Gibson Guitar Legacy: luthier Irene Stearns turns 100


A renowned cast of well-wishers – Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls, Rosanne Cash and more – will help celebrate Sunday’s milestone event, remembering an important time in music history.

“Fearless, unassuming, incredibly skilled”: Irene Stearns is the latest of the Gibson factory “Kalamazoo Gals”. (Courtesy picture)

The year is 1942.

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Kalamazoo is a busy industrial thoroughfare. With the onset of World War II, vacancies left by factory workers conscripted to fight overseas were quickly filled by women.

At the Gibson Guitars manufacturing facility, a group of more than 70 women, dubbed “The Kalamazoo Gals,” took on the role of creating some of the most sought-after and timeless instruments ever made.

Gibson shipped nearly 25,000 instruments – guitars, mandolins and banjos – during World War II.

Coincidentally, the #1 hit song of 1942 was “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” by Glenn Miller.

A weathered black-and-white photograph from this era, taken outside the Gibson factory at 225 Parsons St., depicts 70 women ready to work.

Building the best guitars ever made: The Kalamazoo Gals, circa early 1940s. (Courtesy photo)

Irene Stearns was one of them. And on Sunday, she will be 100 years old.

“I have spoken with Irene several times over the past month and have spoken to her often since I met her on my first visit to Kalamazoo for this project in 2007. As always, Irene is humbled and grateful” , says John Thomas, author of the 2013 book, “Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson’s Banner Guitars of World War II.”

In the foreword to the book, Jonathan Kellerman wrote that Irene and the other “girls” were “a group of fearless, unassuming, incredibly capable, all-American American women” who made distinguished contributions “both to the war effort and endurance of one of the greatest musical instrument makers ever known.

Stearns, along with his colleagues, kept the Kalamazoo plant running and thriving. Today, a Kalamazoo Gals-era guitar can sell for up to $15,000. For Stearns, “It was just a job.”

Stearns’ virtual centennial celebration on Sunday (January 30) — which will be filmed by Grand Rapids’ studio Dogtown — will include an appearance by Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson and birthday greetings from more than 80 artists from around the world ( including guitar virtuosos such as Tommy Emmanuel, as well as legendary artists Rosanne Cash and Waddy Wachtel).

Organized by the Thomas and Michigan Music Alliance, the celebration will be streamed live on the MMA Facebook page and on YouTube at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The event will culminate with a video duet of Jennifer Nettles (of Sugarland) and Emily Saliers (of The Indigo Girls) singing Irene’s favorite song, “I’ll Fly Away.”


Mayor David Anderson officially declared January 30 “Irene Stearns Day” in Kalamazoo, recognizing her as the last surviving member of the Kalamazoo Gals and noting that she will be featured prominently in an upcoming documentary film, “The Kalamazoo Gals.”

“Irene has been with me on this journey since the day we met. Not only is she part of the story, but she was also the main storyteller of the story. It is an extraordinary honor to organize the celebration of its 100th anniversary,” says Thomas.

Stearns and Thomas have previously appeared on the BBC, “NBC Nightly News” in New York, “Voice of America”, NPR and other top outlets.

“Humble and Grateful”: Thomas with Stearns. (Courtesy picture)

While researching an article for a guitar publication before writing his book, Thomas came across a photo of Gibson’s new WWII workforce standing outside the Gibson factory in Parsons Street. This set him on a journey to learn more.

Thomas’ research eventually led him to Gibson’s Nashville headquarters, where he photographed 4,400 handwritten pages in Gibson’s shipping records.

Thomas eventually traveled to Kalamazoo in hopes of finding one of the women in the photo. He found 12.

Not only did the Kalamazoo Gals help keep production going at the Gibson factory, but their work was superior to that of their male counterparts.

While researching for his book, Thomas reviewed three dozen guitars at Quinnipiac University’s Diagnostic Imaging Department in Connecticut: a dozen made by men just before the war, a dozen made by women during the war and a dozen made by men after the war. .

“Simply put, these are the best acoustic guitars Gibson has ever made. I’ve confirmed that with X-rays and CT scans,” says Thomas.

“The women’s work was statistically much more refined: each component made with a little more care, each surface sanded a little smoother.

Get more information about the Kalamazoo Gals, with links to purchase the book at

At their peak: some of the Gibson factory “Kalamazoo Gals”. (Courtesy picture)

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