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C.G. Conn Ltd., sometimes called Conn Instruments or commonly just Conn, was a United States manufacturer of musical instruments, especially brass instruments. In 1985 their Strobotuner division was bought by Peterson Electro-Musical Products, who continue to service their line of products.
Assets of C.G. Conn were bought by Steinway Musical Instruments in 2000 and in January 2003 were merged with other Steinway properties into a subsidiary called Conn-Selmer. Conn-Selmer is the current company responsible for merchandise manufactured by C.G. Conn Ltd.
Charles Gerard Conn
The company was founded by Charles Gerard Conn (b. Phelps, New York 29 January 1844; d. Los Angeles, California 5 January 1931). In 1850 he accompanied his family to Three Rivers, Michigan and in the following year to Elkhart, Indiana. Little is known about his early life, other than that he learned to play the cornet. With the outbreak of the American Civil War he enlisted in the army on 18 May 1861 at the age of seventeen, despite his parents' protests. On 14 June 1861 he became a private in Company B, 15th Regiment Indiana Infantry, and shortly afterwards was assigned to a regimental band. When his enlistment expired he returned to Elkhart, but re-enlisted on 12 December 1863 at Niles, Michigan in Company G, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. At the age of nineteen on 8 August 1863 he was elevated to the rank of Captain. During the Assault on Petersburg on 30 July 1864, Conn was wounded and taken prisoner. In spite of two imaginative and valiant attempts to escape, he was recaptured and spent the remainder of the war in captivity. He was honorably discharged on 28 July 1865.
In 1884 Conn organized the 1st Regiment of Artillery in the Indiana Legion and became its first Colonel, a military title which stayed with him throughout the remainder of his life. He was also the first commander of the Elkhart Commandery of the Knights Templar. Colonel Conn also served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 2nd Regiment of Uniform Rank, Knights of Pythias, and was re-elected many times as Commander of the local G.A.R. post.
Founding of Conn's band instrument manufactory
After the war, Conn returned to Elkhart and established a grocery and baking business. He also played cornet in the local community band. Conn's entrance into the musical instrument manufacturing business was the result of a split lip. There are three existing stories of how this occurred, but the popularly accepted version is that Del Crampton slugged him in the mouth outside a saloon where both of them had been drinking. Conn's upper lip was severely lacerated, and it pained him so to play his cornet that he thought his playing days were over. In addition to running his store, Conn also made rubber stamps and re-plated silverware. He decided to try adhering rubber stamp material to the rim of a mouthpiece which he hoped would conform to his lips. After he showed his friends his idea, he realized that there was tremendous demand for his invention. Conn then began to contemplate manufacturing his new mouthpiece. He needed a rim with a groove which the rubber cement would adhere to more easily. It was in 1874 when Conn converted a discarded sewing machine frame into a simple lathe and started to turn out his mouthpieces and was soon in full production (Subsequently Conn and Del Crampton became best of friends, and when Conn embarked on his political career, he was a staunch advocate of temperance).
Conn patented his rubber-rimmed mouthpiece in 1875 (with patents to follow through 1877) described as "an elastic face [i.e., a rubber rim] where the mouthpiece comes in contact with the lips, the object being to prevent fatigue and injury to the lips." About this time Conn met Eugene Victor Baptiste Dupont (b. Paris ?May 1832; d. Washington, D.C. 26 July 1881), a brass instrument maker and designer and a former employee of Henry Distin of London. In January 1876, Conn joined with Dupont under the name of Conn & Dupont, and Dupont created Conn's first instrument, the Four-in-One cornet, with crooks allowing the horn to be played in the keys of E♭, C, B♭, and A. By 1877Conn's business had outgrown the back of his grocery store, and he purchased an idle factory building on the corner of Elkhart Avenue and East Jackson. Conn's partnership with Dupont was dissolved by March 1879, but he was successful in attracting skilled craftsmen from Europe to his factory, and in this manner he expanded his operation so that by 1905, Conn had the world's largest musical instrument factory producing a full line of wind instruments, strings, percussion, and a portable organ. Conn partnered with Albert T. Armstrong, Joseph Jones, and Emory Foster to manufacture a twin-horn disc phonograph called the 'Double-Bell Wonder' that was produced in two iterations briefly in early 1898 before a lawsuit by the Berliner Gramophone Company caused production to cease. Brick-red 'Wonder' records were also pressed for the 'Double-Bell Wonder' talking machine by the Scranton Button Works from pirated Berliner masters. Fewer than fifty 'Double-Bell Wonders' were produced of both iterations combined.
