F. E. OLDS AND SON, INC.
A SHORT HISTORY
R. DALE OLSON
The date on which Frank Ellsworth Olds made his first brass musical instrument is not recorded. Assuredly, it was prior to 1910, the traditional formation of the Olds firm, but could have been as early as the mid-to late 1880’s.
Alva James Olds and Sarah Merril Averill (Olds), Frank’s parents, lived in Lockport, New York, but Frank was born in nearby Medina on 19 May 1861. The family moved to Toledo, Ohio when Frank was young.
It has been reported, but not corroborated, that, Frank worked in C.G. Conn’s musical instrument factory in Elkhart, Indiana, presumably at the approximate age of 16 years. Conn factory records were destroyed by fire on 22 May 1910, and Elkhart City Directories do not list Frank as a resident.
Frank had returned to East Toledo in about 1879, living at home with his parents on the southwest corner of Utah and Wilmot. His occupation was listed as being a “Cooper”, or one who makes tubs and barrels. By 1882 Frank was listed simply as a “laborer”, as inauspicious beginning for a man whose surname would become one of the most famous in musical instrument history.
Olds’ activities for the approximate two years between 1883 and 1885 are unknown, but the latter year found him in Los Angeles, the location of his home for the rest of his life. The reasons for Frank’s move to the West Coast are lost, but speculation suggests that factors other than an interest in pursuing a career in musical instrument manufacture may have dominated his thinking. The center of the brass instrument industry had begun to be established in the Mid-West, not the West Coast. The lure of an increasingly prosperous business environment and the reality of infinitely better weather conditions may have prompted his move to Los Angeles.
Frank began employment in Los Angeles at the L.A. Tool Works, where he was an electroplater. His residence at the time was 263 S. Spring Street, now in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
Olds’ early focus in Los Angeles appears to have not been music, nor trombones, nor instrument manufacture, but bicycles. By the late 1880s, the bicycle had become immensely popular in America. In early 1887, Frank had begun participating in a wide range of activities sponsored by the Wheelmen and the Los Angeles Bicycle Club. He participated in races and often provided spectacular demonstrations of skill riding the “large wheel first” bicycle fashionable in the late 1880s.
By 1889, Frank had left the employ of the L.A. Tool Works. His popularity within the bicycle community was such that it provided sufficient incentive for him to open his own firm, F.E. Olds Plating and Novelty Works at 110-113 W. 5th. Street in Los Angeles. From a relatively anonymous existence in Toledo, Frank Olds had, within less than four years after his appearance in Los Angeles, risen to at least a modicum of prominence, both in the manufacturing and bicycle communities.
In approximately the same year as Frank’s arrival in Los Angeles, a widow, Helen A. (Moore) Birdsall and her daughter, twenty-four year old Helen Daisy Birdsall, moved there from the State of New York. Daisy began work as a clerk, in 1887, at the Joseph W. Robinson department store and lived in downtown Los Angeles. The manner in which Daisy Birdsall and Frank Olds met is not recorded, but both worked and lived in the same area of downtown Los Angeles, both were young, and single. Frank and Daisy appear to have been very social, and the young couple was soon accepted into the higher ranks of Los Angeles society circles. After a courtship of undetermined length, Frank E. Olds and Helen Daisy Birdsall were married on May 2, 1890, with a glowing report of the fashionable wedding appearing in the Los Angeles Times. They were referred to as, “favorites of society”, a singular honor for a young couple who were relative newcomers to Los Angeles.
Frank’s activities in the world of bicycles included acting as a “bugler” at special events in 1887, apparently the first reference to Frank’s musical activities.
By 1891, Frank, Daisy, and Helen Birdsall, Daisy’s mother, moved to a new home, the location of which, over one hundred years later, bears historic significance to the musical instrument industry, 206 West 24th. Street, Los Angeles, California. Helen lived with Frank and Daisy until her death in 1923. Helen was also a prominent figure in Los Angeles at the time, and received many mentions in the Times regarding her social activities and church work.
The home became the location from which would later flow the very first production models of a musical instrument made by Olds, a trombone.
