Noble & Cooley Featured in Boston Globe Article
Note: This story from the Boston Globe's website and hard copy paper.
See also "Noble & Cooley To Re-Issue Civil War Drums to Commemorate War's 150th Anniversary in 2011," this blog, Sep. 1, 2010.
Drum maker draws on its past for better future
Replica snares help Granville firm endure
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2011 (Business Section, p. B5)
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.
GRANVILLE — They are still managing to keep time at Noble & Cooley, a Civil War-era drum company in Western Massachusetts.
After decades as one of the country’s biggest suppliers of toy drums, Noble & Cooley in the 1980s branched out to make state-of-the-art drum kits, with customers that included Phil Collins and Paul McCartney. But the bleak holiday shopping season that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks nearly led to the company’s demise. As during other trying times in its history, Noble & Cooley somehow persevered, even as it got smaller.
Today, the company is trying to remain relevant by capitalizing on its rich heritage. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Noble & Cooley is producing replicas of the snare drums Union soldiers used to communicate on the battlefield. It is also one of 100 finalists in the This Place Matters grant challenge, sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Online voting closes tomorrow, with the top vote-getter receiving $25,000.
“We’re doing everything we can to hang on,’’ said Jay Jones, the company president. He is a sixth-generation descendant of cofounder James P. Cooley, who began making drums in Silas Noble’s kitchen in 1854.
Once a holiday season powerhouse, with a peak of 120 employees two decades ago, Noble & Cooley is now a true mom-and-pop shop. There are just three full-time workers: Jones; his wife, Carol; and their 27-year-old son, Nick.
When he first joined his father in the family business, Jones, 57, shifted some of the emphasis away from the toys that had been a staple for years. Thanks to the rich tone of its natural wood drums (most contemporary drums, including some of Noble & Cooley’s, are plywood), the company quickly attracted a loyal customer base among some of the world’s top musicians.
Collins once appeared in an endorsement advertisement alongside an image of Abe Lincoln. Noble & Cooley’s cofounders made a presidential campaign drum for Lincoln in 1860, using wood that he had chopped years before.
Jonathan Mover, an acclaimed drummer and the editor in chief of Drumhead magazine, found out about Noble & Cooley drums from musician Chris Whitten, who used to play with McCartney. Mover bought two limited-edition snares years ago.
“They’re absolutely two of the finest snares I have,’’ said Mover, a Peabody native who also runs Skyline Recording in New York. “And I have got a serious collection, over a hundred.’’
Mover credits Noble & Cooley’s commitment to quality as an inspiration for larger drum companies, such as Yamaha, Pearl, and Tama.
“All the big companies are making very high-end gear, which they really didn’t do years ago,’’ he said. Unfortunately, Mover said, that has created considerable competition for a small, family business such as Noble & Cooley.
The company still builds several dozen custom drum kits (some of which sell for up to $10,000) and as many as 500 solid-wood snares each year. Although it’s not the first time the drum company has faced adversity.
History of Noble & Cooley
Few episodes, however, were as devastating as the economic plunge that followed Sept. 11, 2001. That downturn effectively wrecked the company’s toy business, which had reached a peak of $3 million in annual sales in the late 1970s. Noble & Cooley was left holding two dozen containers of unsold toy instruments imported from China when some of its biggest clients, including Sears and JC Penney, canceled holiday orders.
“The bank started running scared,’’ said Jones. “They called in the note. It took me six years to pay off’’ the bank. To do so, he had to sell off hundreds of acres of family property in this rolling farmland west of Springfield.
The Noble & Cooley compound — three big old buildings with tilting floors, connected on the upper levels by iron pedestrian bridges — is a much quieter place today than it was at the height of toy production. In fact, one building isn’t even used.
Walking around the factory on a recent Friday, Jones was called away to help unload machine parts from a delivery truck. As a light drizzle fell outside the loading dock, the driver looked around the barn-like warehouse, which was mostly empty.
“I totally forgot this place was here,’’ he said.
A cardboard pallet box sat off to one side, full of tin tambourines featuring characters from Jim Henson’s old “Fraggle Rock’’ series. Their plastic sleeves had long since grown moldy.