Conn's first factory was destroyed by fire 29 January 1883 (his thirty-ninth birthday), and he erected a new building on the same site. In 1886 rumors began to circulate that Conn wanted to move his business to Massachusetts. Conn was induced to stay after the public raised a large sum of money by popular subscription and gave it to him. In 1887 Conn purchased Isaac Fiske's brass instrument manufactory (upon Fiske's retirement) in Worcester, Massachusetts. Fiske's operation was considered to be the best in its time. Conn operated it as a company subsidiary, and in this way he achieved his objectives. The company's product line now centered around the 'Wonder' cornet, but in 1885 Conn began importing French clarinets and flutes. Conn claims to have introduced the first American-made saxophone in 1888, designed by the French-born E.A. Lefebre, well known soloist with both Patrick Gilmore's and John Philip Sousa's bands. Conn's instruments were endorsed by several leading band directors, including Sousa. In 1898, upon the suggestion of Sousa, Conn developed the first commercially successful bell-up sousaphone ("the rain-catcher"). Conn phased out the Worcester operation (production was ceased in 1898), and Conn established a store in New York City (1897–1902) which a large variety of merchandise was sold under the 'Wonder' label, which included Conn-made woodwind, brass and percussion instruments, violins, mandolins and portable reed organs. The business also distributed American-made and imported guitars, banjos and zithers.
Conn's company was a source of competitors as well as instruments. Notable employees who left the firm to pursue their own businesses were composer W. Paris Chambers, the founder of the Seidel Band Instrument Company William F. Seidel, the founder of the Buescher Band Instrument Company Ferdinand A. Buescher, the founder of the F.E. Olds Company Frank E. Olds, and the founder of the Martin Band Instrument Company Henry Charles Martin.
Conn's second factory burned on 22 May 1910, a loss estimated between $100,000 and $500,000. Conn was en route from California to Elkhart when his factory burned, and upon arriving home he was met with a public demonstration, a way of showing popular sympathy. Conn then announced his intentions to build a third factory on the corner of East Beardsley and Conn Avenues. Construction began 15 August 1910, and by the following 12 December it was fully operational.
Conn's other enterprises
Colonel Conn was a colorful personality of the show biz sort. He believed that he could do anything. His career grew far beyond the confines of horn making. In 1880 Conn was elected Mayor of Elkhart on the Democratic ticket. He was re-elected in 1882 but did not finish the term. Ten days before the general election in 1888, Conn was drafted as an emergency candidate for the Indiana House of Representatives by the Democrats, and won the election. In 1892 he was elected to the United States Congress as Representative of the 13th District of Indiana. Two years later he was re-nominated, but declined the nomination unless the party permitted him to make the canvass on a "reformed" platform. The party would not permit this, and accepted his declination. In 1908 he ran for Governor of Indiana and lost; in 1910 he ran for Senator.
Colonel Conn also had a love affair with publishing. He founded a newspaper, the Elkhart Daily Truth, on 15 October 1889. The paper still exists as the Elkhart Truth. He published the monthly Trumpet Notes which he circulated amongst his employees and dealers. He also published a scandal sheet called The Gossip which, along with the town doings, he used occasionally to attack his competitors and enemies. While a member of Congress he purchased the Washington Times. He conducted a sensational campaign against alleged vice in the city. Eventually he found himself as a defendant in a big damage suit, but won the case. Sometime later he disposed of the paper.
