Gibson Guitar’s Last ‘Kalamazoo Gal’ Celebrates 100th Birthday
The City of Kalamazoo has proclaimed Sunday January 30, 2022 to be "Irene Stearns Day". If you've never heard the name Irene Stearns before you may be wondering who she is and why she gets her own day, so allow me to explain: Irene is the last surviving member of the "Kalamazoo Gals", a group of 70 women who took over the manufacturing of Gibson guitars during World War II.
Yes, if you didn't already know the iconic Gibson Guitars Corporation got its start in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Orville Gibson founded his company in 1902 and it continued to operate in the area until production shifted to Nashville and Gibson's Kalamazoo factory at 225 Parsons St. closed in 1984.
Like many factories in the U.S., women took over the daily operations while men were overseas during World War II. Irene Stearns was only 19 years old when she started at the Gibson factory. Between the years of 1942 to 1945 it's estimated the Kalamazoo Gals produced 25,000 of the finest mandolins, banjos, and guitars in the company's history. Today a Kalamazoo Gal-era guitar can fetch up to $15,000 dollars.
Stearns, who celebrates her 100th birthday on Sunday, is also a key player in both an upcoming documentary and the 2013 book Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson's "Banner" Guitars of WWII by guitarist and author John Thomas. In honor of Irene Stearns Day, Thomas has organized a free online celebration with help from the Michigan Music Alliance. Thomas has spent time gathering virtual birthday greetings from guitarists and international performers like Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland and Roseanne Cash. Feel free to tune in to the livestream on Facebook or YouTube and wish Irene a happy birthday yourself!
A Peek Inside Kalamazoo's Heritage Guitar Factory Where Music History Was Made