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Grinnell brothers: key players in Detroit's music legacy.


While the vintage apothecary-themed design of Henry Ford Health System's QuickCare clinic lobby on Woodward Avenue is a nod to the group's century-long roots in Detroit, its centerpiece--an Art Deco-style stainless steel sign-has nothing to do with medicine.

It's all about the music.

In its heyday, the site and the sign at 1515 Woodward were emblems of Grinnell Brothers Music House, the music emporium that made Detroit a leader in piano manufacturing, a destination for generations of music lovers, and an inspiration for musical talent.



The third of seven children and the oldest of four boys, Ira Grinnell was born in 1848 in Barre, New York. He was a farm-bred child who harvested in the summer and worked in the lumber camps during the winter months.

Following the deaths of his parents in 1865, Ira left New York for Michigan, where his older sister Lucretia and her husband lived. He took up residence in Adrian and began selling sewing machines door to door.

Recognizing that he needed a bigger sales territory, Grinnell moved in 1866 to Ann Arbor. While there, he became owner and manager of the Singer Sewing Machine Agency. Two of his brothers, Herbert and Clayton, left New York to join Ira in the venture a few years later. Though sewing machines were the core of the business, the brothers also offered a number of musical instruments for sale.

By 1882, the Grinnell brothers had left Ann Arbor for Detroit, where they continued their work selling sewing machines and musical instruments. Their first store was located in a small wooden shop at 218 Woodward. Two years later, they moved again--this time into a new three-story brick building at 226 Woodward.

Herbert Grinnell retired in the mid-1880s, leaving the company to Ira and Clayton. The two brothers soon realized that their musical merchandise was outselling sewing machines, so they redeveloped their business model to concentrate on the selling of pianos, organs, and wind instruments. Grinnell Brothers Music had officially launched.


By 1896, the growing popularity of Grinnell Brothers, coupled with the company's expanding inventory, led to another move, this time to a building across the street at 219-223 Woodward Avenue. The Grinnell Brothers Music House now occupied a four-story brick structure three lots in length, with more than a half-acre of floor space for showcasing the instruments and an entire floor devoted to repair and finishing--a piano factory, of sorts.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Grinnell Brothers was becoming the premier music enterprise in Detroit, edging out competition that included nearly a dozen piano stores on Woodward Avenue alone. In 1901, Grinnell Brothers operated a headquarters building in Detroit; had a branch store each in Adrian, Bay City, Jackson, and Port Huron; and were planning to build a new repair factory and warehouse on Jones Street in Detroit. By 1905, the company had 15 stores throughout Michigan, stretching from Pontiac to Sault Ste. Marie. Grinnell Brothers would eventually operate 42 retail stores in Michigan, Ohio, and Canada.


In the early morning hours of February 26,1901, several night operators of a Detroit telephone company were eating their lunch when they noticed flames coming from the fourth floor of the 219223 Woodward Avenue building. By the time the first firefighters arrived at the scene, the Grinnell Brothers Music House was engulfed in flames. It took several hours, 14 fire engines, and nearly all the firefighters in Detroit to put out the blaze.

With flames still billowing from the building, Ira and Clayton Grinnell arrived at their store and groped their way through dense smoke to retrieve books, piano contracts, and papers from their ground-floor offices. The Detroit Free Press summed up the tragedy in its front-page headline the next day: "Grinnell Bros.' Music House Deluged With Water and Eaten By Flame."

Water damage to the instruments proved to be just as great, if not greater, than the harm caused by the fire. The Steinway pianos on the showroom floor were entirely drenched, as were those instruments in the storage and repair rooms. Total damage was estimated to be $65,000, although insurance was expected to cover nearly all of the losses.

Ironically, the night before the fire, Ira and Clayton had worked until 10 p.m. on plans for a new storage house on Jones Street. The building was to house a large portion of the stock that was just hours later destroyed in the fire.


After the February fire, the brothers again set to expanding their enterprise. While repairing the headquarters building in Detroit, improvements were made to the interior to accommodate new inventory, and expensive upgrades were applied to the showroom floor and recital rooms. Grinnell musical instruments, available in Detroit as well as the company's four retail stores, were considered among the most valuable in the state. In addition to pianos, organs, and Pianolas--a foot-operated player piano manufactured by the Aeloan Company--Grinnell's sold an array of small instruments, including mandolins, guitars, banjos, violins, accordions, cornets, and clarinets.


During that time, Grinnell's was the sole representative of Steinway in Michigan. The company also conducted business in the resale of second-hand instruments, most notably pianos and organs. The repair shop was dedicated to making used instruments "good as new."

During renovations, the basement of the Woodward store was outfitted to create a "talking machine" department, since Grinnell's was the state agent for Victor. There, assistants "spun" the latest records on Victor machines, phonographs, and gramophones. An Aeolian recital offered free weekly concerts every Saturday, and a circulating library of Pianola and Aeolian piano rolls allowed player piano customers an inexpensive option to purchasing new rolls.


In 1902, Ira and Clayton took their successful music enterprise a step further by turning the repair factory and warehouse on Jones Street into a manufacturing facility for traditional upright and baby grand pianos, produced under the Grinnell Brothers label.

The move paid off. By 1907, Grinnell's Detroit manufacturing plant was in full production, and another plant in Windsor, Ontario, was readying to begin operations. With sales topping $2 million, the Grinnell brothers hired architect Albert Kahn to design plans for a six-story building to serve as the company's flagship store. Located at 243-245, now 1515, Woodward Avenue, it cost $200,000 to build.