From bicycles, Frank appeared to have moved to the still relatively new business of automobiles. By 1901, he was associated with the Locomobile Company of the Pacific. Although listed as a “machinist”, Olds’ position with Locomobile is vague. It is probable that he functioned in a considerably larger capacity, possibly even as a dealer for the Locomobile automobile.
The steam powered Locomobile was fitted with approximately 298 “tube joints” of brass or copper, with an approximate interior bore of ..437 inches. Frank would have been intimately familiar with the soldering and repairing of such tubes should they have developed leaks. Interestingly, the bore of the Locomobile tubing was very close to the internal bore of brass instruments with which Olds was most familiar.
Compelling evidence suggests that Frank perhaps operated a repair facility at his home, prior to entering production of trombones.
Olds’ alleged patent for a new trombone, of April, 1912, was probably concurrent with, or somewhat after, the development of his early production trombones. Although catalogs from the firm often implied that the Patent of 1912 was Frank’s, there is no information which confirms that he ever held a United States Patent. The patent identified in engraving of early Olds trombones was held by a George Riblet, whose association with Frank is unknown. Ironically, Frank’s son, Reginald B. Olds, often dismissed as a figurehead within his father’s firm, was granted five United States patents!
Production of trombones at the factory at 206 24th. Street (a facility the Olds family referred to as the “barn”) was highly successful. In 1922, Frank either purchased, or constructed, a new factory on Raymond in Los Angeles. By this time, 23 year old Reginald had joined the firm, and was apparently instrumental in its operation. It was at this location that the name “Olds” gained an immensely coveted reputation, and it was also from this factory that the now legendary trumpets by Olds were first made.
Frank and Daisy were now highly successful factory owners and socialites in Los Angeles, and moved to a new home in the exclusive West Adams area at 2266 West 24th. Street. Reg and Frank’s mother-in-law, Helen Birdsall also lived at the Olds home.
On Thursday 5 October 1928, Frank and Daisy walked from the porch of their home in anticipation of a luxury ocean voyage on the ship, “City of Los Angeles’. It was the last time Frank would leave his beautiful home.
During an anticipated absence of Frank of two months, Reginald went about the business of managing F.E. Olds and Son, Inc. He had just begun to adapt to his temporary role as the leader of the Company, when, on the 9th. of October, he received word that his father, Frank E. Olds, had died suddenly while at sea. Although Reg reported that his father appeared to be in excellent health just prior to departure, the cause of death was listed as “heart disease”. Frank was buried at sea, off the coast of Acapulco, Mexico, and, at Reg’s urging, Daisy remained to complete the voyage alone.
Reg Olds who was accustomed to the finer things of life and enjoyed obvious career security, now assumed the void left by Frank’s death. Reg was now “Mr. Olds”. In early to mid-1928, Frank, and presumably Reg, had begun experimental work on an Olds trumpet. This became a passion of Frank’s, but he died a four short months before the first trumpet was produced on February 5, 1929. It was, therefore, the responsibility of Reginald to not only continue production of trombones, but now an increasingly popular line of trumpets and other brass instruments.
It was under Reginald’s leadership that the now highly regarded trumpet models flowed: “The Olds”, “Standard”, “French”, “Military”, “Special”, “Symphony”, “Super, “Super-Recording”, and the “Recording”. Supporting Reg during the difficult days following his father’s death, were several employees whose contributions could not be dismissed. Master trombone makers Sherm Sheld and Roe Plimpton, plant superintendent Clayton Stump, and French horn maker Peter Sekora, formed the backbone of continuing operations. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Foster A. Reynolds and later Zigmant J. Kanstul provided an even elevated level of continuity to the success of the firm of Olds.
The decades of the 1920s and 1930s flourished for the Olds Company, but the world was on the brink of war as the 1940s emerged. The fast-expansion was, rather abruptly, terminated. Production stopped, new models ceased to appear, and F.E. Olds and Son, Inc. entered a role as a United States Government contractor, making a variety of parts for military aircraft such as gun sights. It has been reported that Olds manufactured a run of saxophones for the government, which was lost with the sinking of a ship on which they were being transported. Former General Manager Don Agard clearly recalls tooling for saxophones having been stored in the attic upon his arrival at Olds in 1952.
