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Albert Hesse working on a zither December 19th, 1937 Image Credit:  State Historical Society of Missouri Upbringing Albert August Hesse was ...

Albert Hesse - Franz Schwarzer Co - Washington, Missouri

Albert Hesse working on a zither
December 19th, 1937
Image Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri


Albert August Hesse was born October 13, 1878, in Washington, Missouri to August and Wilhelmina "Mina" Hesse. He was the youngest of his six brothers and second only to his youngest sister Mina [1]. Not much is known about his early childhood except that his father was a laborer and the family lived on Olive Street [4]. After finishing the 8th grade, he switched to working full time at a cob pipe manufacturer, a large industry in town, with dreams of quitting and moving up to "Saint Louie" [2]. 

Albert was persuaded to stay in Washington only after receiving an offer of employment from a Mr Franz Schwarzer, owner of a musical instrument manufacturing firm. Franz, known as "Papa" to his employees, and his wife, Josephina, immigrated from Austria in 1866 having studied architecture and woodworking at the Polytechnic Institute in Vienna [6]. His factory was built about a block away from his home, overlooking the Missouri river, and would become a staple of Washington, Missouri [5]. His firm was experiencing an outstanding demand for their instruments and by the 1890s were producing around 500 hand-crafted instruments every year.

Franz Schwarzer in front of his factory
Circa 1901
Image Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri

Albert was 14 when he first began working for Franz, around 1894, and was hired as an errand boy. He recounted the effect that this opportunity had on him in a 1950 interview where was quoted as saying,

"Mr. Schwarzer gave me my start in life" 

With tears in his eyes. Albert earned twenty-five cents per day for his work. Having no children of their own, the Schwarzers invited Albert to come live with them. He rushed home to obtain permission from his parents and was granted it on his mother's terms that he would return home for one home-cooked meal [2]. By the time of the 1900 census, both Albert and his brother George were employed for Franz.

Schwarzer Factory Employees
Albert is lying down at the left in front of another worker
Franz Schwarzer is leaning on Andreas Mohrlock just to his right
Circa 1901
Image Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri

By the turn of the century, production had slowed back down to pre-1890 levels of a few hundred instruments a year. At the peak, Schwarzer employed around 26 men and were taking more orders than they were able to fill [7]. These men were building instruments and shipping them all across the country to satisfy the orders flooding in from retailers and individuals. Although their primary product was the zither, they had diversified into building mandolins, guitars, and violins using their expertise and stock of exotic woods and materials. The very first guitar appears, from my research, to have been built in 1896.


Franz passed away in 1904 at the age of 76 and Josephine became the owner of the company. Franz's employees were known for being loyal, on account of how well they were treated, and I cannot imagine Josephine would've struggled in managing the men. They continued to take orders and build around two-hundred instruments a year. 

A odd quirk appears in the log book where #8800 was misstamped, scratched out, and the next serial number is #8900. I was contacted about a serial number in that missing range so its possible that they continued to stamp #88xx serial numbers while logging them as being #89xx. I haven't found enough examples from that era to adjust my information 


Josephine died in 1912 and left the factory to Herman Grohe who is referenced as either being a nephew to Josephine or their neighbor back in Austria. Regardless, at this point Herman was an experienced employee and a trusted friend to the Schwarzers. The factory's output had decreased to around a hundred instruments per year.


Herman Grohe died and Albert Hesse, being the senior-most employee, took over the factory's operations while Grohe's widow, Annie, inherited ownership of the company.


Production of Schwarzer instruments hits rock bottom in a slump that lasted until Grohe's widow shut down operations at the factory in 1933. The serial number log book becomes erratic and difficult to follow with only a hundred and twenty instruments ordered in the next decade.


In December of 1937, photographer Townsend Godsey passed through Washington, Missouri on his journey to capture rural Missouri in film. He took two photographs at the zither factory, the one at the top of the page and below, which are incredibly glimpses into the work of a craftsman. These photos were labelled as being of Andreas Mohrlock, who had died twenty-years prior. Albert is seen working on one of the six instruments that were ordered that year; a far cry from the hundreds of orders that they received when he was first hired. Albert and his brother were the only two employees left at the firm [10].

