As another outdoor concert season draws to a close, it’s a good moment to reflect—as shiny brass instruments tend to do—on the origins of the band instrument industry and the band movement in the U.S. The oldest continuous manufacturer of band instruments got its start in 1873 in Elkhart, Indiana, when a cornet player for the “Brick Brown Band” improvised a home-made rubber-cushioned mouthpiece after splitting his lip in a bar room brawl. After his band mates began coveting the device, Charles Gerald Conn got a patent on his invention and started cranking them out en masse .
In time, Conn added instruments to his line, setting up shop in an old factory on the St. Joseph River. Producing the first American-made cornet in 1875, C.G. Conn went on to fashion the world’s first sousaphone, built to the march-king’s specifications, in 1898. John Phillip Sousa was one of many musical luminaries with whom Conn consulted. The company’s instruments became world-renowned not only for their superior craftsmanship, but for their occasional flamboyance, whether gold-plated, jewel-encrusted or otherwise extraordinary. The Conn “Immensaphone”, at 12 feet in diameter and 35 feet in length, was the world’s largest horn, when built in 1907. In another case, a saxophone was built to accommodate a one-armed player.
Along the way, Colonel Conn had made a name for himself as a politician as well; elected Elkhart’s mayor in 1880, he eventually served in the Indiana General Assembly and the US Congress. An over-extended Charles Conn sold the business in 1915 to C.D. Greenleaf, who revived not only the company but the popularity of instrumental programs in schools across the country.