William S. Bronson
West Michigan Musician, Bandleader & Violin Maker
William S. Bronson was an extremely active, highly regarded Kalamazoo musician who was involved with several early musical organizations throughout West Michigan during the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.
Born about 1854 and raised on the Bronson family farm in Van Buren County’s Pine Grove Township, Will Bronson was the oldest of six children born to Laura and William L. Bronson, and the elder brother of noted Kalamazoo bandleader Chester Z. Bronson. Like his younger brother Chester, William Bronson was involved with several prominent musical organizations, including the Musicians Protective Association and the early formative stages of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
Bronson & Lounsbury’s Quadrille Band
During the 1870s, Will Bronson toured nationally, playing clarinet with the famous Thatcher, Primrose & West Minstrels, Milton G. Barlow & George Wilson’s famous minstrel show, and the Charles E. Rogers Cornet Band of Goshen, Indiana. Bronson also organized multiple regional dance orchestras, including the Kalamazoo-based Bronson & Lounsbury Quadrille Band and the Grand Rapids-based Wurzburg & Bronson Orchestra.
From as early as February 1876, Bronson & Lounsbury’s Band (probably W.S. Bronson and John Lounsbury (often spelled Lonsbury)) provided “music for quadrille parties and all public entertainments, at moderate rates” (Gazette). By 1880, Lounsbury, Bronson & Everard’s Band (add John Henson “Heinz” Everard) was furnishing dance music throughout the area.
Peninsular Commandery Band
But Bronson’s abilities as a musician and bandleader stretched far beyond the limits of social music and dance. During the 1870s, Bronson was a member of the Constantine Band, one of the most highly respected regional military and parade bands of its day. In July 1880, William Bronson left the Constantine Band to lead the much lauded Peninsular Commandery Band of the Knights Templar in Kalamazoo.
During the fall of 1881, Bronson was employed by Professor Stanley B. Morse at the Kalamazoo Conservatory of Music to provide instruction for orchestral instruments, including violin, viola, clarinet and flute. Around the same time, he formed the twelve-piece Kalamazoo Orchestra, said to be “as fine an orchestra as can be found in any city in the state” (Gazette).
Academy of Music Orchestra
Come spring, W. S. Bronson was enlisted to direct the first house orchestra at Kalamazoo’s newly opened Academy of Music. Though he remained at the Academy of Music for just one season before moving to Grand Rapids, Bronson returned frequently and for several years traveled between engagements in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, often assisting his brothers Chester Z. Bronson and Henry S. Bronson with various musical programs.
In 1893, Will Bronson returned to Kalamazoo to become part of an “augmented” Academy of Music Orchestra, which led directly to the formation of Kalamazoo’s first Symphony Orchestra, an early precursor of today’s Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
“Connoisseurs are seldom even decent players. Mr. Bronson is an exception. He can play any band instrument, wind instrument, string or percussion, from cornet or violin to snare drum, and do it well.”
—Grand Rapids Press, February 24, 1906
Aside from performing and conducting, W.S. Bronson became an accomplished instrument maker and repairman. Professor F.M. Lawson, a well-known Michigan-based music instructor, purchased Bronson’s very first handcrafted violin in August 1884 for $100 (roughly $2,200.00 today). Bronson it seems never looked back from there. The following year, he traveled to Baltimore just to “procure some rare old wood from which to manufacture a violin bow” (Gazette).
“The wood must be at least a hundred years old, from some old building” stated Bronson in a 1906 interview with Henry C. Post of the Grand Rapids Press. “A friend of mine in Stuttgart once traveled from that city all the way to Norway to get a piece of pine from an old church that was being rebuilt.”
“Then there is the varnish,” Bronson continued. “How much we have of the ‘lost art’ for the Cremonese violin makers. How many nights have been spent by fiddle makers studying over a little piece of a ‘Strad’ violin to find out how the old fellow made his varnish.” By the turn of the twentieth century, William S. Bronson was said to be “one of the most talented, highly educated, and at the same time practical violin makers in the United States” (Grand Rapids Press).
Notes about this violin: “Bronson, William S.: Grand Rapids, MI. Died in 1925[sic]. Violin maker and repairman. Established there in 1885. Guarneri model with full arching. Deep red varnish, heavily applied. Stamped “BRONSON” under the fingerboard and below the button. Fine workmanship. Made about 400 violins.” — The Violin Makers of the United States. Wenberg, Thomas James. Mt. Hood Pub. Co., 1986, p. 32)
Owner’s notes: “In the 1920s this instrument was damaged in an auto accident. It was skillfully restored by Violinmaker Halvorsen, of Myers & Halverson. Evidence of the damage can be seen in the varnish of the back plate.” —Robert Kolvoord
Grand Rapids Bandleader
W.S. Bronson continued his work as a violin maker and bandleader in Grand Rapids until his death in 1914 at the age of sixty. He helped found the Grand Rapids-based Furniture City Band and was a charter member of the Musicians Protective Association. For sixteen years, Bronson led the orchestra at the popular Powers Theater in Grand Rapids.
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.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2012.
Special thanks to Evan Kolvoord, Austin, Texas, for providing photos of his 1892 Bronson violin.
“Love of Violins”
Grand Rapids Press, 24 February 1906, p. 15
“W. S. Bronson Dies Thursday Afternoon”
Grand Rapids Press, 6 November 1914, p. 24
William L. Bronson household, 1870 U.S. census, Van Buren, Michigan
Census Place: Pine Grove, Van Buren, Michigan, sheet 491A, dwelling 302, family 294
National Archives micropublication M593, roll M593_706
Online database, Ancestry Library (in library only)
William L. Bronson household, 1880 U.S. census, Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Enumeration district 133, sheet 151A, 104 N. Rose St., dwelling 449, family 449
National Archives micropublication T9, roll 586
Online database, Ancestry Library (in library only)
“I play violin on an instrument made by Mr. Bronson. It belonged to my grandfather (Robert Kolvoord), and was passed down to my father and Aunt about 15 years ago. It has Bronson’s stamp on the back as well as the original label inside reading William S. Bronson Grand Rapids Mich. AD 1892. It is a wonderful instrument and I just thought you might like to see a Bronson violin that is still being played. Thank you for all the history and all you do at the Library.”
— Evan Kolvoord, Austin, Texas