sound that until then was produced only in 7-foot to 9-foot grands, as opposed to console models.

Within a year, Walter Piano Co. will begin marketing its own computer-developed 6-foot-3-inch grand piano, enlarging the company work force by another 20 craftsmen. Again, it is the individual worker who makes the musical product unique. "While we do have some automation, much of the work is by hand," says Walter. "We notch the bridges by hand where some use automation."

Indiana's largest piano manufacturing takes place far south of Elkhart in Jasper and West Baden, where harvested Hoosier forests provide the elegant cabinets and veneers used to house instruments by Kimball international. Jasper American Corp. purchased the W.W. Kimball Company in Chicago and moved it to Jasper in 1959. Currently, as many as 25,000 vertical and grand pianos-ranging from $2,000 to $60,000 and representing 20 percent of the U.S. market-are produced by 350 employees annually.

"The basic reason we are able to do pianos is because we are the woodworking capital of America," explains Jay Hornbrook, a salesman in the Kimball piano retail division. Like Elkhart, Kimball has found generations of Hoosiers in the Jasper area with an art for woodworking. "People here have 100 years of woodworking heritage," says Hornbrook.

The southwest Indiana area allows Kimball to produce pianos from fallen trees, as well as market and ship them. "Every part is manufactured by Kimball," says Hornbrook.

United Musical's Burzycki suspects that some people envision instruments as mass produced, thinking they fall off the assembly line and into a box. Actually, this is one of the last bastions of industrial craftsmanship,' he says. "These people change the properties of something and make it work. It's an incredible experience."

Elkhart's K.G. Gemeinhardt Co. is one "bastions of industrial craftsmanship" that has burnished itself to a shiny perfection through several generations. in 1928, Kurt Gemeinhardt was recruited by Selmer from Germany, where he was a fourth-generation creator of quality handcrafted instruments. In 1948, Gemeinhardt began his own precision flute-making company. Today, Elkhart's Gemeinhardt is the world's largest flute maker.

"Many, many families have worked in the industry for generations," says Henkin, who also owned Gemeinhardt in the 1970s. "I knew one flute finisher who, after he had been working for one year, thought he knew everything about it. And after three years, he felt he was just beginning to be proficient and it took him about five years before he knew he was proficient.

"A buffer in this business is not the same as someone buffing silverware or a doorknob," continues Henkin. "One little slip and he can ruin a $500 instrument."

Today, there are about 1,500 skilled artisans who work in Elkhart's musical instrument industry for companies such as J.J. Babbitt Co., which produces saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces; E.K. Blessing Co., Inc., flutes; Gemeinhardt, flutes and piccolos; and Hardy's Musical Instruments, which manufactures piccolos. Others include Larilee Woodwind Corp.; the Marlin Lesher Reed Co.; Kiefer Manufacturing Co., Inc.; Sharp Baton; and Selmer, which produces an array of instruments under the Selmer, Vincent Bach, Ludwig, Glaesel and Musser names. United Musical instruments makes a variety of woodwinds such as flutes, piccolos, oboes and bassoons as well as stringed instruments.

The industry peaked in the 1960s when Baby Boomers entered the fifth, sixth and seventh grades. "Schools were being built and they were well-funded," says Bovard.

It was Carl Greenleaf, who purchased Conn in 1915, who first emphasized the school connection. By the 1970s, about 40 percent of the worldwide band instrument market was manufactured in Elkhart. "During the mid-to late-'60s, two things happened," explains Bovard. "First, the market tended to level off and for the first time, production exceeded demand. Second, the off-shore people got involved-primarily the Japanese."

Dennis Guillaume, Kimball's director of marketing, notes that many parents no longer emphasize piano lessons for youngsters. "But more adults are purchasing pianos for their homes," he says. "There is continued increase in grand piano sales."

Guillaume acknowledges that the acoustic piano business is slow. "Over the last several years there has been a decline," he says. "There are a lot of options for discretionary income. Electronic substitutes have had some impact."

Merger mania also changed the industry. Conn was snapped up, moved and dispersed, then brought back to Elkhart, where it is now a subsidiary of UMI. Selmer was the target of a takeover, then agreed to merge with Magnavox. When North American Phillips purchased Selmer, the two companies were separated.

Despite fluctuating populations, consolidations and competing foreign companies, Indiana's musical instrument industry remains healthy. "The band instrument industry is in very good shape," explains Burzycki. "The bulk of our business is music education and we have had an excellent year. Overall enrollments have increased and so have school budgets. And last year, we've seen a terrific interest in the saxophone. Our shipments are up, and there are expanded opportunities in foreign markets."
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Author:Howey, Brian
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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