1885 – 1893 The Edwin J. Cubley Drum Factory
The Larson family were tenant farmers. Carl Larson spent the better part of his childhood helping his father work the land in Luddet, estate of Locknevi, in the province of Kalmar Lan, Sweden. He had 5 siblings including younger brother August. His work on the farm included carpentry and we know that he helped build the family house before leaving for America at age 18. It was 1885 and America was the land of boundless opportunity.
It was around the same time that Milda Ruden from Animskog Sweden set off to find a brighter future in the New World as well. They were both bound for Chicago and found work at the Edwin J. Cubley Drum factory at Wolcott Street near Wilson Avenue, Ravenswood Illinois. Mr. Cubley was in the habit of hiring immigrant labor and helping them get on their feet in this foreign country. His factory included boarding accommodations for men and women. It is likely that both Carl lived there for a time and it’s possible that Carl met his future wife Milda there as well. August followed his brother to Chicago and the Cubley factory shortly afterward. The experience working at the Cubley factory would have introduced both brothers to American urban life, manufacturing, product distribution (since Chicago was the rail hub for national distribution of all sorts of products at the time), and mass production of wooden products.
The Cubley factory was destroyed by fire in 1893. This was a common fate for woodworking factories before the days of fan-driven sawdust extraction. Remarkably, the people of Chicago had learned a lot about fire protection following the Chicago fire of October 8th, 1871 – The main lesson being how to help prevent adjacent buildings from catching fire. Unfortunately, the lesson that wasn’t learned: always have adequate insurance. The Cubley factory didn’t and the Larsons set off to find new work.
1893 to 1900 Maurer & Company – Robert Maurer
The records are not entirely clear but it appears that Carl and August went to work for Robert Maurer & Company in late 1893 and stayed with the firm until 1900. Maurer had been producing instruments since 1886 and by the 1890s had developed a broad distribution network, a reputation for quality and a strong following of dedicated musicians. This would have been their introduction to the art of Lutherie and the production of high-quality guitars and mandolins.
On October 27th, 1896 Carl and Milda married and started a family. In keeping with their parents they produced six children, the last born in 1909. Alvin, the eldest, took up violin, and Violet, the second child, took up the mandolin. Both are said to have been good musicians.
August Larson was not a family man. He devoted himself to his work and invested what little free time he had in school. He attended the Lane Technical High School on a part-time basis for 16 years until attaining his diploma. Sometime during this period, he married. Apparently, his young wife discovered that he held his job at a higher value than a family. She divorced him and he never remarried. His lifestyle could best be described by his years at the Maurer shop: At the Maurer shop on Elm Street, August had set aside a small portion of the shop for a living. He had a single bed, a small table, and a few utilitarian amenities including a revolver for protection of the plant. He spent his entire working life this way. One can only imagine the impact of this devoted lifestyle on the other employees in the shop. The primary advantage of this Spartan lifestyle was that he seldom spent any money. Ironically, in the end, the money was gone. There was no evidence of wealth when he died.
1900 – 1946 Maurer & Company – August and Carl Larson
In 1900 Robert Maurer decided to retire. August Larson gathered investors Edward P. Longworthy and Joshua H. Lewis and bought the firm from Maurer. August was 27 years old and had managed to acquire a strong firm with a solid reputation and multi-state distribution network. Carl was already an experienced employee of the company and slowly acquired the other investor’s shares of Maurer over the next few years. The Larson Brothers were suddenly notable players in the world of musical instrument manufacturing.
For an extended portion of their history, the Larson Brothers shop on Elm Street was a two-man shop. They were highly productive and worked very well together. The strong work ethic allowed greater output than many small factories. Quality control was not an issue as they were the ones to actually do the work. The instruments maintained a remarkably consistent quality.
Chicago was the rail hub of the nation and therefore the center for mail-order distribution of goods. Many companies, who strove to offer a full range of goods, but had little or no manufacturing capabilities, would sub-contract the production of the desired goods to specialized manufacturers. This way, a company that made no guitars at all, could offer high quality guitars for sale under their corporate name; and the labels may not even indicate who actually build the instrument. The advantage to the builders was an inexhaustible nationwide market with little or no advertising, dealership or distribution costs.
From 1900 to 1924 the Larson brothers were happy to build a wide variety of instruments for a number of other firms. These included mandolins, tenor and octave mandolas, mando-cellos, mando basses, taro-patches, guitars and harp guitars for the following brands: Dyer, Stetson and Stahl. During the same period they continued to produce instruments with the Maurer brand. This was actually continuing a tradition: Maurer had produced the Champion brand up to 1900.
The Larson brothers retained the use of the following brands for clear identification of their own instruments: Maurer, Prairie State and Euphonon. The latter was introduced in 1934 to usher in the new larger body styles following the Martin introduction of the dreadnaught and Gibson with the SJ-200.
Prairie State maintained the honor of representing guitars with the unique steel bar body reinforcement system. These occurred during the transitional period to larger bodies and solid headstocks. August Larson held a number of patents starting in 1930 for internal metal reinforcing bars that would both stabilize the instruments and allow for neck angle adjustments. In theory, these made the instruments much easier to service and maintain.
From 1932 to 1944, August Larson had an exclusive arrangement with Adolph Waech and later his son Waldemar to be the agents for sales of the full line of Maurer and Prairie State instruments. Waech ran a store on the corner of 23rd Street and Fond Du Lac Avenue (later at 3131 West North Avenue, Milwaukee WI) called: The Wack Sales Company (the family name was compressed for ease of pronunciation). Adolph was a player, teacher and mandolin orchestra leader.
For 20 years following the acquisition of the Maurer shop, the brothers refined and developed new ideas for bracing and construction. They were able to respond quickly to requests from musicians and other company designers – all the improvements found their way into the subsequent instruments. The corporate memory for details was held with the two brothers and the instrument benefited.
Maurer and Prairie State instruments were built in 3 grades: Student Grade (model numbers 487, 489, 491, 493) mostly with ladder bracing, Intermediate Grade (model numbers 494, 495, 498, 525, 541, 551) with laminated X bracing and Best Grade (with laminated X bracing). As the names imply, the materials and ornamentation increased in quality as the grade increased. Their bridges were almost always the flattened pyramid style. Most all brands were hot-stamped except for some of the Stahl’s and early Maurer’s. Those were paper labeled.
The crash of 1929 hit the musical instrument business hard but the fact that the shop was small, the needs few and the demand for the instrument remained high due to limited output, the Larson brothers survived intact. To improve their situation, Carl’s son Abner owned a small local food store, so the brothers and their families ate well during the depression.
In 1940 Carl was hit by a car while crossing the street. He was 73 years old and the injury did not heal well. He had always used public transportation to get to and from work at the Elm Street shop. This was no longer easily possible and he decided to retire. In 1941 Carl and Milda moved to St. Charles Illinois to share a portion of a large sprawling house owned by Ben Hartman. There were numerous other family members in residence. This was not unusual during the war years where shared resources made financial sense. In 1943 Milda died followed by Carl on September 4th, 1946 at age 79.
The last few years at the Elm Street shop following Carl’s retirement were not very productive. In 1940, August was 67 years old. It does not appear that August liked working alone but his character and work ethic wouldn’t allow anything else. He chose to stay on at the shop (living and working) and keep the business going. He carried on for another 4 years until his death in 1944 at age 71. It is said that the quality during those years was not up to the highest standard but surely every instrument was a labor of love. August did not need the money. No plans were made for a transition or sale of the company and the Maurer Company died with August in 1944. The contents and tooling were sold to a cabinet maker and the corporate entity dissolved. The company records were saved for a short time by family members but ultimately discarded. The information gathered has been based on catalogs, public records, and the instruments themselves. The instruments live on.
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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth with special thanks to Robert Carl Hartman & his book: The Larsons’ Creations – Guitars and Mandolins (2007 – Centerstream)