TORRINGTON — In the mid-1800s, Torrington was home to a craftsman who put the United States on the map as a producer of guitars.
The shop, owned by James Ashborn, was on Newfield Road. Between 1848 and 1864, Ashborn made thousands of guitars that were sold to musicians around the country, according to musician and potter Guy Wolff of Bantam and Torrington Historical Society Director Mark McEachern.
“Ashborn brought the guitar into the 19th century,” Wolff said. “It’s important to Torrington because when you get into the high strata of instruments, for collectors, the Ashborn is one that’s very well known. People come to Torrington from around the country, wanting to know where the shop was.”
The historical society this week marked the former home of Ashborn’s guitar shop with a detailed sign that honors the maker’s craft and the city’s contribution to the music industry.
The sign has a QR codethat visitors can scan with their cellphones and be directed to the historical society’s website, where they can hear Wolff play one of the few remaining Ashborns in the U.S. and learn more about its history.
The narrative on the sign was written by David Gansz, who wrote about Ashborn in the book “Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and his Contemporaries.” Illustrations were provided by David Oakes, Peter Szego, co-editor of “Inventing the American Guitar,” and the Torrington Historical Society.
McEachern credited Wolff with jump-starting the effort to recognize Ashborn and install the sign.
“Guy told me the story about people not being able to find the location of the factory,” he said. “I didn’t even know anything about Ashborn until about 15 years ago. It came to my attention when someone acquired an Ashborn guitar and wanted to give it to the museum. We have two of them. One is very plain, and the other has more detail and veneer work. They’re beautiful.”
Wolff also had an Ashborn and didn’t know it. He was working with a family estate, finding homes for a collection of instruments, and happened upon the society’s Ashborn during a visit to the museum. “I saw the case (like the one he had) and said, ‘I have one of those,’” Wolff recalled.
“I said, ‘That’s an Ashborn. It was made here in Torrington,” McEachern said.
Wolff also has a recreation of an Ashborn banjo made by Oakes, of Woodbury, which he calls “the finest banjo” he has on loan. He said there are only 11 remaining Ashborn banjos left in the world.
“This thing is just incredible,” Wolff said, after playing a short song on the banjo. “Ashborn was crazy ahead of his time.”
“He was an amazing figure in guitar history, right here in Torrington,” McEachern said. “That’s why we put the sign up.”
Ashborn, born in England in 1816, came to the United States as a young man and worked for Firth, Pond and Hall, an instrument company. “In 1842, he comes to Litchfield, because the company’s buying flutes from a company in a section of Litchfield known as Fluteville,” Wolff said. “That company was owned by Asa Hopkins, and thousands of instruments were made in this factory.
“Firth, Pond and Hall wanted to start a guitar factory, so in 1852, Ashborn ends up moving to Torrington,” Wolff said. “He makes 12,000 guitars during his time in Torrington, basically triple the number of guitars that Martin made, which was the big company at the time. He’s the guy who popularized the guitar for America.”
The story doesn’t end there. One of Fluteville’s early neighbors was clockmaker Seth Thomas, “who had taken the idea to make a clock with precise parts that can be interchangeable,” Wolff said. “So Ashborn’s guitars followed that idea, and every single one of his guitars are exactly the same in size ... different materials, but in specific sections with only a few pieces of wood. It was unheard of to put veneers on the neck of a low-end guitar.”
Wolff’s Ashborn is one of the maker’s simpler models, and probably sold for about $2. Wolff estimated that a “high end” Ashborn sold for about $25.
According to McEachern’s research, Ashborn also was an inventor. He patented a moveable guitar capo (1850) and improved friction tuning pegs (1852) for banjo and guitar. He also was America’s first known manufacturer of guitar strings. He machined his own guitar tuners from brass produced at the nearby Wolcottville Brass Co., co-owned by John Hungerford, the father of his business partner, Austin Hungerford. Ashborn’s fanciest guitars featured backs and necks veneered with exotic Brazilian rosewood.
McEachern said Ashborn used the newly completed Naugatuck Railroad to ship his guitars, banjos and strings in wholesale batches from Wolcottville — the principal village in Torrington — to select retailers in New York City beginning in 1849. His mass production techniques ensured that his guitars sold for half the price of other makers, and contributed greatly to the instrument’s popularity.
In 1863, Ashborn was elected to the Connecticut legislature, according to McEachern, and in 1866 sold his factory building to the newly incorporated Excelsior Needle Co., which eventually would become an industrial giant in Torrington. Ashborn continued to make guitars out of his Torrington home until his death in 1876.
Honoring such a craftsman was a group effort, McEachern said. “The donors that helped financially were Guy Wolff, Barron Financial, Jim Thibault and J. Fenton Williams,” he said. “We were thrilled to put that sign up. We have a tradition of taking history out of our archives and putting them out into the community, and we have granite markers around town, and the audio walking tour; we have signs in Coe Memorial Park, to highlight the history of the park and the Coe Family. So this sign is another effort to get history out there, where people can see it.
“Ashborn was the largest guitar maker in the country before the Civil War,” McEachern said. “He was the first to mass produce guitars, but he didn’t sacrifice quality, and they stood the test of time.”
McEachern hopes to hold a musical performance at the historical society, featuring music on the Ashborn instruments. “We talked about it last year and shelved it for now, but I’d like to make that happen, “he said.
For more information, go to www.torringtonhistoricalsociety.org or call 860-482-8260. The society is holding a number of outdoor events, starting July 31 with Margaret Gibson, Connecticut Poet Laureate.