Colonel Conn had heavily invested money in other businesses. One of his disappointments was his involvement with early electrical generating systems. In 1904 he constructed a powerhouse and provided electrical service as a competitor to the Indiana and Michigan Electric Company. They later bought out Conn's service at a great sacrifice to himself. The turning point to Conn's financial affairs and public life took place in April 1911 when he and his wife executed a trust deed for $200,000 covering all their possessions for the purposes of bonding the Conn indebtedness and securing working capital, the longest bond to mature in ten years. Conn's money problems stemmed partly from failed adventures like his entry into the utilities business, the building of his third factory, and its loss to fire, and his loss of a costly lawsuit filed against him by a former company manager. The deed included in addition to the horn factory and what was then known as the Angledile Scale Company, and The Truth, some sixty descriptions of real estate in Elkhart and vicinity, various real estate mortgages, 125 shares of stock in the Simplex Motor Car Company of Mishawaka, Indiana, a seagoing yacht, a lake motor launch, and much valuable personal property.
Carl D. Greenleaf and C.G. Conn, Ltd.
In 1915 all of Colonel Conn's holdings were bought by a group of investors led by Carl Dimond Greenleaf (b. Wauseon, Ohio 27 July 1876; d. Elkhart, Indiana 10 July 1959). Conn met Greenleaf during his years in Washington, D.C., and invested in some grain mills in Ohio which Greenleaf owned. Initially Conn held onto ownership of The Truth, but a few months after the sale of his other holdings, Conn sold The Truth to Greenleaf and to a local entrepreneur Andrew Hubble Beardsley. Greenleaf incorporated his new holdings under the name C.G. Conn Ltd. and retained the Conn trademark on his musical instruments. The sale was detrimental to Colonel Conn's marriage. They divorced, and Mrs. Conn was allowed to retain a house in Elkhart in which she lived until her death in 1924. Colonel Conn meanwhile was allowed to keep his home in Los Angeles, California. He spent virtually the remainder of his life there and only returned to Elkhart once in 1926 to visit his sister. He remarried to a very young woman while in California, and she bore him a son twelve years before his death in 1931. Once a very wealthy and influential man, he died almost penniless. His estate didn't have enough money in it to afford a grave marker, and a hat was passed around the horn factory to collect enough money to buy one.
Carl Greenleaf was president of Conn from 1915 to 1949. He was an astute businessman, yet he was also very sensitive to the market trends of the industry. While president, Greenleaf was noting the gradual extinction of the small town brass band, and also the big touring bands such as the Sousa band were also in decline. He knew that in order for the industry to survive, band programs had to be promoted in schools and colleges. He succeeded to develop a close relationship and communications between the industry and music educators. With the help of educators such as Joseph E. Maddy and T.P. Giddings, they helped introduce band music into the schools. Greenleaf organized the first national band contest in 1923 and helped make possible the founding of the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. In 1928 he founded a Conn National School of Music which trained hundreds of school band directors. The whole industry blossomed because of his foresight, and we must credit Greenleaf for being the prime initiator of the development of the instrumental programs in our schools and communities we now enjoy.
Greenleaf expanded, upgraded and retooled the plant, and he converted the company from a mail-order business to one operated through retail dealers. By 1917 the assembly-line work force had increased to 550 employees who were turning out about 2500 instruments a month using a new hydraulic expansion process which Greenleaf introduced to the plant. By 1920 Conn was producing a complete line of saxophones. In this area they had stiff competition by other big saxophone makers such as Buescher and Martin. In 1928, as sax sales plateaud, Conn attempted to introduce a mezzo-soprano saxophone in the key of F and the 'Conn-o-sax', a saxophone-English horn hybrid, to capture more of the market, but these instruments were soon discontinued after disappointing sales. Around 1919 Conn introduced the first drawn and rolled tone holes (after a patent by W.S. Haynes in 1914) eliminating the necessity of soft-soldering tone hole platforms onto the bodies of the instruments.
In 1928 Conn opened its Experimental Laboratory, which was unique in the industry. It was under the direction of C.D.'s son Leland Burleigh Greenleaf (b Wauseon, Ohio 12 August 1904; d Leland, Michigan 29 March 1978), and under his directorship, the department developed the first short action piston valves (1934), and the 'Stroboconn' (1936), the first electronic visual tuning device. The 'Vocabell' (1932) was a bell with no rim to optimise the sound. It also developed the 'Coprion' bell (1934), a seamless copper bell formed by directly electroplating it onto a mandrel. Under Lee Greenleaf and his saxophone specialists, Allen Loomis and Hugh Loney, Conn completely re-engineered its sax line, modernizing the alto, tenor, and baritone to the extent that they remained in production with only minor changes for up to 40 years. These instruments were the 6M alto (1931-1969), 10M tenor (1934-1969), and 12M baritone (1929-1969).