Reginald Olds was indeed fortunate in that most of his employees were an older group at the onset of WWII, and were not included in the military draft. Only two men were required to leave Olds for military service, and both returned after the War. This fortuitous circumstance assured that, upon a return to musical instrument production, little time would be lost in retraining a new workforce.
After the War, the Olds Company attempted to reassess the market and provide the consumer with their changing needs. Olds had, prior to WWII only produced what may be referred to as “professional” level instruments. But, the emerging needs of a post-War population suggested that a lower priced, or “student” line of instruments was desirable.
Chicago Musical Instrument Company, headed by Maurice Berlin, had long been associated with Olds as a distributor and probable financial partner. Shortly after the cessation of WWII, Berlin, his Sales Manager Jack Levy, and Reginald Olds met in Los Angeles to discuss the future of their enterprise. From a meeting around the swimming pool of a Los Angeles hotel, the visionaries agreed that the future of F.E. Olds and Son, Inc. would be secured only if the “student” market were entered. Increased production would, of course, be necessary, and the firm must adopt a new operating strategy, perhaps even under new leadership. The “Ambassador” line was thus conceptualized to fulfill the perceived new path for the firm.
CMI had, by this time, assumed majority interest in the firm, and it was Maurice Berlin who charted the new course. Enter Foster A. Reynolds. “F.A.” had recently sold his brass instrument manufacturing firm in Cleveland to violin maker Heinreich Roth, and had retired to a small ranch near Cleveland. Reynolds’ expertise and experience involved not only managing his own firm, but had worked for York and H.N. White, developing his skills as an instrument producer.
Foster A. Reynolds was the antithesis of Reginald B. Olds. Olds was admired, Reynolds was feared. Olds was beloved, Reynolds was grudgingly respected. Olds was the friend of the worker, while apprehension among employees at the announcement of Reynolds’ hiring was so great that they unionized for the first time in forty years. With Reg running things, unionization was unnecessary. With Foster Reynolds in charge, the workers glared apprehensively and became distrustful of management. From that point on, F.E. Olds and Son, Inc. would be a union shop. Even as such, the magnificent quality of the instruments was strictly maintained.
Reynolds quickly began work. He worked closely with Raphael Mendez in bringing to fruition both the Ambassador and the Mendez model trumpets. Arguably, the Ambassador is the most famous trumpet ever produced.
Maurice Berlin’s actions had the proximate effect of casting Reg in the light of figurehead, in which the world would forever, albeit unfairly, view him. CMI dictated sales policy, and Foster Reynolds controlled the factory. Reg maintained his dignity, and was always treated deferentially, even by Berlin and other CMI personnel, but his prestige had been severely undercut. He soon assumed the role of the grand old Padre who strode the halls of his beloved monastery long after a new Order had assumed power, all bowing and nodding politely to him, and speaking with great respect, but with the full awareness that his glory days were past
In 1952, an ambitious young man moved to Los Angeles and was immediately employed at Olds. Zigmant J. Kanstul not only excelled at every position to which he was assigned, F.A. saw in the young man someone to carry his legacy. The two were near mirror images of each other. Both were meticulous, demanding managers. Neither would accept shortcuts, or a diminution in quality. Both demanded, and received, the best each worker could provide. Both were immensely successful. In 1960, six years after the firm had moved to Fullerton from Los Angeles, F.A. suddenly died of a heart attack while meeting with Zig.
Don Agard, whose father had known Reynolds in Cleveland, worked for F.A. on the small ranch during summer vacation from school. Upon his graduation from Case Institute, Agard accepted a position with Olds and functioned in many management capacities including the honor of having been the final General Manager of F.E. Olds and Son, Inc., at the time of its closing in 1979.
One of Agard’s early assignments was to modify the manner in which serial numbers were maintained. Upon his employment, valved instruments and trombones each carried their own separate set of serial numbers. Thus, it was possible that a trumpet and a trombone would both have the same number. Beginning January, 1954, serial numbers for all instruments were merged, beginning with the number 100,000.
