Saturday, April 14, 2012

Drumbeat of history: A company man

Noble & Cooley Drum Company president Jay Jones with a prized possession: a drum the
 company made during the Civil War that was picked up by a soldier after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Jay Jones loves drums.

Noble & Cooley Drum Company in Granville, Mass., about 30 miles north
of Hartford. The factory is in the background. The original

Noble & Cooley factory burned down in 1889.
Shaping them.

Stamping them.

Talking about them.

Everything about them, it seems, except playing them.

"Why play?" the 58-year-old president of the Noble & Cooley Drum Company said with a grin as he bounded  through the three-story factory showing me its nooks and crannies. "I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time." Understand that this comes from a man who has worked at his Water Street factory in some capacity since he was in  fourth grade.

I visited Jones at his company in Granville, Mass., a picturesque New England village about 30 miles north of Hartford, intent on examining a prized possession: a drum picked up from the Gettysburg battlefield. I came away with an appreciation of the craftmanship involved in making drums and the grand history of the Noble & Cooley Drum Company, which was co-founded by Jones' great-great-great grandfather, James Cooley, in 1854. The business has been in the Jones family ever since.
Jay Jones played drums in this Noble & Cooley ad
from the 1960s.  Jones' son plays the drums, but the
company owner prefers other pursuits.

Noble & Cooley produced 651 toy and military drums in its first year. By 1873, the company produced 100,000 drums. During the 1860 presidential campaign, it made a drum for Abraham Lincoln, reportedly from a white oak rail split by Honest Abe in 1830. That drum -- which included expensive silk chord and silver mountings -- was used at Lincoln campaign rallies throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It later was taken to war by the 1st Massachusetts.

"On one side of it is a likeness of Mr. Lincoln, which is said to be a good representation of him," the Westfield (Mass.) Times Newsletter reported on Aug. 29, 1860. " It shows a powerful intellect and a large development of moral power; and such a head and face will show marked features, if not the delicate lines which some call beauty."

In his diary entry Aug. 18. 1860, James Cooley didn't mince words:

"Finished the Lincoln drum today, the finest thing ever made."

The current whereabouts of the Lincoln drum are unknown.

During the Civil War, the Union army contracted Noble & Cooley to make military drums. The exact number is unclear because the original factory in Granville burned down in 1889, and nearly all the company records were destroyed. Among the drums produced for the army was a standard 16-inch instrument that now has a home in a wood-and-glass case in a corner of the company museum.

A special camera shot this photo of the inside of the Gettysburg battlefield
pickup drum, confirming that it was made by Noble & Cooley.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, James B. Forrest, a 17-year-old musician in the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry, picked up a marching drum from the field, perhaps after its original owner was killed or wounded during the fighting. The drum remained in Forrest's family until it was purchased by a Civil War memorabilia broker. When it was offered for sale several years ago and confirmed to have been made by Noble & Cooley, a community effort was made to return it to its birthplace. A benefactor from Granville eventually purchased it for the company for $5,000.

Noble & Cooley makes replicas of its Civil War drums using material that was available in the 1860s. Tulip wood is used for shells, calfskin for drumheads and hemp and linen for chords. Like the Civil War-era drums, the replicas are light, weighing 7 1/2 to 8 pounds. Popular with collectors and re-enactors, a replica, which takes several months to make, can be yours for $850.

At its peak, Noble & Cooley employed around 60 people. Today, the company, whose main business is high-quality snare drums and drum sets, is the ultimate definition of a family-run business. Jones and his wife and son are the only employees.

Jones still remembers the day in 1972 his father asked if he wanted to work for the company full time. After one year of college, he figured it was worth a shot.

"The company has survived the Civil War, two World Wars and the Depression," he said. "It's 24-7, eight days a week, and I can't get away."

He said that with a smile.

Held together by a Civil War-era clamp from the original Noble & Cooley factory, this shell...
... eventually becomes a Civil War replica drum. The Noble & Cooley Drum Company
makes Civil War drums with the same materials used during the 1860s.
The eagle embossed on the drum shell at right was put on post-Civil War drums using the
 roller at left. Both these items are in the company museum.
Used to decorate the shells of drums, this eight-color printing press is in the
Noble & Cooley museum. The rare press dates to 1926.

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