During the 1920s Conn owned the Elkhart Band Instrument Company (1923-7), the Leedy Company (1927–55), a manufacturer of percussion, 49.9% of the stock of H. & A. Selmer (1923-7), and two subsidiaries, the Continental Music Company and the Pan American Band Instrument Company, (which had been founded and owned by Greenleaf). Despite the stock market crash of 1929, Conn purchased several companies (1929–30) including Ludwig and Ludwig, a maker of percussion, and Carl Fischer and Soprani, makers of accordions. From 1940 to 1950 they owned the Haddorff Piano Company, and from 1941-1942 the Straube Piano Company.
During the war period from 1942 to 1946, Conn ceased all production of musical instruments for civilian use to manufacture parts for the government. The resulting loss of sales and the delayed conversion of the plant in 1946 caused a serious decline in Conn's status as a major band instrument manufacturer. In contrast to this, the Division of Research, Development and Design, under the directorship of Earle Kent (b Adrian, Texas 22 May 1910; d Elkhart 12 January 1994) continued to be a major force in industry technology. They developed the 'Connsonata' electric organ (1946; later known as the Conn organ), the 'Connstellation' line of brass instruments (mid-1950s), and the first fibreglass sousaphone (1960). During this time Conn liquidated several of its subsidies including the Leedy and Ludwig Drum division (1949–1955), and the New Berlin Instrument Company (1954–1961) of New Berlin, New York which produced Conn's clarinets, oboes and bassoons.
Carl Greenleaf retired in 1949 but remained a member of the board of directors until his death in 1959. He was eventually succeeded by his son Lee Greenleaf, mentioned previously, who had joined Conn in 1928 as an assistant engineer. He was company treasurer in 1953, vice-president in 1955, president (1958–1969), and chairman of the board (1967–1969). During his tenure Conn bought the Artley Company (1959), a manufacturer of flutes, the Janssen Piano Company (1964), and the Scherl & Roth Company (1964), a manufacturer of stringed instruments.
In 1956 Conn sponsored a film to promote school bands entitled Mr. B Natural, which later generations would watch as an example of period kitsch and featured on the 1990s TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000
Company from 1969 to 2002
In 1969 C.G. Conn Ltd. was sold to the Crowell-Collier MacMillan Company. Under their ownership the company's prestige declined further, because of company executives in charge who were not familiar with instrument manufacturing and their customers, and as a result of a sales force who knew nothing about what they were selling. By 1970, high costs, competition and union labor pressures forced the company into drastic measures. In that year the corporate offices were moved to Oak Brook, Illinois, and during the following year the Conn Organ Division was moved to Carol Stream, Illinois, the woodwind manufacturing to Nogales, Arizona (formerly the Best Manufacturing Company (saxophones), a maker of student-line saxophones purchased by Conn in the 1960s), and all student-line brass instrument manufacturing to Japan by Yamaha. Also in that year, the newly introduced Conn Guitar Division, operating out of Oak Brook, Illinois, began contracting the manufacture of a new line of acoustic guitars to Tokai Gakki in Japan. The acoustic guitar business continued production until 1978. In 1979, Conn tried to enter the highly competitive electric guitar market—introducing a line of some original model electric guitars, and some copies of existing popular brands, but abandoned this venture by mid-1980 (see History of Conn Guitars).
In 1980 the company was sold to Daniel Henkin (b. Kansas City, Missouri 1930) who had served the company as an advertising manager. In that year Henkin sold the organ division to Kimball under the name of Conn Keyboards. In 1981 he bought the W.T. Armstrong Company, a manufacturer of flutes, and in 1985 King Musical Instruments of Eastlake, Ohio.
