Three Years Later, the Mysteries Behind "Kalamazoo Gals" Keep Getting Stranger

Mar 11, 2016

Credit 1944 Photo by Margaret Hart

In 2013, the book Kalamazoo Galsby professor and music journalist John Thomas, became a hit across the globe. The work told the unique story of women stepping into the Gibson Guitar plant during World War II and building instruments themselves. There were a lot of fascinating details -- of hardship, social justice and industrial cover-up. Now, three years later, some of the Kalamazoo Gals mysteries still remain -- and some are only getting stranger.


But before explaining the mysteries, we need to start at the beginning. That's about a decade ago, when John Thomas saw a photograph from World War II showing roughly 75 women standing in front of the Gibson Guitar manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo.

This sparked his curiosity. Thomas had read into Gibson’s history, and the company said it made no instruments during the war – just army supplies, like airplane wings and electronics.

But this photo left him wondering. Did these women work at Gibson? And did they maybe build guitars?

So from here, Thomas started investigating. He somehow talked his way into Gibson’s archives in Nashville. There, he found Gibson’s shipping ledgers from World War II and took pictures of each page. And what he found in those ledgers goes directly against Gibson’s story.

The 1944 photo that sparked Thomas' curiosity

  He found that in World War II, the company shipped tons of guitars.

"Almost 25,000 instruments shipped during the war," Thomas says. "So not only is it an interesting story to me. But it’s a mystery. It's an industrial cover-up."

Thomas becomes captivated by this mystery. He searches through archives for all kinds of documents about Gibson. And through a few newspaper classified ads, he finds a dozen women who worked at Gibson during the war, making guitars.

And these weren’t just any guitars. They were a special kind – the Gibson Banner.

"This is a guitar made during World War II," Thomas says, grabbing a hold of a vintage Banner and resting it on his knee. "And the reason I can tell that is there’s a little golden banner on the head stock that says 'Only a Gibson is Good Enough.' "

"And that banner went on the guitars in 1942 and came off in 1945," he continues. "That corresponds not only with World War II, but also when women were making these guitars. So if you find Gibson with that banner, you know women’s hands made it.

These discoveries ultimately led to write his 2013 book Kalamazoo Gals. And the story has become a bona fide phenomenon, picked up by radio stations, newspapers, even the BBC.

The latest celebration of these celebrations is a new “Kalamazoo Gals” exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. It’s there that I meet Irene Stearns, one of the original Kalamazoo Gals, still amazed at the attention.

"I wouldn’t think of it! I just had this goofy job!" Stearns laughs, looking around at the old fashioned guitars on display. "Sitting there making strings. Who would ever think? And of course, that many years ago, we knew that Kalamazoo made good guitars. We all knew that, everybody had a job at some time or another. But we didn’t know that all this would happen."

The museum has collected dozens of artifacts from the period. A mini-documentary about the Kalamazoo Gals plays in the background, delving deep into Gibson’s effect on this city.

Irene Stearns is still adjusting to all this attention. But she says all this has honestly saved her life. Stearns says her husband passed away shortly before Kalamazoo Gals came out three years ago.

"You know, I was really down in the dumps," Stearns says. "I didn’t want to live or anything. And then here comes this book in the mail, and an invitation to meet again. That [Thomas] finished the book! Well, that gave me something to look forward to."

But even with an entire city now celebrating these women, there’s still a big question that has left author John Thomas scratching his head to this day. This seems like a feel-good story. Women stepping in, helping out during the war, making fantastic instruments. So why won’t Gibson acknowledge that these women made guitars?

"Today as we speak, Gibson still stands by that story. Will not comment on the book," he says.

Thomas says it actually seemed like Gibson was going to work with him shortly after his book came out. Thomas even talked about it with Michigan Radio in 2013.

 “I’ve embarked on a joint project with Gibson," he told Stateside host Cynthia Canty."I’ve volunteered my time for Gibson to issue replicas of these World War II guitars to built by women in the factory.”

A 1942 Gibson Banner guitar
Credit John Thomas

But Thomas says shortly after that interview, things got really strange. It all started with a January 2014 trip to a conference in Montana. A big event to announce this big Gibson partnership.

"The head -- the general manager of the Montana division, where Gibson builds acoustic guitars, schedules me to go to this thing called NAMM, National Association of Musical Merchandisers," Thomas explains. "Which is a gigantic trade show. Happens every January in Los Angeles. 100,000 people attend. He says to me, we’re going to have a press conference at 11:00 on a Saturday. Biggest attendance will be there. We’re going to announce this partnership with your book, Kalamazoo Gals, and essentially continue the legacy."

 Thomas is excited for this. It’ll get him some press for the book and get some attention for the Kalamazoo Gals. So he flies out on a preliminary trip to Bozeman, Montana in late 2013.

But when he gets there, it’s like a Twilight Zone episode. Complete silence.

"And I got out. And there was no one there to greet me," he says. "No one would return phone calls. Gibson had told me --they would have a corporate bus with airbrushed pictures of guitars that they take to festivals -- that it would be driving from Bozeman down to Idaho Falls, where I would be giving a talk at a museum about my book. The bus was there for a separate event. I went to the bus driver, who said, Oh no. I'm not taking you anywhere. I had to rent a car. They wouldn’t talk to me."

Thomas kept calling Gibson. No answer. He finally reached a guitar maker at the company who was supposed to lead this partnership. And Thomas says she told him this:

"She was called into an officer by her supervisor, an executive who oversaw her part of the plant. And told that the project was done. She was off of it. She was not going to do it. And if she talked to me, John Thomas, she’d get fired. She told me this. I reached out to this person who was at the factory, this executive, who’s no longer with Gibson. She said she would talk to me, but not at the plant. I had to meet her somewhere else. We met in a restaurant. And she told me that she told the woman luthier that if she talked to me, she’d be fired. The project was done. And that was all she was going to say to me. So Gibson actually told me they would fire people if they talked to me. Why? I don’t know."

So here Thomas is, still stuck in Montana, utterly confused about what just happened. But ultimately he goes back to his home in Connecticut. He’s still confused, but he moves on.

But then in early 2014, things somehow get even weirder. Around that time, the BBC started working on a documentary about the Kalamazoo Gals. As part of the story, they asked Gibson for a comment. And Thomas says this is what Gibson told the BBC:

"We've never heard of John Thomas or his guitar. This is after they'd scheduled this interview. Had given me plane tickets, everything."

That’s bizarre by itself. But then Thomas says he spoke with Gibson directly. He says the company demanded to know who gave him access to shipping ledgers. And if he didn’t say, Gibson would sue him.

WMUK reached out to the company and some former Gibson employees to try to get an explanation for these statements. No one answered.

Gibson hasn’t sued Thomas yet. But the company’s continued denial is still a mystery to him. This is a positive story, he says. There’s feminism, history, and social justice. Why hide it?

"The only explanation I can possibly come up with is Gibson did not think that the buying public, who were men, would embrace guitars made by women," Thomas says. "...And I just wanted this to sort of have a nice ending! The ends would connect on the loop of history. And it didn’t happen. So I don't know why."

Thomas says the mystery and the cover-up were part of what drew him to this story years ago. And somehow now, years after Thomas pulled the curtain on World War II and Gibson, the mystery still remains.

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