Vintage Gretsch Guitars

Gretsch Desk

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Furniture is to my mother as guitars are to me. Looking at their current website, it doesn't appear that Kimball is even a shadow of what it was when I was a kid in the '80s. My mom has many Kimball pieces that are beautiful 18th and 19th century reproductions. After Kittenger, I think Kimball was her favorite furniture company.

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Kimball was a multi-faceted outfit well through the 80s, 90s, and into the 00s. They made office furniture in several lines from mid-range to quite expensive, and "hospitality" furniture likewise. They also had an electronics division they'd started in the late 60s and 70s when they marketed Kimball organs; when organs failed, they diversified that division and made, among other things, keyboards for IBM computers. That division still contracts circuit board manufacture (though I don't know any current customers).

All that stuff was cut from raw lumber and designed, built, upholstered, and marketed from here in Jasper, using a workforce which had specialized in woodworking for generations.

Kimball also maintained the Kimball Piano division, factory in French Lick, where they made those instruments for as long as that market lasted. I never thought they were great pianos, but the cabinets were fine. For a time Kimball was the American distributor for Bøsendorfer, with a "showroom" (actually a smallish room at the back of the piano factory) where anyone in the US who wanted a Bøsendorfer came to try out the line. That plant also built contract electric guitar bodies.

Between the actual wood plants and all the support operations (upholstery, small parts, etc), Kimball had multiple plants not only in Jasper but scattered around southern Indiana - a Fortune 500 company home-grown and headquartered in a rural town of 10,000. The area has been justly proud of its native industry.

And, actually, the old American way of doing those things - every medium-sized town its own factory, building stuff in the USA with hometown Americans - lasted here for at least a decade longer than in most of the country. The furniture and related industries seemed to resist the onslaught of low-cost import competition - partially due to reputation and the conservatism of American companies outfitting their offices and hotels, but also thanks to the sheer weight and bulk of furniture, and the associated shipping costs.

Too, Kimball - and most of the furniture companies here - maintained catalogs with the kind of depth and breadth that could only be effectively managed at home. Multiple overall product lines in ranges of hardwoods and upholstery choices, with dozens of individual pieces in each, all of which could be modularized and configured in myriad ways. The catalogs and parts lists (which I got involved with through supporting their graphics departments) were mind-boggling in their extent and complexity.

All this activity - across Kimball and a host of similar companies - meant negative unemployment in the home county for many years: more people came here to work than lived here. That charmed state of affairs lasted at least into the early 00s.

But the times and tides of international commerce caught up with this small-town success story. One by one, many of the weaker companies either succumbed to increased international competition (with its lower costs), or started building over there and importing. I think most (or at least much) Kimball-branded product is still built here in town, but the company has had to retrench, "right-size," and reorganize several times. To keep the Kimball brand sacrosanct at the high(ish) end, they've spun up the National Office Furniture brand, which does "younger, hipper" - and less expensive - stuff. Still with a lot of lines, a lot of choice, and sleek design, but pitched to a different and now more casual office/hospitality market.

Last I knew (a couple of years ago when our contact in the IT department retired and we lost the Mac support agreement), National was growing and Kimball was...not. Not in trouble, that I know of, but not the glory-bound juggernaut it once was.

When I was younger and more impressionable, it would reliably blow my mind to drive through the short thoroughly midwestern small-town down-home neighborhoods to the main Kimball office, step inside, and be in a Fortune 500 Corporate Office, with all the architecture, decor, security, and reception staffing and protocols, just like the big city.

Curiously, the sagging of the furniture industry in Jasper has not meant high unemployment or general economic woe. There's still a good bit of furniture-related industrial activity, Jasper Engines & Transmissions (and their multiple interests) are based here, and the town continues to thrive - with an old-fashioned bustling downtown and a pretty modern suburban strip. Businesses do come and go, of course, but it's in no way rust belt.

There's been a lot of refurbishment and development along the modest Patoka Riverfront: a reproduction of the original water mill from the 1880s, a new hotel on the site of the old Jasper Cabinet factory (and utilizing some of the original structure), development of a 2-mile walking/biking trail along the river, a new library just now being finished. And over in the "factory district" (not as bustling as it once was), the old Jasper Wood Products factory - which produced, among zillions of other things, Gretsch drum shells and laminated guitar pieces - has been rehabbed into retirement apartments.

Remarkable little community, with an almost unimaginably low crime rate (https://www.city-data.com/c...). As the Chamber never tires of promoting - a great place to live.

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Just a bump to remind us what we were talking about before 1/2/21, The GDP's Lost Day.

(My protocol is to find topics I commented on which were active in the last 48 hours. This won't catch everything, because I hadn't participated in every thread. Y'all could also find started-by-you threads with activity in the last 48, and similarly bump them, and then we'll remember what we were talking about.)


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