In 1986, the Swedish conglomerate Skâne Gripen was heavily invested in off-shore oil drilling and saw that it needed to diversify its holdings. Skâne Gripen bought Conn in 1986 and created a new parent corporation, United Musical Instruments. UMI subsequently closed the Conn Brasswind facility in Abilene, Texas (1986), moving some brass instrument production to the old King plant in Eastlake. All operations were moved out of Mexico (1987); the production of Artley flutes and piccolos returned to Elkhart, while clarinet, saxophone and small brass manufacture were moved to Nogales.
Between 1920 and 1947, all professional-grade saxophones manufactured by C.G. Conn had rolled toneholes. In the early 1930s, Conn developed a unique type of saxophone pad called "Conn Res-o-Pads", which were specifically designed for use on saxophones with rolled toneholes. Conn Res-O-Pads have an internal metal reinforcing ring which is hidden under the leather covering around the circumference of the pad. Their most notable feature is that the diameter of the pad extends over the rim of the key-cup, thereby giving a slightly wider surface area for the rolled tone-hole to seal onto. Rim impressions from Res-o-Pads are minimal and unlike standard pads they cannot be "floated" in. Though designed to fix into key-cups purely via friction, most saxophone repairers glue them in place using shellac or hot melt adhesive. Res-o-Pads can be challenging to size correctly because (unlike standard saxophone pads which come in 0.5 mm size steps) they are only available in 1/32nds of an inch sizes which may not always correspond closely to key-cup diameters. Newly produced Conn Res-o-Pads are still available from specialist suppliers and are favored by some saxophone collectors because they give a fully authentic look and feel to vintage saxophones with rolled toneholes e.g. those made by Conn, Kohlert and Keilwerth. However, it is possible to fit standard pads to any saxophone with rolled toneholes (and many people do) without any noticeable disadvantage regarding the quality of sound produced.
The Conn Microtuner
From 1920 to 1952 Conn manufactured saxophones, mostly altos, with a unique tuning device on the neck (adjacent to the mouthpiece) known as the "Conn Microtuner". Instead of adjusting the tuning of the instrument by in the traditional way (moving the mouthpiece up and down the cork), Conn introduced a fixed mouthpipe, controlled by a threaded barrel which increased or decreased the length of the neck internally. To lower the pitch, the microtuner was rotated to the left. To raise the pitch the microtuner was rotated to the right. Microtuners were never particularly popular among musicians because the internal mechanism was unnecessarily complex, requiring extra cleaning and maintenance, and made large pitch adjustments slow. Since the 1950s, all new saxophones use the traditional tuning method i.e. pulling out or pushing in the mouthpiece on the cork until the pitch is correct. Keilwerth and other German-made saxes also used microtuners for a time.
- New Grove Music Dictionary ("Conn")
- McMakin, Dean "Musical Instrument Manufacturing in Elkhart, Indiana" (unpublished typescript, 1987, available at Elkhart Public Library)
- The Elkhart Truth, Tuesday 6 January 1931, obituary for C.G. Conn, and subsequent notices published 7 Jan., 8 Jan., 9 Jan., 14 Jan., 15 Jan.
- "About Conn-Selmer, Inc." on Conn-Selmer web site
- Elkhart city directories (available at Elkhart Public Library)
- Brief history
- 1905 Magazine Article with photos
- The Conn Loyalist - About Conn Brass Instruments from the days when the C.G. Conn company was still located in Elkhart, Indiana
- Review of a Conn 6M Alto Saxophone manufactured in 1944
- The C.G. Conn 'Double-Bell Wonder' disc phonograph of 1898
Gallery of images
A "Transitional" Conn New Wonder 'Series II' tenor saxophone made in 1934.
Close-up view of the unusual "underslung" octave key mechanism on a Conn 6M "Lady Face" alto saxophone.
Detail of Conn 6M alto saxophone (dated 1935) showing distinctive pre-1947 rolled saxophone tone holes. Note that Conn Res-o-Pads have not been fitted.
A straight-necked Conn C melody saxophone (New Wonder Series 1) dated 1922. The neck has a Conn micro-tuner on the end.
A straight-necked Conn C-melody saxophone (New Wonder Series 2 dating from circa 1926) played by Nathan Haines.