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"Kalamazoo Gal" Irene visits original Gibson factory, a silent monument to WWII women luthiers

On Friday, 97-year-old Irene Stearns, the last-surviving of the "Kalamazoo Gals," visited the original factory of the Gibson Guitar Corp. in Kalamazoo, Michigan (now operating as Heritage Guitars) where she and over 200 other women built not only munitions during WWII but 25,000 musical instruments including creating Gibson's line of legendary "Banner" guitars. The factory itself is sacred spatial testimony to this important chapter in 20th-century American history, including women's contributions to both the war and to our collective musical legacy, although as yet remains a silent monument beyond Irene's own living memory and the 2012 book, "Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & GIbson's "Banner" Guitars of WWII," by John Thomas that gave voice to her accounts and to those of 11 other female luthiers.


March 1, 2019 (225 Parsons St.): Irene poses with author John Thomas' 1943 Gibson Southerner Jumbo, a "Banner" guitar made by the Kalamazoo Gals that went to the war with its original owner. (Photo: John Thomas)

John's unwavering advocacy of these exceptional women shines in his abilities as an impassioned storyteller which among other things includes his ongoing campaign to install a plaque at the historic 225 Parsons Street location to acknowledge and interpret its significant association with the Kalamazoo Gals. The success of this initiative would go hand in hand with the owner PlazaCorp's current restoration and rehabilitation of the factory to honor the heritage and culture it incubated. Read more about the Gals' inspiring story, John's efforts and Gibson's shameful refusal to recognize these remarkable women in my most recent post, The Hidden History of Laura the Luthier.


A very special thanks to John for sending me these new photos to share with you! He and Irene's visit to the factory on Friday coincided with their attendance as special guests at last weekend's Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival.


John is a real hero to the Kalamazoo Gals and to all whom he's awakened to this story, inspiring others to support action that will acknowledge the important achievements of these women in continuum. I am thankful for his curiosity and the tenacity that has been required of him to illuminate this largely unknown history.



March 1, 2019 (225 Parsons St.): Original Kalamazoo Gal Irene and hero storyteller John with his "Gal"-made (and war-traveling) 1943 Gibson SJ "Banner" guitar. (Photo: Bob Elkins)

March 1, 2019 (225 Parsons St.): Irene with the 1943 Gibson SJ "Banner" guitar and the women luthiers who currently work at the original Gibson factory, now Heritage Guitars. (Photo: John Thomas)