Tri-County Press, Forreston Journal
Thursday, January 9, 2014
Salstrom Banjo Company founded in the 60s From A1
has to teach you in double time fashion!’ … The next day I met a most remarkable 75 year old gentleman, Gus Stamm.” (Posted August 11, 2011 on Banjo Hangout) “Gus Stamm [was] one of the more remarkable people I have met during my journey. [He] came to Oregon, Illinois from one of the Chicago suburbs such as St. Charles, Illinois. Gus was an elderly gentleman and the perfect ‘idea’ man. Gus would take his ideas, do enough research to get started and [then] find people to carry on. One of his well-written books was Veterinary Guide for Farmers. Gus Stamm was not a veterinarian! Gus came to Oregon, Illinois to meet … Phil Salstrom, a master [of] machine wood carving and business owner who he thought might manufacture 5-string banjo necks to convert tenor-plectrum [banjos]. Folk was in! The two people formed an understanding and started to develop a 5-string replacement neck to be sold by Gus Stamm. [But] two strong personalities such as Phil and Gus developed differences! There was one authority at Rockwood Carvers and that was Phil! This was about 1962.” (Posted August 8, 2011 on Banjo Hangout) “This time period is around July 1962. … My first encounter with Gus Stamm was most memorable as he left me with a clear understanding that he was a way-ahead type person in the idea category. … Gus Stamm and Phil Salstrom (Rockwood Carvers) had come to a prior agreement to produce banjo replacement necks. These were to be produced at … Rockwood Carvers [which] at this time was a highly refined manufacturer of (to mention just several) Queen Anne legs and post turnings — Kohler Furniture in Naperville, Illinois being one of Rockwood’s larger customers. Gus Stamm had been selling his replacement (5-string and extra-long) neck kit thru various ads, such as in Popular Mechanics and so forth. He would sell a customer through mail order and then attempt to build it in a reasonable time (and deliver it) to keep the customer happy. Gus thought by assigning this to Rockwood he could move on in the ‘idea’ business and simply handle the sales as needed via his various ads. Well! My first day at Rockwood Carvers started [at] 6:30 a.m. in the boiler room. Gus Stamm walks through the door about 9 a.m. with an armload of fingerboard and neck materials in one arm and shakes my hand with an introduction and says, ‘Where do you intend to work?’ That was my first day with Gus Stamm. Gus didn’t stop talking, starting with ‘How to divide a scale’ — his way of course — through endless conversations about his travels. Gus was a real person full of accomplishment over his 75 year existence. That day I think I slotted about 10 fingerboards (by hand) and believe me I was thinking about a more expeditious way to do that job! “All was not well with the
association between Gus Stamm and Phil Salstrom. As Instruments, Inc., which kept time progressed, I slowly found making identical banjos several myself being tugged between more years as Fender banjos. two wonderful and capable That’s most of what anyone people. This was not easy for seemed to know until summer a 21 year old just starting out 2011, when Dave Markle with a job of interest! … showed up on Banjo Hangout “As time went by, the neck and began providing answers to manufacture problem slowly everyone’s questions, at length. relieved itself as I learned His vivid portrayals of my pattern making, carving larger-than-life Uncle Phil machine operation, and most bring back many memories. of the related mechanical toys Phil Salstrom founded found at Rockwood Carvers. Rockwood Carvers in 1960 and All during this time then a few years later founded Rockwood Carvers was busy, Salstrom Banjo Company as busy with furniture work so a well. lot of what I was responsible for Quoting now from Dave was done in between, so as not Markle’s postings at Banjo to bother production. Hangout: I was home for Gus Stamm had written a the summer [from college] pamphlet [‘Banjo Making, It’s and going to work for a local Easy’] which I believe he had plumber. sold to Mechanics Illustrated I was working [on a boiler] sometime in the past. at Rockwood Carvers’ new This pamphlet, plus his shop and had stayed after various other writings, I had quitting time to clean up the collected over the course of time finished job. … It was probably in [my] association with Gus, about 5:30 in the evening and so I was pretty well equipped. in walks Mr. Salstrom and says The replacement-neck entity to me, ‘Don’t you people quit at production only went so far four?’ and it was certainly not what I said, ‘Yes, but there was Phil Salstrom was thinking for just a small amount to do to volume. completely finish.’ He turned Gus suggested building around and walked out! guitars to Phil and of course At 4:30 the next morning that didn’t go over all that well. Phil Salstrom calls my boss As time went on, tensions and owner Chuck Ehmen and between these two remarkable says: ‘I just wanted to let you people became explosive! know I would like to hire Dave Phil Salstrom was a very Markle and don’t want any matter-of-fact and vocal person hard feelings!’ … and Gus Stamm was much Well, when I went into work quieter, calm and collected. … that morning, Chuck Ehmen There was one and only one came up to me and said: ‘I final authority and that was got this call from Phil Salstrom Phil Salstrom. … and he would like to give you One morning … I knew a job. … Dave, Phil Salstrom something was up because Gus is expanding out there and Stamm arrived early, early. He this might be an opportunity said to me, ‘Dave, I’m going for you. He wants you to meet to settle these issues with Phil him in his office about 9:30 this once and for all!’ [I] knew evening and he will give you an there were tensions but I didn’t idea what he wants to do.’ know the particulars. “[At] 11:30 p.m. that evening Gus Stamm positioned Phil Salstrom finally shows up. himself at the bottom of the He hires me and says to be there staircase leading up to Phil’s in the morning about 6:30 a.m. office. The staircase was, What follows next is the journey as mentioned before, on the of a life time!” (Posted August outside of the building and 8, 2011 on Banjo Hangout) there he waited. “I showed up at Rockwood Phil came storming in the Carvers about 6:15 a.m. and drive as he usually did, hops of course the employees (about out of his car and blows right 65) were starting to show up as past Gus Stamm and Gus is well. attempting to plead his position. The people I talked with were Phil gets to the top of the inquisitive and wanted to know stairs on the landing, whirls what I had been hired to do. around, throws his mail to the Of course, when I said I had wind! no idea but I was supposed to Booms something to the meet Mr. Salstrom at 6:30, effect: ‘Don’t you think we the lead man in the sanding have gone just about as far as department laughed and we are going to go!’ And then replied: ‘Phil was here at 6 a.m. he proceeds to rip the outside so you were probably supposed light fixture from the brick wall. to be here at 6 a.m. also! He [Editorial correction: Cementalways goes to town for his block wall.] breakfast and then comes back I, of course was witness to after he gets his mail.’ this and then saw Gus Stamm The office gal arrived 8 a.m. walk briskly to his car never to and I introduced myself and come to Rockwood again. asked if she was aware of any “Now, how did the name instructions for me and her Salstrom find its way into the reply was ‘I’m not aware of banjo world? Her name was who you are period.’ Margaret!” (Posted August 16, … Phil Salstrom storms in 2011 on Banjo Hangout) the drive about 9:45! Phil “Margaret Salstrom was, was a fast driver. … I follow of course, the wife of Phil Phil up the long outside stairs Salstrom. to his office and he whirls Margaret didn’t have to around and says: ‘Sorry to work but she did. She worked keep you waiting! Did you as the staff nurse at Ingersoll meet everyone? Follow me [Milling Machine Company] downstairs and I’ll give you an in Rockford, Illinois during the idea what I want to do. … I’ll night shifts. be introducing you to a man by Margaret loved pianos (full the name of Gus Stamm. You size Steinway grand) plus other will be working with him and musical instruments: guitar, I want you to learn all what he banjo, harp and so forth. Often their conversations would occur in the early morning as Margaret would return from work and Phil would be leaving for his day. This is exactly when it happened. Margaret asked if Dave might be able to build a banjo for her. Phil Salstrom committed me to that task. I saw Phil that morning when he returned from Phil Salstrom III, Oregon, plays a Salstrom banjo, his usual mail run and errands. His words were something continuing a long-standing family tradition. Photo by to this effect: ‘Margaret would Chris Johnson
like you to make a banjo for her and how long before you might have this?’ In my immediate[ly] occurring thoughts, Gus Stamm’s pamphlet [‘Banjo Making, It’s Easy’] went passing through, so my answer was: ‘That shouldn’t take long.’ Boy, was that a start to a most memorable personal journey! The boiler room was fullup, the banjo for Margaret Salstrom was finished, it noted okay. It made noise and Margaret was tickled pink! From that point forward the Salstrom Banjo Company started to take shape. I needed space so the decision was made to rent a small storefront in downtown Oregon, Illinois directly across from the old movie theater. A good homestyle restaurant was located within eyesight of the storefront … and pretty soon, by word of mouth, I was having visitors asking for tours of the banjo shop. Then the banjo players [and] salesmen passing thru would make it a point to stop by and help with my design and playability thoughts. Most of the time these players were Tenor Plectrum players but not always. By that time my neck construction was decent and my ability to make noise was coming along also. I had noted over the course of time the various brands of instruments passing through my shop and on several occasions several of the regulars allowed me to dis-assemble their pride and joys. I would make my observations and simple notations with basic drawings put into notes. Then one day [a] silverware salesman stops by with a Vegavox and then returns about a month later with a Bella Voce! Now, by having access to those marvelous creations of yesteryear I was starting to think a bit where I would fit into the whole of things and how I would need to master what had already been done way before me. “As one might imagine, I was spending a lot of money and sales were not sufficient to account for this. Phil Salstrom was the man who financed this effort; [he] believed in the progress to date but said to me: ‘When are you going to freeze this design thing and sell this product?’ By this time … it’s 1963 and I happen to be a 1941 baby. So, for a 22 year old who happens to start out in the morning sweeping up from yesterday’s mess, [to] build the product, engineer the changes, make the changes, make it customer acceptable and hopefully saleable, I’m pretty busy. I didn’t have the total answer for Phil Salstrom that day but … my mind was working on it. So far this effort had grown in material things (tools, fixtures, etc.) and had been funded by Rockwood Carvers, Inc. which was owned by Phil Salstrom. [He] said: ‘We are going to start the Salstrom Banjo Company and I will take care of that legally.’ And he did so. … There was an overall theme starting to develop in my thinking and only my young age prohibited it from taking form at a faster pace. Phil Salstrom allowed me the latitude to get ‘it’ figured out. More to follow.” (Posted August 19, 2011 on Banjo Hangout) But more did not follow from Dave Markle, so far as I can discover, and in March 2012 at age 70 he died suddenly at Freeport. Therefore I have gone back to what he posted somewhat earlier on Banjo Hangout at the end of July 2011. There he told briefly what happened during and after 1963:
This picture shows a Salstrom Concertone banjo headstock. This banjo belongs to Randal Morton, a professional banjo player in Nashville, Tenn.. He is one of many pro banjo players who covet the “holy grail” tone of Salstrom banjos. It has some very nice inlay work. Photo supplied
My original effort when first getting started was to attempt to satisfy the [banjo] players at the Red Garter in Chicago, Illinois. I would work during the day and then drive to downtown Chicago where these tenorplectrum (Bacon & Day) players would try my changes. [A] thinner resonator was used in conjunction with a ‘tube-a-phone’ type tone ring to give that B&D bash demanded by these players. Enter in Ralph Robinson – and of course Marlene. In the first place, Ralph was [a] most unique and talented free spirit. He did some of my first headplate inlay work from his place in the Columbus [Ohio] area. Then when he and Marlene decided to move out to the Oregon, Illinois area to help with the banjo shop, he of course thought that the tenorplectrum people were [a] novelty. … As the Artist and Concertone [Salstrom banjo models] developed and matured, the resonator was increased in depth to provide that certain projection. Then Ralph and I went to Nashville. When I think back on those travels, I’m still amazed at how many people Ralph knew. At this time we [were] building our experience level and exposure, making [a] few changes but not dramatic. … Bob Thomas of the old WLS barn dance might have a Concertone with [a] thin resonator. … The Concertone was the last to be added to the line, and of course it was the most elaborate at the time. [First came] the Allegro, [then the] Artist, and [finally the] Concertone. Fender of course carried on with these series names. (Posted July 29, 2011 on Banjo Hangout. As regards Fender, keep reading. Concerning the banjos’ tone rings, Dave Markle added that: Woodhaven Industries in Oregon, Illinois made our special[ly] cast tone rings. … Gary Wood (owner) resides at the top of his class par excellance! In addition, Woodhaven Industries also supplied the Oettinger type tail piece [which] was part of the original theme for the Salstrom. To incorporate items of [a] singular nature with the new was what we wanted to strive for and this particular component fit! Sand cast and beautifully finished. Also with five fingers.
As regarding the necks of the banjos, Dave Markle says all our necks were carved in doubles on Salstrom carving machines (in this case eightspindle pattern machines). (Posted July 30, 2011 on Banjo Hangout) Banjo devotees can find other technical details set forth by Dave Markle in the archives on Banjo Hangout, starting a few days earlier on July 28, 2011. In the mid-1960s, trying to cut his losses, Phil Salstrom almost managed to sell the banjo company to the Baldwin music company, but on the day when Baldwin executives were touring the Salstrom premises, someone who was there for an unrelated reason convinced them to consider buying Ode banjos instead, and shortly later Phil Salstrom sold his banjo company to Fender Electric Instruments, Inc. Dave Markle was then hired by Fender to continue making the banjos in southern California. Markle says: The items I shipped from Illinois to Fullerton [California] were transferred in maybe four Allied moving vans and deposited on the floor of the new facility. I was the first one to move into 1300 East Valencia [in Fullerton]. Forrest White [of Fender Electric Instruments] allowed me to go through several [Fender] departments and interview interested people who might want to transfer into the new banjo operation. Olaf Keil was one of the multi-talented and was [a] huge asset during the start-up. The banjo necks were of course much different in construction and overall manufacture than a Fender guitar neck. Slowly the system started coming together again with talented people and good tools. … [Several years later] I left 1300 East Valencia [in the] second half [of] 1969. (Posted July 29, 2011 on Banjo Hangout) That ended Dave Markles’ career of making banjos. For the context within the Fender company at that time, see the book Fender: “The Inside Story,” by Forrest White, especially around page 164. Several months after leaving Fender, Markle set up a company called Mar Pearl which inlaid pearls on the heads of musical instruments, including Martin and Gibson guitars, and he continued running that business for the rest of his life.