Nick Jones helped his father empty the truck. He plays bass in a metal band with his older brother, Jonathan. Jonathan, a graphic designer with waist-length dreadlocks, is the real drummer in the family, said Jay Jones.
“I play the radio,’’ he joked.
When they were kids, Nick and Jonathan had the run of the place.
“It was awesome,’’ said Nick. “There were tons of cardboard boxes to play in. We played with tin scraps. We were obnoxious.’’
Now, the boy who once terrorized seasonal employees actually does have the run of the place. Reduced to such a tiny operation, these days it takes the company eight to 10 weeks to fill a custom drum order. The process to make a Civil War replica snare — steaming, bending, aging, and curing — requires 16 weeks.
Jay Jones and his son assemble each reproduction drum, made of steam-bent tulipwood, using the same heavy, belt-driven machinery that employees operated more than a century ago.
Noble & Cooley took one of the drums, which are numbered, to the most recent Gettysburg Remembrance Day event last fall. “People were throwing credit cards at us to get a low serial number,’’ said Jones.
Having retrenched, the family knows that the value of its product is directly related to the time and care they put into it.
Jones, smiling, credited a friend with his new philosophy.
“There’s no such thing as a drum emergency,’’ he said.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. To commemorate the occasion, Noble & Cooley, a drum company in Granville, will be producing replicas of the snare drums that Union soldiers played on the battlefield as a form of communication.
The small, family-owned company goes back even further than this moment in history, back to 1854, and is still pounding away at business. Click through the slides to see a behind-the-scenes look at the factory and a peek into its history.
Jay Jones, 57, pictured here, is the president of Noble & Cooley and a sixth generation drum maker, a direct descendant of the company's founder, James P. Cooley. Despite struggling through fires, the Great Depression, World War II, and the holiday season following 9/11, all of which have put the company at risk, it still continues to make drums of all kinds, such as replicated snare drums, and even at one point made drum kits for some of the world's top musicians.
The company turned to making state-of-the-art drum kits in the 1980s. Capitalizing on the rich tone of natural wood drums, the company quickly attracted a loyal customer base that included Phil Collins and Paul McCartney.
Jonathan Mover, an acclaimed drummer and the editor-in-chief of Drumhead magazine, credits Noble & Cooley’s commitment to quality as an inspiration for the larger drum companies, such as Yamaha, Pearl and Tama.
“They’re absolutely two of the finest snares I have,” said Mover.
The company peaked in the late 1970s with a top annual revenue of $3 million. At one point, it had 120 seasonal employees. However, there was a downturn after Noble & Cooley was left holding two dozen containers of unsold toy instruments imported from China when some of its biggest retailers essentially canceled Christmas following the 9/11 attack.
“The bank started running scared,” says Jones. He had to sell off hundreds of acres of family property to pay back the banks.
Pictured: old products on display in the museum.
All of the drums are handmade, crafted by one of the company's three employees: Jones, his wife Carol, and their son Nick Jones, 27. They make use of heavy, belt-driven machinery, much of which was in use over a century ago. Each drum is made of steam-bent tulipwood. Here, a red oak shell for a snare drum is lathed.
In addition to filling orders, the company also doubles as a museum. The Society of Industrial Archeology visited the old factory, took a look at the old machinery, and recommended preservation. Now Noble & Cooley is one of 100 finalists in a grant challenge sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation called This Place Matters. Online voting closes on June 30. The top vote-getter will receive $25,000.
Here, Nick Jones sands a red oak shell for a drum. He is a musician too. He plays the bass in a band with older brother Jonathan, who is the real family drummer.
Notable Products in the 157-year history of Noble & Cooley:
- A presidential campaign drum in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln, using wood Lincoln had chopped years before.
- Giftware in the '60s and early '70s that included waste baskets, ice buckets, lamps and cutting boards.
- Toy drums for retailers such as Sears and JC Penney
- State-of-the-art custom drum kits for Phil Collins and a drummer for Paul McCartney's band.
- Replicas of the snare drums used by Union Soldiers on Civil War battlefields to convey messages.
Founders Silas Noble and James P. Cooley.
Jay Jones, a descendant of Cooley, his wife Carol, and son Nicholas.