An earlier assignment for Agard was to scout the Los Angeles area for a location of a new factory. Production had surged and the firm could no longer continue its expansion at the old factory into which Frank had moved in 1922. Agard drove many miles around Southern California and finally suggested an orange grove in the city of Fullerton, about 40 miles from the Los Angeles plant and, ironically on a street with the same name, “Raymond”.
The move to Fullerton was seamless. Each department was moved separately, and the firm experienced no break in production. The myth that differences somehow exist between Los Angeles Olds instruments and those made in Fullerton is totally without foundation.
The factory at 350 S. Raymond, in Fullerton was new, large, well lit, modern, with a large parking lot, and offices for those in management. F.A. and Zig ran the plant, opening very early and remaining until all had left in the late afternoon. Reg typically appeared about 10:00 a.m. daily, and left at 3:00 p.m. to play golf, leaving many administrative duties to his loyal secretary, Ruth Dallas. Reg was Vice-Consul to Estonia, a country which he had never visited. He drove Cadillac convertibles with diplomatic license plates, mixed the driest Martini on the West Coast, and spent much time at private clubs playing golf and tennis. He was, however, still “Mr. Olds”.
I joined the firm on 3 January 1961, having been hired by Maurice Berlin and Reginald Olds to begin design work on high pitched trumpets, and other products. I remained as Director of Research until 1969, and served in a consultation capacity for an additional few years.
Zig left the firm in 1972, leaving a void which was never filled. His intuition had been precise. CMI’s philosophy and leadership had changed, and Zig became wary of the future. Kanstul was once asked to guide a new CMI executive through the Olds factory, and was astonished when he was told that the new executive felt such was unnecessary! Zig knew that such indifference signaled the beginning of the end to a legend.
CMI owned many musical instrument manufacturing firms: Gibson Guitars, Story and Clark Pianos, Epiphone Guitars, and others. Making quality brass instruments never produced corporate profits such as could be made by stamping out hundreds of thousands of guitars and drum sets to young people suddenly immersed in tock bands. School bands were on the wane. A new company, Yamaha, had emerged as a threat to all others. Production quotas and demands were made on Olds by CMI which could not be met. The work force on the factory floor was still guided by the ideals first established by Frank, and later perpetuated by Reg, F.A. and Zig. No shortcuts. No lessening of quality. Work hard.
New ideas were tried in an attempt to salvage the firm. A factory was opened in Abilene, Texas, a place with hundreds of cowboys, but totally devoid of workers skilled in the production of musical instruments. Managers and supervisors from the Olds factory in Fullerton were unsuccessfully enticed to move from Southern California to relatively inhospitable west Texas. CMI had purchased the name “Reynolds” in the mid-1960s when a firm operated by Paul Richards, of which the Reynolds Company was then a part, entered bankruptcy, and the plant in Abilene was referred to as the “Reynolds’ factory”. Simply stated, it never worked.
The concept of moving production to Mexico was briefly debated, but was discarded. The Abilene plant was eventually closed, the victim of an abysmally flawed strategy. Paradoxically, the Olds plant in Fullerton pressed on, continuing to produce excellent instruments, and occasional new models. There was, unfortunately, no technical or musical leadership inspiring or guiding the progress. Still, the few old managers and supervisors who could recall F.A. strolling the factory floor demanding the best, recalled with deep respect the lessons taught by F.A. and Zig.
Why did this esteemed, and successful firm simply cease to exist? When posed this question, Don Agard responded with a three letter answer, “ROI”. “Return on Investment” was unsatisfactory to the group of executives who now managed CMI. The firm of F.E. Olds and Son, Inc. was no longer the financially viable entity demanded by management. The new CMI also owned a brewery in South America, and their sensitivity to fine musical instruments was nonexistent. The name CMI gave way to “Norlin”, then to other corporate names. .The firm was now guided by distant executives in Chicago who could read only balance sheets, not musical scores. In the end, it is generally conceded that they did not even do that very well.
Although a buyer for the firm was sought, with Vito Pascucci of LeBlanc being the foremost candidate, CMI could not sell the Olds factory for its illusive asking price. The decision was made to simply close the plant and auction all assets.
On December 7, 1979, Don Agard turned out the lights for the last time. A legacy had been blithely discarded, but in its place, a legend was born.