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Elkhorn is home to a musician’s legacy

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Carla McCann
February 9, 2008
— Nestled in the heart of Elkhorn on a quiet residential street lies a legacy of talent that has survived more than 100 years.

The Conn-Selmer Elkhorn facility offers a link to the leading musicians of the late 19th Century.


The local company, which formerly was known as the Frank Holton Co., is recognized as one of the finest manufacturers of band instruments worldwide. It also is the oldest continually operating wind instrument company in the United States, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.


Although much has changed since Holton first opened shop here in 1917, the company’s reputation is as strong today as it was when Holton walked the production floor.


The fluegelhorns, French horns and trombones crafted here are respected internationally within orchestra circuits.


Conn-Selmer is a subsidiary of Steinway Musical Instruments. The Holton Co. was bought by Leblanc, a division of Conn-Selmer, in 1964.


As the largest manufacturer of band and orchestral instruments in the United States, Conn-Selmer manufactures instruments at 10 facilities.


Before Holton founded the Elkhorn plant, he opened an instrument shop in Chicago in 1898. The former first trombonist in John Phillip Sousa’s band relocated his company to Elkhorn on an invitation from the community.


For Larry Ramirez, the chief design technician for the Elkhorn facility, the local company has offered an outlet for creativity. He has collaborated with great musicians to design instruments that improve airflow, focus sound and increase range.


One of the company’s clients was Philip Farkas, the only person ever to be offered the solo horn position in each of the “big five” American orchestras. He and Ramirez designed the Holton Farkas model French horn, which became the top-selling American-made horn.


The Elkhorn company now produces horns under the labels of Holton, Farkas, Merker and Collegiate. The instruments are popular with beginners and professionals.


To help children become musicians, the company also crafts a child-size horn, Ramirez said.


Some of the Elkhorn company’s 65 employees, including Ramirez, have learned all of the tasks needed to craft any of the instruments.


Julie Browning, Elkhorn, is another long-time employee with the skills to step into any job on the floor.


She learned by watching and listening, Browning said.


The creation of all instruments begins with patterns from three kinds of metals that produce different tones.


Bronze produces a dark, rich tone, while nickel/silver is a brighter tone. The sound of brass lies in between, Ramirez said.


“The thickness of the material also is important,” Ramirez said.


And so are the seams that bind the pieces.


While working on a French horn Tuesday, Audelio Peralta of Delavan took great care not to burn the seam.


His job was but one of the more than 1,000 operations used in crafting a French horn.


Moving from one workstation to another, instruments gradually evolve from patterns and pieces.


Theresa Wegner’s job includes putting pieces together for the French horn. During the 20 years that the Mukwonago woman has worked here, she also has learned to play the horn, she said.


“I’m always here,” she said.


Near the end of the manufacturing journey, instruments are washed, buffed and polished.


When they arrive at Keith Behme’s station, the instruments shine with a promise of playing rich and bright tones.


The Kenosha man’s workroom is the end of this journey and the beginning of what may become a world tour for many of these instruments.



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