Orville Gibson Patent and Studio, 1895

Through his attorney, Lucius C. West, Orville applied for his mandolin patent on May 11, 1895. Entitled “Mandolin,” the patent states that it pertains to OHG Patentmandolins, guitars, mandolas and lutes. If Orville had applied for it at the height of a guitar craze it may well have been entitled “Guitar.”

The patent was granted on February 1, 1898. So, why did it take three years for his patent to be granted? The answer lies with the United States Patent Office.

For a time, the USPO had changed their criteria for granting patents. Previously, they had granted patents on common knowledge alone. They changed their process to actually doing research to see if they could locate the same invention by someone else. This may account for the three year delay in it being granted.

The USPO eventually went back to granting patents on the basis of common knowledge alone and new patents were, once again, granted and issued within a few months of being filed.

Former Gibson employees have said they were told Orville perfected his instrument-making in his garage. After further research, it turns out that when Orville applied for his patent, he lived at 318 South Burdick St. which had a large garage-like structure attached to the back of the residence.

Photo courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Photo courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan

Orville’s studio, 1895. The white house at the left edge of the photo is 318 South Burdick. There is an elongated addition on the back. And attached to that is a long garage-like structure of which the long, low roof can be seen behind the tree on the right.

This photo was taken in 1891 when the new post office was being built at the southwest corner of Burdick and South Street. In the foreground, bricks can be seen stacked neatly encircling the building site. Within its parameter, the foundation was being dug by hand. The Post Office had been completed by the time Orville lived at this address.

The Orpheus Mandolin Club

Among the various bands that Orville was a part of during his career, was his own Orpheus Mandolin Club.

Handbill shared by Dave Sutherland
Handbill shared by Dave Sutherland

On February 5, 1895, after two postponements, The Academy of Music hosted a night of music and vaudeville headlined by The Bronson Minstrels. They were managed by local band conductor Chester Z. Bronson.

This handbill lists those who performed for the Olio (a collection of acts, typically local, that perform during the intermission of a minstrel show). The Orpheus Mandolin Club was called back for an encore and as noted, all of their instruments were made by Orville. Three months later, he would apply for his patent.

During 1894 and 1895, the Orpheus line-up would change, probably dictated by musician availability (they all had day jobs). Members included Orville, John W. McLouth, Roland Knight, Clarence D. Waldo,  James W. Kelley, V. T. Palmer, George Cornell, Lawrence Miller, D. Wood, and C. W. Watkeys.

Incidentally, on this night, the Bronson Minstrels included a future Gibson Company employee, vocalist Ted J. McHugh.

Orville’s First Known Studio, 1887

In 1887-88, Orville resided in The Fuller Block at 143 South Burdick Street. In the photo below, the International Hotel is the corner building that sits in the foreground. The Fuller Block is the next building up the street with the four bay windows, three with the awnings outstretched.

Photo courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Photo courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan

This building is important for many reasons. With this address, Orville had changed from living in local boarding houses to his first residence among the downtown businesses, probably because it provided a larger, more suitable working space.

When Orville lived at this address, he was experimenting with the construction of stringed musical instruments that he himself played. So, it can be deduced that by 1887-88 he had mastered the luthier processes to the point of successful experimentation. At this time, he was also considered to be one of Kalamazoo’s most eligible bachelors.

On the ground floor of The Fuller Block was Butters’ New Central Restaurant. Orville would work for Mr. and Mrs. Frank Butters in about five years (around 1893), after they had moved their restaurant up to Main Street. The Fuller Block had its own water well in the basement and may have had gas lighting.

In 1909, The Fuller Theater was built onto the back of the Fuller Block. The entrance was through the right hand side (south door) of the building. It was managed by Leroy Hornbeck, founding manager and stockholder of the Gibson Company.

The Academy of Music

Orville was an accomplished guitarist by the age of 20 and performed on the  Kalamazoo stage for over twenty years. He was also a song and dance man, a baritone vocalist, and a stage prop builder. In addition, he managed a number of holiday entertainment features and a small community theater group.

Orville and his band of fellow stage brothers were a local favorite. They were often called back for an encore and were known to schedule a second performance to accommodate those who had been turned away due to a full house.

In the early days, the main theater in Kalamazoo was the small and antiquated Union Hall on Portage Street.  But on May 8, 1882, the Academy of Music opened its doors with all the amenities of a modern theater.

Photo courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Photo courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Designed by Dankmar Adler of Chicago, The Academy of Music had a number of innovations in theater construction including  the new concept of gradually raising the height of the floor from the edge of the stage towards the back, thus the back seats sat higher in relation to the front seating.

In addition, it had colored gas lighting controlled by a new gadget called a dimmer switch, a rain machine, a thunder cart, and six painted backdrops. The walls and proscenium were polished cherry and a nine foot wide, 100 light chandelier hung over the audience.

In the photo above, the entrance to the theater is in the middle with retail shops on each side.


Orville’s Early Employment

Source: Kalamazoo Gazette, November 13, 1880
Source: Kalamazoo Gazette, November 13, 1880

Orville’s first known employment was at Arthur P. Sprague’s shoe store on Main Street in Kalamazoo. One day prior, this same advertisement appeared in the Gazette with the name of H. H. Baker as salesman.

It may be presumed that Orville was either promoted to a senior sales position at this time or he was newly  hired to replace Mr. Baker. Orville was said to have been a ‘popular and efficient’ salesman.

In December of 1891, he resigned his position with A. P. Sprague making him an 11 year veteran of the trade.

Orville’s Artist Sister

Photo courtesy of Evelyn Amsler.
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Amsler.

In Julius Bellson’s 1973 book “The Story of Gibson,” he states that Orville talked about one of his sister’s who was an artist. That sister turns out to have been Mary C. Fuller.

Orville’s mother had been married previously and had three children by her first husband, Asa Fuller. Mary, born in 1836, was the oldest of the Fuller children

This painting is an  11″ x 23″ oil on board entitled “Robins in Spring” and is one of five known paintings.

Mary made at least one trip to Kalamazoo with several Gibson family members to visit Orville. She passed away in 1911 at the age of 75 and is buried in the Gibson family plot.

The Band Uniform Photo

KPL Band 1876c cropKPL OHG 1875c cropOn the left is a well known photograph of Orville wearing a band uniform with a snare drum sitting next to him. Nothing was previously known about this photo except that it was indeed Orville Gibson.

The Research: The original copy of the photograph on the left has the stamp of the Adolphus Van Sickle studio of Kalamazoo, Michigan on the back. Gibson descendants have dated the photo to around 1875.

The photo on the right was a little more difficult. First of all, the Scott & Sabin clothing store, seen in the background, ceased operations in mid-1877. So the photo had to have been taken during the time they were in business. Next, the only band in the village of Kalamazoo that actually had uniforms at this time was the Knights Templar Commandery Band. It was formed in 1872 and originally had 13 members.

The photo on the right is estimated to have been taken between 1872 (when the band was formed) and 1877 (when Scott & Sabin ceased doing business).

The uniforms in both photos are a match. The dating of each photo is consistent. And…is that a young Orville Gibson standing at the center back with his snare drum?

Both photos are courtesy of the Clarence L. Miller Family History Room, Kalamazoo Public Library, Kalamazoo, Michigan.