Instrumental in industry

January 4th, 2018

By Terri Richardson | The Journal Gazette

Nestled among sparsely placed homes and farm fields, now barren from their crops, in Whitley County sits a place known worldwide for helping create beautiful music.

Its instruments – bassoons, contrabassoons, oboes and English horns – can be found in the hands of well-known classical musicians and are those that one might imagine would be made in Germany or Switzerland, not South Whitley. But they are, and Fox Products is now known as the world's largest manufacturer of bassoons – having started in a modified chicken coop more than 60 years ago.

The company, which employs 130 people, was started by Hugo Fox, who was a principal bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony until 1949. After he retired, he returned to the family farm in South Whitley and had an idea of developing his own line of bassoons made in America. He finished his first bassoon in 1951, and it has been sweet music since. Well, that is, until 1974, when a fire destroyed the building.

Some employees didn't think the business would be able to rebuild. But it did, and the company continued to expand. The company's 685 model is its top bassoon and was developed in the past year. Their instruments, sold through dealers, can now be found not only in America but in Germany, Switzerland and Japan.

Each year the employees have a wienie roast “to honor the fire that almost put us out of business,” says Dane Starkey, quality manger and son of Tony Starkey, who took over the company when Hugo Fox's son, Alan, retired.

Alan Fox was actually a chemical engineer and had never played any instrument when he took over the family business. He learned about the instruments and operated the company for 50 years, helping to develop a contrabassoon, a line of oboes and English horns.

On a cold Tuesday in early December, Dane Starkey led visitors on a tour of the company. Against one wall in a hallway are shelves filled with wood pieces with holes drilled in them. The pieces will soon be parts of instruments. Starkey says it takes seven to eight years for the wood to be cured, allowing all the humidity to be removed, before it is used in an instrument.

Instruments are made from such wood as maple for lower-pitched instruments, like the bassoons, and Grenadilla for the higher-pitched oboes and English horns, Starkey says.

The instruments are made from wood and plastic. The wood is mainly for the pro instruments that are purchased by top musicians, Starkey says. The plastic instruments are made for military bands, because they often play outside, and for high school and beginner students.

It can cost about $35,000 for a pro bassoon, but only about $35 worth of wood is used, Starkey says. The major cost is for the labor and the time it takes to create the instrument, which is evident when watching employees during each step of a process that takes time, steady hands and concentration.

In the key department, where employees place the keys on instruments, workers' fingers are wrapped to help prevent fingerprints on metal, as well as to prevent burns and cuts. They use small instruments to attach the multiple keys, some requiring intricate work because they must open and close together and each key is made uniquely for every instrument.

For a student bassoon, it takes about 20 to 30 hours to put in the keys. For pro horns, it can take up to 100 hours for some key work.

There are musicians who work at the company, including three bassoonists and four who play oboe and English horn, Starkey says. They help to tune and play the instruments. Every instrument is played before it is shipped, Starkey says.

Chip Owen is one of those musicians. Owen took part in making the first Fox contrabassoon. That was in 1968, and it can be seen in the glass case in the company's lobby. He first visited Fox Products in 1966 when he was a musician in the Navy and stopped by to see where his instrument was made.

The Columbia City man played with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic for 23 seasons. He can still be found in the contrabassoon room working on the instruments.

And while Owen and others work to make the instruments, Tonia O'Brien's job is to repair them when they break.

O'Brien works in the repair shop and handles everything from basic repairs to those that one can only look at and shake their head. One of those is a bassoon that sits split almost in two in a cardboard box behind the door. That break happened when a dad tried to remove a swab that was stuck in the instrument. Another involved a dad running over the instrument with his vehicle.

But her worst instrument repair took her four years. She opened the case to show visitors and lovingly looked at the now mahogany-colored instrument looking shiny and brand new.

It took a lot of effort, but O'Brien is proud of her work. And that's how many of the employees feel every time an instrument is finished and shipped to its new owner to be played.

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