Documenting history as well as my experiences with repairing and restoring vintage guitars.

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Lion Banjo Ad from The Cadenza  from 1895 [2] About The Lion Banjo Manufacturing Company was incorporated in March of 1893 and settled in th...

Lion Banjo Mfg Co - Rock Rapids, Iowa

Lion Banjo Ad from The Cadenza from 1895 [2]


The Lion Banjo Manufacturing Company was incorporated in March of 1893 and settled in the small town of Rock Rapids, Iowa[1]. Its officers were President H. G. McMillan, Vice-President F. M. Thompson, general manager H. C. Middlebrooke, and secretary H. B. Pierce. The stockholders were 16 individuals owning from $500 to $9000 worth  of stock in the company to comprise the initial capital of $35,000. McMillan boasted "We could have disposed of the stock just about as easily had the capital been placed at $50,000 instead of $35,000" in an interview for The Rock Rapids Review. He continued that the company had already gathered $10,000 in orders prior to the factory even being constructed [3]. The men brought with them some experienced luthiers for the purposes of training a local workforce to operate the plant [10].

According to a local genealogy website, Middlebrooke and McMillan went to Minneapolis around 1891 to find the financial backing to start the factory [3].

Gearing up for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Lion Banjo Mfg Co began building five ornate instruments to present along with their standard line. They were described as having necks made of Hungarian Ash, inlaid in mother of pearl, gold, and silver [4]. In total, twenty-one instruments went to Chicago on behalf of Rock Rapids and Lion Banjo Co [5].

The factory employed around 25-30 people and even had a small strike in July of 1893 when two men failed to show for work and were fired [13]. Seven other men, from Chicago, refused to work and were given the ultimatum of returning to their benches or losing their jobs. They went back to work [14].

In March of 1894, the factory reported building 46 instruments in the last week having shipped them to Los Angeles, CA, Galesburg, IL, and Mitchell, SD [12]. Since January 10th, they had built and shipped over 150 instruments [16]. In July, they had deemed their machinery and tools "too rough" for the quality of work they were intending and briefly closed to take stock and purchase replacements [11].

The Lion Banjo Manufacturing Company shut down for good in May of 1895 for reasons unknown [15]. But in December of 1896, Sherriff James Kemplay advertised in the local papers that a sale would take place on December 18th for the contents of the factory and the company's patents. The judgement was the result of a court case ruled in the favor of A. M. Getty and resulted in a debt of $2278.08 [8].

The Factory

Luckily, the very thorough, Sanborn map company had passed through Rock Rapids a number of times and the 1899 map captured the factory although they noted that it was closed. The main building was a two story, wood frame structure with a long single story warehouse and a small coal shed. The building was heated with stoves and there were no lights. Sanborn Co noted "Mach'y all in water power" which didn't mean much to me until I found a description in a 1960 issue of the Lyon County Reporter. The tools were powered by the municipal water supply using a 'special nozzle to produce pressure' which explains how a building 1000ft from the river accomplished that[7].

The factory appears on page 2 of the 1899 Sanborn Map
Situated on Boone St between 7th and 8th streets
Image Credit: Library of Congress

Now to find out where the factory was situated. 7th and 8th Streets both run through a neighborhood about a half dozen blocks south of the main strip which can't be right. So I overlaid the Sanborn map onto a satellite photo of Rock Rapids and figured that the East-West streets were renumbered. Boone and Greene are still there but 7th and 8th Streets have been renumbered First and N 2nd. Using that, I saw that the lot is currently home to a strip mall and the present location of the factory is parking lot.


Having shut its doors and gone to auction in late 1896, the building remained vacant  even up to 1899 when Sanborn surveyed the town. In 1902, Leicher Brothers opened a wagon and carriage shop in the "banjo factory" building [5]. By 1907, it was home to the Anchor Concrete and Stone Company [6]. The Sanborn company returned in 1913 to survey the town again and found the building occupied with a paint shop on the 1st floor, a carpenters shop in the warehouse, and all the unsold and incomplete inventory

1913 Sanborn Map
I can only surmise that there word didn't get out far enough (Sioux Falls is the closest city, 32 miles away), there wasn't enough interest among the locals, and America was on the tail end of a financial crisis. So the remains of Middlebrooke's grand venture and Rock Rapid's most promising business sat collecting dust for over 15 years.

In 1916, C. W. Bradley purchased the lot with the intention of renovating the building into apartments and stumbled across a cache of 100 completed guitars and banjos along with 'enough parts for that many more'. Allegedly, the remaining tooling was still up there as well 3 mahogany planks that were valued at $125. Bradley passed out (or sold at a pittance) many of the completed instruments and reached out to Chicago musical giant Lyon and Healy to sell the remaining stock. What else remained on the second floor is unknown but its likely that the factory closed abruptly as the court case was lost and everything unsold was shoved to the second floor and left. Bradley's apartments renovated the original factory building and added a white cement exterior [9].

The factory building managed to survive, hidden under the stucco and additions, until 1995 when the Rock Rapids City Council led a large movement for modernization and tore down the structure [17].


A description of an existing catalog found in the mid 1940s describes the Hawkeye banjo, in styles A and B, from $25-41 as well as the Middlebrooke banjo in two styles ranging from $25-60. The Middlebrooke Special sold up to $75 while a more affordable model, named the Columbus, retailed for $18. Lion also sold the Middlebrooke guitar banjo, Middlebrooke banjorine, banjorette, banjo mandolin, and a line of guitars.


So far, I have only found one reference on the internet to an existing Lion Mfg Co guitar which was sold at auction. This instrument has a spruce top over Brazilian Rosewood back and sides. The neck is mahogany, inlays are pearl, and the fingerboard could be ebony or dyed hardwood. The instrument looks professional and like a nice example of what they built. The auction house provided no specifics on the bracing inside the guitar.

Image Credit: - Guernsey's Auction

Red ink stamp for the Lion Banjo Mfg Co
Image Credit: - Guernsey's Auction


One of Middlebrooke's inventions was a banjo neck attachment that did not use the standard 'dowel stick' which he was not fond of. 


Hobart C. Middlebrooke, general manager, was a prolific inventor and held a number of patents for improvements in banjos. 


In 1891, Middlebrooke patented a banjo with organ reeds inlaid into the pot as well as up the neck which were designed to be tuned and provide sympathetic sounds.


At the same time, he also patented a fingerboard with a unique scallop intended to allow the instrument to ring out louder without fret rattle and make it easier to play.


In 1892, he patented a tailpiece which held the strings in a standard claw (Fig 3.) but passed them down through a plate (Fig 4.) which aligned the strings to the correct distance from each other and also added downward pressure.


In 1893, he patented a banjo neck fitted with a channel for the 5th string to pass through so it could be tuned at the headstock instead of its usual location. 


In 1894, he patented this wild banjo with a neck that folds in on itself at the 10th fret in order to facilitate transportation. The butt end of the hinge was actually designed to be the 10th fret. It also had a 5th string tuning peg that could recede into the neck of the instrument to keep it out of the way. He also designed these 'arms' which connected to the heel of the neck and supported the metal pot. He was not a fan of 'dowel stick' neck joints.



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