The Incomparable Colonel
This article is a reprint from the Conn Chord magazine, volume 19 no. 1. With kind permission from the C.G. Conn company.
The first Conn musical product was a rubber mouthpiece cushion for a cornet. An innovation, it was Conn's response to a temporary lip injury that kept him from playing in the town band. The town was Elkhart, Indiana in 1873. Charles Gerard Conn was now 29 years old. A Civil War veteran, he now ran a small grocery and bakery business. On the side he did silver plating and rubber stamp making. According to the Elkart Review, the local newspaper, Conn was an up and coming businessman. His father was a school teacher and musician. He directed a small string orchestra in Elkhart. Conn himself was an excellent cornettist, playing in the Elkhart Silver Cornet band. Unaccountably, his mouthpiece cushion caught the fancy of other horn players. Conn made a few for friends. Then he began turning them out on a lathe he improvised from an old sewing machine frame. By 1875 he had obtained both U.S. and international patents on the cushion and was manufacturing a complete metal mouthpiece with a molded rubber cushion. Production was about sixty a day. Conn publicized the new mouthpiece in Trumpet Notes, a small monthly he began publishing for bandsmen. The Review also carried frequent notices of his activities and plans. This was the beginning of C.G.Conn, musical instrument makers of Elkhart.
First Cornet Produced
That same year, in a closet-size 20-foot-square shop, Conn produced the first American-built cornet. It was a plain, unplated, unengraved instrument, sold locally. Conn hired some workmen and began manufacturing complete musical instruments. In 1876 he imported a few French craftsmen to perform the more intricate tasks of production. His cornet line was called "Conn Wonder Instruments".
In 1877 Conn purchased an old, three-story factory on the St. Joseph River which runs through Elkhart. The plant was divided into instrument shops, laboratories, offices and printing rooms. By 1880 more than eighty people were employed. The basic cornet line had been expanded to include other band instruments.
On the night on January 29, 1883 -Conn's 39th birthday- the factory was destroyed by fire. Conn wasted no time building a new one. Within months a larger factory was in operation. Next to it stood the music publishing department in a fair-size two-story building.
Conn's sheet music business was an outgrowth of Trumpet Notes. That paper became a house publication called Muscial Truth, which gained a certain fame and some notoriety in its time. It carried illustrated stories about the major musicians of the period, testimonials for Conn instruments, and numerous items about lesser lights in the music world.
To be mentioned in Musical Truth was not a small thing for a musician and a good many sought Conn's favor. The notoriety had to do with the outlandish praise the magazine often lavished on musicians who endorsed Conn instruments, and also its not infrequent practise of attacking competitive brand instruments by name.
The Political Scene
Conn delighted in controversy. He also had political ambitions. He was elected Elkhart's mayor in 1880, and a member of the Indiana General Assembly in 1888. In 1889 he acquired the Review and changed its name to the Elkhart Truth. He was active editor of the paper for three years. Colonel Conn, as he was now called (after his rank in the Indiana National Guard), was elected to Congress in 1892. While in Washington he published another paper, the Washington Times, and became a crusader for police reform. This involved him in a libel suit which he won only after a long, exhausting fight. He sold the Times at the end of his term and did not run again. Back in Elkhart, Conn found other outlets for his huge energies. During the 1890's his instrument business continued to grow, helped immensely by his genius for promotion, but also by his willingness to try out the new. In 1893 the plant employed 300 persons. The quality of the instruments improved also, especially with the arrival of 15 Frnech craftsmen Conn hired from an English instrument factory in 1888. The seal of quality was stamped on Conn instruments in 1893, when they won the highest honors at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The decade was particularly fruitful with the production of the first American saxophone and first all-metal clarinet, both in 1889, the first double bell euphonium (1890) and the creation of the first sousaphone (1898). A large number of technical improvements were also made, both in the instruments and in production methods.
Musical Greats Visit Elkhart
Conn cultivated the musican greats of the brass band era, then in its heyday. Patrick Gilmore, "Father of the American Concert Band", was invited to Elkhart and presented with an elaborately tooled cornet. John Philip Sousa was given gold plated instruments for his entire 62-piece band. Hi Henry's famous minstrel band also played gold-plated Conn instruments. They and other famous bands performed at Elkhart's Bucklen Opera House, often as not while in town to visit the Conn plant and endorse the instruments. Among Sousa's bandsmen were some of the great soloists of the day. Herbert L. Clark, a high-note cornet artist, Arthur Pryor, a virtuoso on the trombone, Simon Mantia, whose dazzling feats on the euphonium astonished other musicians. All played Conn instruments. Their world tours not only gained tremendous sales for Conn internationally, but established the superiority of American brass instrument makers. Endorsements and testimonials were at the center of Conn's publicity methods. Photographs of famous musicians -48 in all- adorned the backs of C.G. Conn official stationery. After Conn sold the company in 1915 the practice of paying musicians for endorsements was discontinued, yet the backs of Conn stationery in the 1920's were covered with 85 such photographs. Endorsements were courted and paid for but publicity stunts were not overlooked. A Conn favorite was the presentation instrument. One of the gaudiest of these was a gold-plated, jewel encrusted cornet valued at $5,000, given to A. Liberati. He made good use of it leading his band on a white charger before presidents and other notables. Another Conn stunt was the creation of fantastic instruments. The most famous was the "immensaphone", the world's largest musical instrument, with a bell eight feet in diameter, requiring eight musicians tp produce a sound said to be audible 35 miles away. By 1905 Conn's was the world's largest musical instrument factory, making not only wind instruments but also string and percussion instruments, early phonographs and a portable organ.
End of an Era
Conn's grand style of living kept pace -then it began to surpass the resources of the company. The financial toll of his ventures was compounded by a business slump that hit the industry with the decline of brass bands across the country. On top of this, the Conn factory was struck by fire in 1910. The loss was between $100,000 and half a million dollars. A new, even larger factory was quickly built. But Conn was exhausted. In 1915 he sold the company to a group of investors headed by Carl D. Greenleaf. C.G. Conn became C.G. Conn, Ltd., and under Greenleaf the firm emerged from its financial difficulties. After World War I it entered a new, even more prosperous era. Colonel Conn moved to California where he was active for a number of years. He had left his stamp on the company he started and the musical instrument business he had such a large part in founding. Innovation, quality, enterprise. Conn spelled them out for a whole industry.