.. was born in St Joseph Montana in 1852 and in his younger days worked as a stone mason. He became interested in wood working and mechanics of various kinds and became skilled in the use of a wide range of tool based skills.
As a hobby he played the banjo (extremely well say critics of the period) and while still a young man joined a minstrel troupe with which he toured extensively for several years. His familiarity with minstrel performers and theatrical people , coupled with the growing demand for banjos induced him to open a factory in Chicago in 1870.
He became one of the greatest banjo makers in America (as far as quality was concerned) and it was said the reason for the excellence of Schall’s banjos was due to the fact that he was an exceptionally skilled mechanic who worked at the bench beside his five employees. His banjos became justly celebrated and were in demand among all the leading banjoists of the day.
In 1881 Clarence L Partee became the manager of his offices and showrooms and in addition he taught banjo “by note”.
Schall sold all the banjos he and his five workmen could manufacture and received high prices for them, but he would not enlarge his factory to keep pace with the growth in demand for his instruments. Also, prosperity proved too much for his and as soon as he had accumulated a few thousand dollars he would neglect his business until he had spent the money and then returned to the factory floor. By1893 he was also making banjos for the celebrated banjoist E Hall who had a teaching studio in Chicago, and James Waldo.
In his absence , with no foreman in charge, his workmen could not be relied upon to keep up the standards and when new less skilled workmen replaced the older ones quality suffered and poor instruments were produced.
About 1895 Schall suffered a stroke and had to close his business down. He eventually recovered but for several years suffered from chronic rheumatism and partial paralysis. In 1905 his health had improved enough for him to open a small banjo shop (over which he lived alone) and he started to make banjos by himself for professional players although orders were scarce. He did make a banjo for Bert Earl in 1907.
He died in dramatic circumstances in around 1907 when he was 55. He had just completed two banjos for an act appearing at the Olympic Theatre in Chicago and the players invited him to hear their performance.
Occupying a front seat on the balcony he was listening intently to the instruments he had made when he suddenly rose out of his seat with a choking cry and appeared that he would fall over the balcony when he collapsed to the floor. Ushers rushed to his aid and carried him into the foyer where they attempted to resuscitate him. The act on stage had continued unaware that Schall was dying on the balcony.
Once he partially gained consciousness , opened his eyes and murmured “I can go home now” and as the act on stage burst into the last bars of a popular song JB Schall breathed his last.
Images courtesy of the estate of Richard Evans
J B Schall 1852 - 1907