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Drum maker draws on its past for better future

Replica snares help Granville firm endure

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2011

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GRANVILLE — They are still managing to keep time at Noble & Cooley, a Civil War-era drum company in Western Massachusetts.

After decades as one of the country’s biggest suppliers of toy drums, Noble & Cooley in the 1980s branched out to make state-of-the-art drum kits, with customers that included Phil Collins and Paul McCartney. But the bleak holiday shopping season that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks nearly led to the company’s demise. As during other trying times in its history, Noble & Cooley somehow persevered, even as it got smaller.

Today, the company is trying to remain relevant by capitalizing on its rich heritage. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Noble & Cooley is producing replicas of the snare drums Union soldiers used to communicate on the battlefield. It is also one of 100 finalists in the This Place Matters grant challenge, sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Online voting closes tomorrow, with the top vote-getter receiving $25,000.

“We’re doing everything we can to hang on,’’ said Jay Jones, the company president. He is a sixth-generation descendant of cofounder James P. Cooley, who began making drums in Silas Noble’s kitchen in 1854.

Once a holiday season powerhouse, with a peak of 120 employees two decades ago, Noble & Cooley is now a true mom-and-pop shop. There are just three full-time workers: Jones; his wife, Carol; and their 27-year-old son, Nick.

When he first joined his father in the family business, Jones, 57, shifted some of the emphasis away from the toys that had been a staple for years. Thanks to the rich tone of its natural wood drums (most contemporary drums, including some of Noble & Cooley’s, are plywood), the company quickly attracted a loyal customer base among some of the world’s top musicians.

Collins once appeared in an endorsement advertisement alongside an image of Abe Lincoln. Noble & Cooley’s cofounders made a presidential campaign drum for Lincoln in 1860, using wood that he had chopped years before.

Jonathan Mover, an acclaimed drummer and the editor in chief of Drumhead magazine, found out about Noble & Cooley drums from musician Chris Whitten, who used to play with McCartney. Mover bought two limited-edition snares years ago.

“They’re absolutely two of the finest snares I have,’’ said Mover, a Peabody native who also runs Skyline Recording in New York. “And I have got a serious collection, over a hundred.’’

Mover credits Noble & Cooley’s commitment to quality as an inspiration for larger drum companies, such as Yamaha, Pearl, and Tama.

“All the big companies are making very high-end gear, which they really didn’t do years ago,’’ he said. Unfortunately, Mover said, that has created considerable competition for a small, family business such as Noble & Cooley.

The company still builds several dozen custom drum kits (some of which sell for up to $10,000) and as many as 500 solid-wood snares each year. Although it’s not the first time the drum company has faced adversity.

Few episodes, however, were as devastating as the economic plunge that followed Sept. 11, 2001. That downturn effectively wrecked the company’s toy business, which had reached a peak of $3 million in annual sales in the late 1970s. Noble & Cooley was left holding two dozen containers of unsold toy instruments imported from China when some of its biggest clients, including Sears and JC Penney, canceled holiday orders.

“The bank started running scared,’’ said Jones. “They called in the note. It took me six years to pay off’’ the bank. To do so, he had to sell off hundreds of acres of family property in this rolling farmland west of Springfield.

The Noble & Cooley compound — three big old buildings with tilting floors, connected on the upper levels by iron pedestrian bridges — is a much quieter place today than it was at the height of toy production. In fact, one building isn’t even used.

Walking around the factory on a recent Friday, Jones was called away to help unload machine parts from a delivery truck. As a light drizzle fell outside the loading dock, the driver looked around the barn-like warehouse, which was mostly empty.

“I totally forgot this place was here,’’ he said.

A cardboard pallet box sat off to one side, full of tin tambourines featuring characters from Jim Henson’s old “Fraggle Rock’’ series. Their plastic sleeves had long since grown moldy.

Nick Jones helped his father empty the truck. He plays bass in a metal band with his older brother, Jonathan. Jonathan, a graphic designer with waist-length dreadlocks, is the real drummer in the family, said Jay Jones.

“I play the radio,’’ he joked.

When they were kids, Nick and Jonathan had the run of the place.

“It was awesome,’’ said Nick. “There were tons of cardboard boxes to play in. We played with tin scraps. We were obnoxious.’’

Now, the boy who once terrorized seasonal employees actually does have the run of the place. Reduced to such a tiny operation, these days it takes the company eight to 10 weeks to fill a custom drum order. The process to make a Civil War replica snare — steaming, bending, aging, and curing — requires 16 weeks.

Jay Jones and his son assemble each reproduction drum, made of steam-bent tulipwood, using the same heavy, belt-driven machinery that employees operated more than a century ago.

Noble & Cooley took one of the drums, which are numbered, to the most recent Gettysburg Remembrance Day event last fall. “People were throwing credit cards at us to get a low serial number,’’ said Jones.

Having retrenched, the family knows that the value of its product is directly related to the time and care they put into it.

Jones, smiling, credited a friend with his new philosophy.

“There’s no such thing as a drum emergency,’’ he said.