Albert Hesse working on a zither
December 19th, 1937
Image Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri

1941 - 75 Years in Business

Albert Hesse holding a ~1906 Schwarzer zither
Image Credit: - St Louis Post Dispatch

In 1941, the Franz Schwarzer factory solemnly celebrated its 75th year in business. Forty years prior, the Schwarzer factory was headed by Franz, himself, and was on the top of the world. Now in the midst of a world war, Albert and his brother George were the only surviving employees building only a couple instruments per year. Time had taken both the skilled workforce and the market demand for their instruments. Albert said,

"When I started at this factory as an errand boy in 1894, I had no idea I would live to see the day that the zither would be almost a curiosity."

Despite the downturn in orders, he was still very proud of the legacy of the company and the instruments that they produced. He described the price as meaning nothing to the avid zither player and his motto as "not how much, but how good" in response to factory made zithers. His attitude remained positive about his work saying

"Yes, times have changed. But I do not complain. Still the orders find their way here and I have enough to do"

Albert Hesse playing a c.1906 Schwarzer zither
Image Credit: - St Louis Post Dispatch

The reporter pointed out the two order books on a side table which went back to 1891 and 1866 and contained the names and addresses of customers of the Schwarzer Zither Company. Albert said,

"Once, that order book meant only the amount of business we were doing. Now it means more than that to me. It is a record of my friends all over the world. Most of them I have never seen and I have no way of telling which of them are still alive, but a great many of them have written to me. There is a sort of bond between zither players."

The Third Man

The theatrical release of Carol Reed's movie, The Third Man, in 1949 (1950 in America) stirred a new interest in the zither. It appeared in the opening scene and was also part of the soundtrack thanks to player Anton Karas.

The St Louis Globe Democrat interviewed Albert in June of 1950 and described the 78-year-old man as having "no plans for cashing in on it". He had been receiving "10 to 20 letters a day from people wanting catalogues and asking about prices" but seemed content with his relaxed itinerary of repairing customer instruments and using an electrically-powered winder to construct the famed Schwarzer strings. He had been winding the strings since 1912 on a pedal-powered machine. Albert's brother had died four years prior, leaving him as the sole employee and likely the last person alive who had worked under Franz Schwarzer, himself [2].

The 1950s

On October 20th, 1951 the very last order for a Schwarzer instrument was placed. Carolyn Johnson ordered #10855, a 32 string concert zither, from Albert Hesse. 10 days later, correspondence was sent from the factory to Mrs W. H. Brueggemann which was described by a columnist as the "Saddest Letter Ever Written?". In the letter, Albert responds to an inquiry on the cost of strings with his prices and ends the document by saying "I am the only onekeft[sic]"

The factory officially closed down in 1952 and Albert Hesse took his tools and bench home where he would continue repairs and string winding in his basement until its retirement in 1954 [8]. 

In 1953, an auction was held to sell off everything remaining within the factory including unfinished instruments, tools, jigs, and souvenirs. 

Franz Schwarzer's house and factory (left)
Circa 1900
Image Credit: State Historical Society of Missouri

Destruction of the Factory

Judge Randolph H. Schaper, along with his sisters Florence and Margaret, purchased the factory from their aunt, Mrs. Grohe, with the express intent to tear it down. Randolph, born in 1905, had been a life-long resident of Washington and I do have to wonder what the motivation might have been behind demolishing such a large piece of their town's history. 

Shortly after, the red brick factory was demolished and shoveled off the property. 

As someone who is passionate about the history of musical instrument manufacturing and the history of Missouri craftsmen, I consider the demolition of the Schwarzer factory to be one of the worst tragedies for the historic record. Had the factory been left standing, it would've functioned as an incredible museum for a business that helped put the town on the map. Of the dozen or so instrument factories I've tracked down, most are still standing in some capacity and to see that this was torn down is devastating.

Passing of Albert Hesse

Albert Hesse passed away on June 28th, 1955 in his home at the age of 76. He was survived by his wife, Anna, and sister, Minnie [9]. 

Albert spent his entire life as a craftsman and luthier beginning as an errand boy for the Franz Schwarzer Zither Company and departing as the last living employee. His career spanning sixty years in service despite two world wars, the death of his boss and mentor, and the complete decline of the market for their instruments cannot be understated. It would've been an honor to speak with him and learn about his life experiences first hand. 

Serial Numbers

I did spend the money to purchase scans of the Franz Schwarzer log book which had been preserved. Its fairly expensive so as a favor to the community I've published the first serial number of each year so you can estimate the age of your instrument. If you reach out to me via email, I will send you a screenshot of your serial number record



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