Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
August 1860: "Finished the Lincoln drum today. The finest thing ever made."
Jay Jones is fortunate to come from a family of diarists. Otherwise, he would not have known that Noble & Cooley, the company co-founded by his great-great-great grandfather James Cooley in 1854, had created a drum for Abraham Lincoln's campaign rallies around New England. The drum factory burned in 1889. But Cooley's account of its early history survived.
"They sent to Illinois and got a fence rail that Lincoln had split years earlier, machined it into strips and steamed and bent the hoops out of it," Jones says. "It was then strung with sterling silver hooks and silk cord. There was a likeness of Lincoln painted on it."
Some equipment also survived the fire, including the now-150-year-old steam-bending machines the company still uses to render wood pliable to fabricate drum shells. Most of the crafting is handwork performed by Jones, his son Nick, and two employees in a cluster of red wood-frame buildings in Granville, Massachusetts, a one-store, one-crossroad farming community 112 miles across the state from Boston. Noble & Cooley operates out of 6,000 square feet; Jones leases another 80,000 to tenants that include a custom bicycle maker, a hot tub delivery service, and a guy with a personal workshop whose wife kicked him out of their garage. The company used to be bigger. "Shortly after the Civil War, we had a factory with 17 or 18 employees making 80,000 drums a year," Jones says.
But those were toy drums--far less sophisticated than the 55 drum sets and 300 snare drums the company now produces for professional and advanced musicians. Phil Collins adopted Noble & Cooley snare drums in 1986; the brand has toured with Billy Joel and Sting. Whether you're a Taylor Swift fan listening to the album Red or your tastes run toward Iggy Pop and Instinct, you've heard Noble & Cooley in action.
Noble & Cooley currently bends eight woods--ash, beech, birch, cherry, oak, maple, tulip, and walnut--all harvested from within 20 miles of the factory. Each has a different density to produce a different sound. "Traditionally, a jazz musician or a symphonic player is going to want a drum that is very bright and articulate, so they are going to want a maple or a cherry drum," Jones says. "A country-style player is going to want something with a warmer, fatter sound. Tulip or an oak."
The company's drums are custom-made, with 700 available combinations of wood, depth, hardware, finish, and other options. They can take up to 16 weeks and more than $500 to build. Noble & Cooley sells through 31 retailers in the U.S. and 22 more around the world. Most of those are drum specialists, like Columbus Percussion, in Columbus, Ohio, owned by Jim Rupp, a professional drummer who has toured with Woody Herman, Diane Schuur, Glenn Miller, and many others.
Rupp has been playing Noble & Cooley drums, which he calls Lamborghinis, for 20 years and selling them even longer. The drums sell steadily at Columbus Percussion. And they attract attention when Rupp performs. "I'll be out with my kit," he says, "and some guy will come up and say, 'Man, I have always wanted to hear a set of Noble & Cooley drums. How cool!'"
The world's biggest drum
In 1853, Silas Noble, a farmer, began fabricating toy drums in his kitchen to give away as Christmas presents. He and Cooley, a friend and fellow farmer, thought there was a business in it. In the company's first year, it built 631 toy drums, simple instruments made of plain wood and painted. Beginning in 1910, the company developed its own printing presses to create the military, sports, and star-and-shield themes that decorated the toys.
Kids weren't the only market. During the Civil War, the Army used drums to communicate on battlefields and in camp, pounding out rhythms representing orders to anyone within earshot. Noble & Cooley won that contract and produced hundreds of instruments for Northern regiments. The company made drums for the military until the 1920s.
Four years after the war's end, Noble & Cooley got another commission, this one in the name of peace. Patrick Gilmore, a bandleader who composed the popular song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," threw a jubilee in Boston to help the nation heal. He built a temporary structure big enough for 50,000 attendees, 10,000 choral singers, and a 1,000-piece orchestra. Noble & Cooley provided the drum, which, with an eight-foot diameter, was the largest in the world. "What limited the size was the size of the animal that would give its skin to the head," Jones says--in this case, two large oxen.
