There's More Than Meets the Eye on
Stories from the Road:
When driving Interstate 70 on the Indiana side of the Ohio/Indiana border, youíll pass to the north of Richmond. If your route brings you from Ohio and the east, youíll go through a hilly region as you near the city. Those hills are mostly piles of silt and gravel left behind by the glaciers. If youíre coming from the west, your route will have taken you pretty much in a straight line from Indianapolis, paralleling the route of the US 40 and the National Road.
Richmond is an old town; it was already well established when the National Road came through in the 1840s. The first permanent settlers on the site that was to become Richmond were John Smith and Jeremiah Cox. Both were Quakers who came here from North Carolina in 1806. John Smith opened the first general store, while Jeremiah Cox ran the gristmill and so the region became a center of commerce with those from outlying farms coming here to buy supplies and have their grain ground.
John Smith and Jeremiah Cox owned much of the land in the area, which they subdivided and started selling to newcomers. It became evident that a community was likely to develop here so a street plan was devised. John Smith tried to name the developing town Smithville, after himself. Jeremiah Cox tried to name the town Jericho, after himself. But the new residents didnít like either name. They decided upon Richmond as a compromise, generic enough to offend neither the Smiths nor the Coxes.
Most of these early settlers were Quakers who moved from North Carolina because slavery was prohibited in the Indiana Territory and because the land was fertile and cheap. The Quaker opposition to slavery made Richmond a center for abolitionist sentiment and an important station along the Underground Railroad. Many escaped slaves were protected here as they made their way north. To this day Quaker influence in Richmond remains strong. Indianaís oldest Quaker meeting is in Richmond as are Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion, both Quaker institutions.
In the early 20th century, Richmond unexpectedly and improbably became one of most important sites in the development of Americaís first truly distinctive music: jazz. Richmond has been called the ďcradle of recorded jazz.Ē
The story begins with a piano company: The Starr Piano Company, which was established in Richmond during the 1870s. By 1906, the company was one of Richmondís most important, employing more than 600 craftsmen to produce the pianos. This was before the phonograph became widely available, and pianos provided most of the music produced in the home. A middle class home without a piano wasnít quite complete and so many companies produced pianos. The Starr Piano Company was one of the more prominent of these, and during the early 1900s produced 15,000 pianos a year
But times were changing, and the phonograph made its appearance. Starr Piano already had a nationwide distribution network through music stores. They also employed craftsmen skilled in producing wood cabinets, so it was an easy transition to move into the phonograph business. The phonographs they produced required records to play and so it was another logical step to set up a recording studio to supply the stores with records, which were sold under the label, Gennett Records.
Gennett was a small label, compared with the giants in this emerging industry, and the company scrambled to record anything that might have an audience. They also produced custom recordings for those with the money to pay, which is how Gennett Records turned out a lot of records for the Ku Klux Klan, which had a particularly active chapter in Richmond.
But thatís not why the name, Gennett, is held in such regard today by collectors and music historians. They couldnít compete for the big names of the time so they carved a niche for themselves in what might be called grassroots American music, including folk music, blues, and jazz. Especially jazz. Many of the most influential jazz pioneers cut their debut records or early recordings for Gennett. These include Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Biederbecke, and Hoagy Carmichical who made the first recording of Stardust here.
The little recording studio where all this happened has become legendary. Itís described as a small wood frame shed, located next to railroad tracks, where recording had to stop whenever a train rumbled by. Yet from this improbable location in a small Quaker town in Indiana, there issued a stream of legendary recordings.
The peak years of the Gennett label ran from 1916 to the mid 1930s, when the Depression slowed production to a trickle. The Starr Piano Company stayed in business until the 1950s when its factories closed. But there are plans to honor this heritage with a museum in Richmond on the site of the old Starr Piano factory. Itís an opportunity to honor the role this Indiana city played during a brief and exceptionally vibrant period in the development of American music.
For more about Richmond and its surrounding communities, see the CD for I-70 West: Columbus, OH to Richmond, IN
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