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Friday, 31 January 2014 08:02

Professor seeks stories of Elkhorn instrument factory

Written by  Dennis Hines
Music professor Paul Niemisto got a glimpse of the Frank Holton & Co. building during a recent research trip to Elkhorn. Niemisto, of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, is gathering stories about the former band instrument operation for a paper he will present this summer in Germany. Music professor Paul Niemisto got a glimpse of the Frank Holton & Co. building during a recent research trip to Elkhorn. Niemisto, of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, is gathering stories about the former band instrument operation for a paper he will present this summer in Germany. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Paul Niemisto wants the human stories of Frank Holton & Co. to be more than just side notes in the once-booming firm’s place in Elkhorn history.

Niemisto, an associate professor of music at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, is researching the Holton instrument operation and plans to present a paper this summer in Germany.

The Holton instrument factory operated in Elkhorn from 1918 to 2011, producing brasswinds, percussion instruments and more.  The building still stands on North Church Street.

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"I want to follow up on the story of how many instruments they produced and what was the alloy formula for their brass and where they got their design models. That’s all been documented, but the human story hasn’t been told," Niemisto said during a recent research trip to Elkhorn. "I want to tell the story of what was the dynamic of this company in this community.

"Who blows the horn for a company that blows its own horn?"

As a child, Niemisto owned an instrument produced at the Holton factory, as did his sister. Today he teaches low brass instruments and directs several musical groups at the college.

Niemisto even had a chance to tour the factory as a child, but said he was too young to remember much about the experience.

Now he’s hoping to delve into what made the Holton company such an instrumental part of Elkhorn.

"While a smaller firm than many if its competitors, Holton consistently provided excellent brass instruments in certain important categories," Niemisto said in an email. "I would be very happy if, at the end of the project, I produce a written product and someone reads it and learns not only about the Holton company, but the Holton company as an example of an innovative American industry. It was a family company, but it wasn’t a big one compared to some of the others that were around."

During his stop in Elkhorn, Niemisto visited the Walworth County Historical Society to review documents, information and photographs related to the company. He also planned to talk to former employees of the factory, as well as their family members.

"What I will be doing is looking for any kind of written trail," Niemisto said. "I will be looking for a paper path."

Niemisto also visited the Holton exhibit located in the Webster House Museum, where he observed instruments, photographs and articles related to the factory.

Pat Blackmer, member of the Walworth County Historical Society Board of Directors, said she is pleased that the historical society has been able to assist Niemisto with his research.

"We hope we have some valuable information for him, and certainly we have artifacts from the Holton company in our collection," Blackmer said. "We would love everyone in the area to stop in and see the Webster House Museum and the Holton collection."

Niemisto plans to continue his research at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, where many of the Holton company’s archives are located. Niemisto said the National Music Museum features the company’s business documents, which include purchases of raw materials and billing reports.

"All of those things say something," Niemisto said. "They all have a little something to say about the whole story."

Niemisto said he became interested in doing a report on the company after learning about the closing of the Elkhorn factory.

"It was the end of an era for an important brand, and I wanted to know more about it," Niemisto said. "I wanted to make sure the human story of the brand would somehow be told."

Frank Holton started the company in 1898 and moved it to Elkhorn in 1918. Holton was formerly first trombonist in John Philip Sousa’s band.

"I know a little bit about the history," Niemisto said. "I know the factory was built by the city as an enticement to get Holton to come here."

Blackmer said Holton was an active member in the community.

"He paid his employees, I believe, in silver dollars," Blackmer said. "So, the employees would go out and spend them, and everyone knew that Holton was an integral part of the community and kind of important. That was a neat idea at the time, because it made a statement."

The Leblanc Company purchased the Holton company in 1964. The company merged Holton with King and Conn Instruments in Eastlake, Ohio, in 2011, and the Elkhorn factory was soon closed.

"The band instrument factory played a huge role in Elkhorn’s economy," said Chris Clapper, executive director of the Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce. "It’s sad that we were not able to retain the business."

Bart Breber, owner of Breber Music in Elkhorn, said the Holton factory was important to Elkhorn and to his family’s business, as well.

"(The factory’s closing) was a huge loss for the community. It benefited us, because if we needed a horn, we had someplace to go," Breber said. "When you lose a factory like that in a city the size of Elkhorn, it hurts. If I needed a horn, I just had to deal with the factory. Now, I have to call a representative and wait. It’s not as convenient. Before, I would just have to drive across Elkhorn."

Breber said his grandfather, George Breber Sr., once worked at the Holton plant.

"My grandfather worked for him before he went on his own," Breber said. "He worked as a supervisor on the floor."

Jobs weren’t all that were lost when Holton closed, City Administrator Sam Tapson said.

"I think it also broke that historical link," Tapson said. "I arrived in Elkhorn in about 1998, and by then it was a shell of its former self."

The factory building remains empty. Tapson said the factory sits on a brownfield contamination site.

"The condition of the facility precludes any use or reuse of the factory," Tapson said. "It has several issues attached to it."

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