Movie directors and playwrights supplement their art with musical scores for a reason. The music itself is a message, and it goes where words cannot tread. It draws our collective memories to the surface, gives them life again, and allows us to ponder the lessons they invariably offer.
For the fourth generation of ownership at Chesbro Music Co, the lessons are as simple as they are profound: Hold yourself accountable. Stick to what works. Foster music in others. Give back to the community.
The first of these lessons Horace Chesbro learned from scratch, back in turn-of-the-century Seattle. The young entrepreneur, already an accomplished student of the musical arts, cut his teeth in the business by working at a music store and selling pianos on the side. This pursuit quickly matured into the 1901 launch of his company, which struggled for most of its youth. In fact, by 1910 his situation had become so dire that Chesbro was faced with the most unsettling of propositions. He could claim bankruptcy and walk away, or he could work out a long-term payment plan with his creditors.
Rather than taking the easy way out, Chesbro chose the latter.
Choosing to pay his debts earned him a lot of sleepless nights, but also earned him a strong reputation for personal integrity. He held on to his supplier, and in the process learned of an untapped frontier in the sale of musical instruments: Idaho’s Snake River Valley.
Chesbro and his wife, Ella, moved to St. Anthony in 1911 and set up shop and home in the same location. Doing so allowed Ella to work the household as well as the storefront, while Horace and Ella both were available around the clock for customer service. The system worked, and the debt from Seattle began to wither away. Horace soon realized, however, that to take the next step toward that holy grail of profitability, the Chesbro Music would have to find a larger, faster growing market to serve. The answer, of course was just 40 miles downstream.
As they did in St. Anthony, Horace and Ella opted to combine their workplace and residence in Idaho Falls, at least until 1924, when Horace was able to acquire a building and some adjacent lots downtown. The original structure came down and has been replaced by the building that still stands today as the home of Chesbro Music.
For all of its local notoriety in eastern Idaho as the region’s largest retailer of instruments, however, the company’s retail division accounts for a smaller percentage of business. The lion’s share is wholesale or selling to other retailers across the U.S., as well as some accounts in Canada and other foreign countries. With its massive inventory at a separate location in Idaho Falls, Chesbro is considered to be the largest print music distributor in the West. (Its nearest competitor is a distributor out of Chicago.)
Horace Chesbro started school band programs in the area, thereby creating a demand for his business. To survive during the Depression, Chesbro made a bold move, journeying to New York to find support for expanding to a wholesale distributorship. Chesbro’s soon began selling its own name brand violins, strings, band instruments and accessories. In 1933, he added the sheet music business on a “racking” concept, selling the printed music on consignment from store displays.
Joan Chesbro took over the business in 1953 when her father, mother and brother were killed in a plane crash. She had just graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics and was one of two women chosen by Wells Fargo Bank for management training. But, Chesbro Music Company was a family business and as the surviving member of her family, the responsibility of it fell to Joan.
Horace Chesbro can, in many respects, be characterized as Idaho’s own Music Man. However, unlike the traveling musical instrument salesman who was popularized in Meredith Wilson’s musical production of the same name, Chesbro was a high principled, accomplished musician who became one of Idaho’s more successful and innovative entrepreneurs.
From his modest beginning in Idaho, selling pianos from his small store in St. Anthony and making direct sales contacts and deliveries using his horse-drawn wagon, Chesbro’s company has grown to become the second-largest distributor of sheet music in the U.S. and a major regional wholesaler and retailer of brand-name and private-brand musical instruments and accessories.