Eager to diversify sales, Noble & Cooley over the years flirted with other products, chiefly items made with the same machines or from the same materials as drums. In the 19th century, that meant toothpicks, croquet sets, table tennis paddles, and cigar lighters. In the 1950s and '60s, the company tried giftware, such as wastepaper baskets and lamps. Nothing stuck.
Then, for a period, toy drums were enough. Rock-and-roll erupted, and business--appropriately--boomed. In the 1960s and '70s, Noble & Cooley was the only U.S. supplier of toy drums, selling to Toys "R" Us, Child World, Sears, and JC Penney. It employed 120 people working two shifts to produce 1,200 toy drum sets a day.
From playroom to studio
Jones learned to build drums from his grandfather and later apprenticed with a toolmaker. After a year studying mechanical design in college ("I realized I knew as much or more than my instructors"), he quit to join the family business. By the time he succeeded his father in the late 1970s, Chinese competition was laying waste to the toy business.
The industry had other drawbacks. For one thing, "it was all about Christmas," Jones says. Every year Noble & Cooley had to borrow from banks to finance production from May through November. Retailers didn't pay until January or February. Another problem: "I got bored making toys," Jones says. "It was always the same formula."
Then one day in 1981, a man walked into the office with a damaged snare drum. It was a Slingerland Radio King, an iconic brand from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s played by musicians like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. Because the shell was made from a single piece of wood, repair required the century-old steam-bending technology still in use by Noble & Cooley. "He said, 'Can you make me a new drum shell?'" Jones says. "I took a look and said, 'I don't see why not.'"
The man told Jones that professional drummers routinely scour pawnshops and tag sales for single-ply drums like the Radio King, which have a cleaner tone and record better than drums made from multiple sheets of wood laminated together. Jones is not a musician ("The joke around here is I play Pandora") and felt unqualified to develop an instrument for so exacting a market. So he collaborated with the owner of a music store in Connecticut who was a classically trained percussionist.
Noble & Cooley debuted its professional drums at a trade show in 1984, and trade shows remain a key marketing vehicle. But musicians listen to musicians. Denny Carmassi, drummer for the band Heart, was Noble & Cooley's first celebrity endorser for full drum sets, one of which accompanied him on tour in 1988. Bill Kreutzmann, drummer for the Grateful Dead, also found the brand early, as did Nick Buda, who's played with Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, and Lionel Ritchie, among others.
"These big-name drummers who are taking our stuff on tour would buy direct from us, and we would give them a much better deal because we were getting some promotion from it," Jones says. The company only once gave free drums to a musician: that was Phil Collins.
Many of Noble & Cooley's influential advocates aren't celebrities but rather session musicians who lay down tracks at a studio's behest for a solo musician or when a band's own drummer doesn't quite cut the mustard. Those anonymous players form a tight-knit community that has shared the company's reputation for years. "The studio would say, 'Wow, that sounds great,'" Jones says. "Then they would buy the drum because it makes the engineer's job much easier to record a clean sound than try to clean up one that isn't pure."
The beat goes on
Until 1998, Noble & Cooley sold briskly through Guitar Center. "But we didn't make any money with them because they would beat us up so bad on price," says Jones. Now the company relies on specialty shops, which typically employ the kind of expertise necessary to sell a premium product. (Prices range from $1,400 to $1,600 for a solid-wood drum and as high as $10,000 for a drum set. Instruments made from several plies of wood cost less.) Customers try out what their dealer has on hand and then custom-order through that store.
Although Jones doesn't want people ordering direct from Noble & Cooley, he's thrilled when they pick up their drums in person. The website invites musicians to save shipping costs by coming out to Granville. There they can meet the family, score some swag, and tour a factory that hasn't changed much since Lincoln was president.
The company doesn't do much e-commerce, although you can request a quote online. Even without the internet, Noble & Cooley "is on a steady growth plane," Jones says. At 65, he is eying retirement but wants to grow the business enough that he can afford to bring in his other son to work alongside Nick. Jones also has a couple of grandsons who often visit the factory after school. "They are the eighth generation," he says. "They just don't know it yet."