Some B&B guests come and go, and we only meet them once, while others return again and again and become like part of the family. All of them have interesting stories, and some of them make interesting stories while they’re here. This tale involves one of our earliest guests and a fascinating story he has uncovered about the “Kalamazoo Gals” who made special “Banner” guitars for the Gibson Guitar company during World War II.
The story begins five and a half years ago, a few months after Terry and I bought the Kalamazoo House. We were riding our bikes along the Kal-Haven trail on a perfect Sunday autumn afternoon when my phone rang. A fella by the name of John Thomas told me he wanted to hold a special “afternoon tea” at the Kalamazoo House a couple of weeks later. That phone conversation was the beginning of a fun and rewarding relationship that is coming full circle next weekend.
Besides being an attorney and a law professor in Connecticut, John happens to be an accomplished finger-style guitar player who loves Gibson guitars which, as any guitar aficionado knows, were made only in Kalamazoo until the company moved to Nashville in the 1980‘s. (This photo shows him playing Buddy Holly’s Gibson, but that’s a whole other story.)
Now, for this tale to make sense, you need to know that during WWII the Gibson company put the banner on their guitars that said “Only a Gibson is Good Enough.” You also need to know that these “Banner Gibsons” are very high-quality instruments which have become collectors’ items. And you should know that the factory had converted to make war-related products and the company claimed not to be producing guitars “until the boys come home.”
The thing was, John knew they had produced many guitars during the war years. He was particularly intrigued when he saw this photo of the company’s workers taken during the “Banner Years” showing that the “craftsmen” were almost all women:
John smelled a good story and he was hooked. He found company records that showed Gibson actually produced over 20,000 guitars during that time. He wanted to meet as many of the women who had worked for Gibson in those years as he could find. By the time he called me, he had already tracked down some of the women (who were by then in their 80s and 90s), and he was coming to town to interview them. He wanted to hold a tea for them and their family members as a way of honoring them and thanking them for agreeing to trust him and talk to him about their work at Gibson.
(Between you and me, I think most of the ladies thought he was a bit nuts for thinking there was anything particularly remarkable about their work at Gibson Guitars because it didn’t seem particularly remarkable to them — but John was persistent and good-natured and he won them over. In the process, he got the good story he was looking for.)
And now, 5-1/2 years later, John is coming back to town with his newly published book Kalamazoo Gals: The Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII (American History Press, 2013). When he told me a few months ago that the book was at the presses and he was looking for a good time to come back to Kalamazoo to see the “gals” again and to introduce the book, we were delighted to realize that the Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival (March 23) might make the perfect launching pad.
During his upcoming Kalamazoo visit, John will hold a book signing at Bookbug, and he’ll present his book in a lecture at the 2013 Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival. He’ll host his “Gals” at one more afternoon tea at the Kalamazoo House. And maybe most rewarding for us, he has promised to find time to sit with us and play his vintage Gibson one more time for the innkeepers and our guests. We can’t wait for next weekend!
Here are some links to recent interviews and news reports about the “Kalamazoo Gals” project: