The Darwin Exception

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The Characters of Malone: Orville Gibson

Posted by thedarwinexception on February 26, 2007

Orville Gibson is a “Character of Malone”, even though he was born not in Malone, but in the nearby town of Chateaugay, and although he spent most of his adult life in the town of Kalamazoo Michigan. Orville is now a resident of Malone, as his grave is located in Morningside Cemetery, where another Character of Malone, William Almon Wheeler, also rests.

Orville was born in 1856, the youngest of John and Amy Nichols Gibson’s five children. He lived in the area until the early 1880’s, when he relocated to Michigan. It is unknown why he moved to the area, but some have speculated that it may have been because of his poor health – both mental and physical, and that he may have moved to seek treatment at some of the facilities available in the Battle Creek area, most notably the famous health spa run by Dr. John Harvey Kellog.

Orville held several menial jobs in Michigan, including a stint as a shoe salesman and a clerk in a restaurant. But his real passion was his hobby of making musical instruments. He had a small workshop where he would spend all his free time perfecting his craft and inventing new and innovative ways of assembling instruments.

On May 11, 1896, Orville filed for his first and only patent. That document, U.S. Patent No. 598,245, was issued on February 1, 1898 and contained his ideas for the construction of a mandolin with a carved top and back, and with sides that were cut from a solid piece of wood rather than being bent from thin strips. Orville felt that the bent and multi-pieced back of the then popular bowl-back mandolins did not possess “that degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of tone and melody found in” his instruments. A further embellishment of his patent was that the heel of the neck was hollowed out to provide an additional sound chamber which he hoped would offer improved tonal qualities.

Orville’s patent soon caught the attention of Sylvo Reams, Lewis A. Williams,  LeRoy Hornbeck, John W. Adams and Samuel K. VanHorn – and on October 11, 1902, they formed a limited partnership, using his patent, and the “Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., Limited” was born. Adams, VanHorn, and Hornbeck were lawyers practicing in Kalamazoo. Reams and Williams were both in the retail music business, and all saw the opportunity to capitalize on Orville’s creative talents.

Unfortunately, Orville would not see the return from his creativity that the other 5 would eventually realize. His name was not on the partnership agreement, and he was present at the meeting only to sign away the rights to his patent for the sum of $2,500. The extent of Orville’s contributions to the company after this is unknown. He did have some limited capacity – either as employee, consultant or contributor, as there exists some company papers declaring that Orville “would be paid only for the time he actually works”. But Orville’s health was failing during the time the Company was getting underway. Various medical records suggest that he was suffering from a chronic disease, and possibly mental illness. Orville was a patient in Kalamazoo Hospital for extended periods in 1907 and 1909, and he eventually left Kalamazoo to travel back to the area of his birth. There he was in the care of a Dr. Madill in Franklin County, in 1911. He was treated at the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg N.Y.  and discharged after eight days on August 26, 1911. He returned to the hospital in 1916 and was discharged after another six days of care.

On August 21, 1918, Orville H. Gibson died of a disease diagnosed as endocarditis. He succumbed while a patient at the St. Lawrence State Hospital, the major psychiatric center in Ogdensburg, New York.

Orville was buried in his brother Lovell’s family plot, along with several other Gibson’s, in Morningside Cemetery in Malone. There, on a grassy knoll overlooking a peaceful lily pond, a small square stone says only “O. H. Gibson, 1856-1918”

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4 Responses to “The Characters of Malone: Orville Gibson”

  1. Do you think that’s the original grave marker? I’d have thought it would have been an actual, stand-up gravestone, not a lie-flat, run-over-it-with-the-gang-mower grave marker. Or is it too tall to be that? I can’t really tell from the photo how far it stands above the ground.

    I ask because I discovered, at the time my late father was buried, that the oldest section of the local cemetery allowed real headstones, not flat grave markers as required in the rest of the cemetery. I want to have my grave marked with an eight-foot black marble obelisk, not a chintzy little slab embedded in the ground. I intend to continue to make trouble, even if it’s only for the groundskeepers, long after I die.

    Mary the Digital Knitter

  2. Hatpin said

    What a sad story. Here’s what this last mandolin he personally made (in 1906) looks like:

    Beautiful, eh?

  3. Veronique said

    I’ve seen the smaller, flatter (but not flush) grave markers in a lot of older California cemetaries. The newest ones are usually bronze, and completely flush with the ground so the mowers can mow.

    I also intend to lobby for an upright grave marker, suitable for rubbings and knocking over and eventually gently wearing away with the passing of the millenia.

  4. Marc Gendron said

    I can never get enough on the history of Malone, Franklin County, my birthplace.

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