When the flagship store opened on April 28,1908, the Detroit Free Press lauded it as a "veritable temple of music." Its imposing exterior, displaying white glazed terra cotta and plate glass with green metal trim, was considered "one of the most attractive buildings on Detroit's principal business avenue."

Indoors, the new store boasted state-of-the-art features, such as electric passenger and freight elevators, central heating, a ventilation system, automatic fire sprinklers, pneumatic cash carriers, and restrooms "equal to the finest hotels." The second-floor recital hall, which seated 500, contained a stage large enough for two grand pianos and a pipe organ. The sheet music department carried half a million selections to choose from, ranging from classical pieces to popular music.



By 1913, the demand for Grinnell Brothers pianos had stretched the limits of the company's Detroit factory and put its Windsor plant at capacity, necessitating the search for a third manufacturing facility.

The optimum site was found in Holly, Michigan, at the recently vacated Chase & Baker Piano Manufacturing Company plant. It wasn't long before the Holly plant became the largest of Grinnell's manufacturing facilities, and it was later touted as the largest piano plant in the world. At its peak, the factory employed 65 skilled workers and produced 3,000 pianos a year. It is estimated that the Holly facility produced more than 80,000 pianos before its closing in 1970.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, Grinnell increased its piano line to include uprights, baby grands, and player pianos. In the 1930s, the company began selling smaller spinet and console models to accommodate apartment living and modern houses.

In addition to building pianos under the Grinnell Brothers label, the firm also manufactured pianos under a variety of names, including Uxbridge, Holly, and Leonard and Clayton, named for two of the Grinnell brothers.


From its inception, Grinnell Brothers set out to make the piano a fixture in every home. "A good piano is within reach to all," read its motto. Rental agreements, layaways, and flexible payment terms helped make the instruments affordable--especially to middle-class Detroit families, whose industry jobs carried salaries that could support such a purchase.

Recognizing the diversity of Detroit's population, Grinnell's also extended its expansive advertising beyond the mainstream press to the Italian, Jewish, German, and Polish newspapers. The company hired African-American musicians and piano tuners and offered pianos and other instruments to people of all races and incomes. Its support of the community included free recitals, classes, and sponsorship for the Michigan Music Festival, an annual piano recital that featured 300 pianos all playing at once. From the 1930s until the festival's end in 1973, Grinnell's was the principal supplier of musical instruments for the event.


The Grinnell family sold their company in 1955 to WKC Inc. Under new leadership, the business continued to grow. Jack Waigner, the new president, increased the company's out-of-state store acquisitions and purchased Shakelton Piano Company of Louisville, Kentucky, as a subsidiary. In 1963, he also bought additional showroom space at 1525 Woodward, an adjacent building that Grinnell's had been leasing since 1948.

In 1966, Waigner took the company public as American Music Stores, Inc. By that time, the Michigan-based company had become the largest music merchandiser in the nation.



The 1960s marked the beginning of the end for Grinnell's. The 1967 Detroit riot spurred a flight to the suburbs by much of the city's population, which hurt Detroit's retail businesses. American Music Stores filed for bankruptcy in 1968, and workers at the Grinnell's plant in Holly went on strike shortly thereafter. Grinnell's brand was sold in 1976. The following year, American Music Stores closed.

Grinnell's flagship store on Woodward Avenue was shuttered in 1981, signaling the end of a century of music merchandising. However, for the generations of families who own or have memories playing a Grinnell Brothers piano, its legacy plays on.


Though pianos and other musical instruments were the mainstay of their business, the Grinnell brothers took advantage of a bicycle craze and, in 1895, became Detroit agents for the Monarch bicycle, produced by the Chicago-based Monarch Cycle Manufacturing Company.

It was a short-lived venture. During Grinnell's fire of 1901,100 bikes were lost, which may have expedited the company's decision to cease its cycling distributorship.

In 1911, Grinnell tried its hand at a different mode of transportation, partnering with electric car designer Joel Phipps to create the Phipps-Grinnell electric vehicle. The brothers bought out Phipps the next year, continuing the car enterprise under the Grinnell name.

The Grinnell auto--which claimed to travel 90 miles per battery charge--was designed for the high-end market. Prices ranged from $2,800 to $3,400, about three times the cost of a Steinway piano. Grinnell enjoyed mild success in the electric car market until its closure in January 1916.

Michele Fecht is a Northville-based writer. She learned to play the piano on her family's Grinnell Brothers upright.

Caption: Previous page: The showroom floor of the Grinnell Brothers Headquarters Building in 1908. (Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.) This page: Then and now, the Grinnell Brothers building at 1515 Woodward still stands today, albeit with a different facade. (Above: photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Below: Staff photo.) Next page: A Singer sewing machine, like those the Grinnell brothers sold during their early years in Ann Arbor and Detroit. (Photo courtesy of Alf van Beem.)

Caption: This page: Today, Grinnell Brothers pianos can still be found in many households around Michigan, lauded for their impressive craftsmanship and remarkable longevity. Next page: The interior of a Grinnell Brothers piano displays the bridge as well as the instrument's Michigan origins. (Photos courtesy of Catherine Rabbideau.)

Caption: Employees gather in the lobby of the Grinnell Brothers Headquarters Building in 1908. (Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.)
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Author:Fecht, Michele
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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