Among the leading musicians of the late nineteenth century, Frank Holton emerged from humble West Michigan roots to become not only a celebrated trombonist but one of the most successful musical instrument manufacturers in the world. From his days as a performer with Barnum and Bailey’s circus band and the great bands of Ellis Brooks and John Philip Sousa, to his later years when the company he started supplied the world’s greatest musicians with the tools of their trade, Frank Holton brought great pride to his friends in Kalamazoo and across the nation as both a musician and as an innovator.
West Michigan Roots
Born in Allegan County, Michigan about 1858, Frank Holton was the son of Mary A. and Otis M. Holton, a respected local farm family. Frank’s parents were great lovers of music; his mother played organ and his father was a singer in the village choir. While still in his early teens, Holton became an apprentice in his uncle’s blacksmith shop in Battle Creek. It was there that he was introduced to the sound of a brass band, which he found absolutely magical. Soon, he joined the Allegan Band and was learning to play cornet, baritone horn and trombone.
“Mr. Frank Holton of Kalamazoo, was the successful individual contestant on the trombone at the band tournament in Detroit. Frank is indeed a fine musician.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 15 June 1883
Academy of Music Orchestra
By 1880, Holton was living in Kalamazoo and working as a blacksmith building carriages for Cahill & House, but playing music was his primary interest. In June 1883, Holton was a member of the newly formed Academy of Music Orchestra in Kalamazoo when he entered the State Band Tournament in Detroit. After persuading the Battle Creek Band to accompany his performance, Holton won first prize for his trombone solo, which earned him a tidy $80 cash prize and substantial recognition among his peers. It was during this time that Holton met Miss Florence Weldon, a young music teacher who happened to be boarding with Holton’s uncle. The couple hit it off immediately and married early the following year.
During the 1880s, Holton performed with a variety of regional and national bands, including Hi Henry’s Minstrels, the Aurora Orchestra of Grand Rapids, Ellis Brooks’ New York Concert Band, and Barnum and Bailey’s circus band, among others, and his reputation soon began to precede him. He again entered the annual State Band Tournament, but this time was told he would not be allowed to play the trombone because other contestants refused to compete against him. Undaunted, Holton entered as a baritone horn player instead (an instrument he was far less familiar with) and after some quick practice, still managed to claim a second place prize.
John Philip Sousa’s Band
During the summer of 1892, Holton was a featured trombone soloist with Ellis Brooks in New York when he accepted an offer to join his longtime friend C. Z. Bronson and others in John Philip Sousa’s new band. Holton toured with Sousa’s great band during the fall of 1892, performing more than one hundred concerts in just eleven weeks, including an October appearance in Kalamazoo at the Academy of Music. The following year, Holton was first trombonist and a featured soloist when Sousa’s band performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Holton’s “Electric Oil”
By 1896, Frank Holton was back with Ellis Brooks in Chicago, working as both a business manager and trombone soloist in Brooks’ Second Regiment Band. It was during this time that Holton developed his own unique slide oil for his trombone and began sharing it with fellow musicians, soon realizing that this might lead to a new business venture. “As a musician, I had gone further than my fondest expectations,” Holton recalled in a 1934 interview, “but even though I had practiced strict economy, it seemed almost impossible for me to save any money out of my earnings. It was at this time that I decided to start a band instrument business.” Holton knew he had many friends in the industry who would support his endeavor, but feared the old adage that a professional musician could not succeed in business. “This in my own mind seemed ridiculous,” Holton confessed, “yet I did appreciate, that it is rather difficult for a man at forty years of age to begin at the bottom and build a new business.”
Frank Holton & Co.
Holton opened a small shop at the corner of Clark and Madison streets in Chicago and began selling second hand musical instruments along with his popular trombone slide oil. Frank worked nights as a trombonist in one of the many Chicago theaters while his wife gave music lessons to help pay the bills. Frank’s musical instrument business began to grow, slowly at first, but steadily. Before long, Holton hired a repairman and began to offer instrument repair services to the local musicians. Holton soon started designing and manufacturing his own brass and percussion instruments, including several models of his famous trombones and cornets. He expanded his business to a larger space in 1900, and in 1904 incorporated his operation as Frank Holton & Company, then built a new three story factory building on the west side of Chicago.
By 1918, Holton’s operation had outgrown its Chicago location, so he expanded again and moved his entire operation to the small town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. As business grew, so did the city of Elkhorn, thanks for the most part to Holton and his company. By the 1920s, Frank Holton & Company was employing hundreds of factory workers and thousands of sales agents from coast to coast, while doing the largest amount of business in its history.
Sousa, Clarke, and Pryor
During his lifetime, Frank Holton remained close friends with his former band mates and drew valuable product endorsements from many leading musicians, including trombone virtuoso Arthur Pryor, cornetist Herbert Lincoln Clarke, and bandleader John Philip Sousa. “They knew Holton personally, and respected his talent and ability, and appreciated the quality and the honest workmanship of the merchandise which he was delivering,” stated Huber in his 1934 article. Writer Elbert Hubbard expressed similar adulation after visiting the Holton Company in 1915. “If you want to get Sousa started,” said Hubbard, “just mention Frank Holton, and he will tell you wonderful tales about a trombone player who was always on time, never off key, who always produced the goods, knocking the yaps and yokels off their seats.”
After more than four decades at the helm, Frank Holton retired from the company in 1940; he passed away two years later at the age of 84. In 1964, the Holton Company was bought by Leblanc, a division of Conn-Selmer, Inc., the nation’s largest manufacturer of band and orchestral instruments and accessories. Today, Holton remains the oldest continually operating wind instrument company in the United States.
To celebrate the 110th anniversary of the founding of the Holton Company, Conn-Selmer donated 369 musical instruments of historical significance (prototypes, reference models, etc.) to the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota Vermillion. The same museum houses the Holton Company Band Library, which features hundreds of photographs of bands and musicians dating from the 1880s to the 1930s.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it is a continuing work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
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