J. Lafayette French was born around 1843, to Lewis and Lydia French.  His first name is either John or Jonah- both are alternately listed in the city directory, and it is not certain which is correct.  He seems to have gone simply by Lafayette in most matters.  Born shortly after the family moved to Cleveland from New York State, Lafayette was the first of their children to be born in Ohio.  An 1840 Census record from Genesee County, New York, has an entry for Lewis French; his birthplace, age, and number of children indicate it may be French’s father, though a lack of first name listings of family members in the 1840 Census makes confirmation impossible.

            Very little is known of French’s early life.  His parents owned a hotel in downtown Cleveland, at 13 Bolivar Street, and his father is listed as a tavern keeper in the 1850 census.  The 1860 census lists Lafayette as living at home with his mother- his occupation is listed, but the handwriting on the census record page is not legible. 

            In 1861, French enlisted as a drummer with the 7th Ohio Infantry.  Mustered at Cleveland, they traveled to Camp Dennison (hastily set up outside Columbus, OH) by train.  The regiment had been organized after a call for volunteers came from Washington in the wake of the Confederate Army’s attack on Fort Sumter.  Thinking the war would be over in a matter of days, Lincoln originally called for four months conscription.  When it became clear that this was not the case, a two-year option was offered to all volunteers.  Those who signed up left Ohio and marched through West Virginia, while those who did not were put on leave until the end of their two months and then discharged.  Lafayette was one of the latter, and it is presumed that he returned to Cleveland for the remainder of his enlistment, returning to Columbus in August to be mustered out and discharged.

            Sometime between 1860 and 1870, Lafayette French married a woman named Maria.  No record of the marriage has been found as of yet, and all that is known of Maria is that she was born in New York state and died in 1927.  Lafayette and Maria had four children: Edwin, William, Adelaide, and Ida May.  The family is listed over the years as living at many different addresses around downtown Cleveland, though their most common place of residence was French’s mother Lydia’s hotel at 13 Bolivar Street. 

            In the 1863 Cleveland directory, French is listed as a Teamster.  By 1865, he is listed as “horse cart driver”, and then from 1866 to 1869 he is with the fire department, being listed as “driver, hook and ladder, No. 3 Engine House”.  1870 and 1871 see him absent from the directory altogether, though the 1870 Census lists him as a fireman. 

In 1872, French is listed as a banjo teacher, his first music-related occupation to be listed.  1873 marks the first time he is listed as banjo maker.  He would continue to be listed as such in the directory until his retirement in 1902.

Very little is known about French’s banjo making operations.  He seems to have advertised virtually not at all, and only one banjo has turned up so far with a date on it (it carries an engraved presentation plate with a date of August 28th, 1880).  We know nothing at all about his endeavors throughout the 1870’s.  

The first real piece of information comes from an 1881 Sanborn fire insurance map of Cleveland.   The 13 and 15 Bolivar Street addresses show an upright steam boiler and engine and carry a small notation that reads “Banjo Factory”.  The same location on the 1886 Sanborn map shows the buildings have been expanded, and the notation reads, “J. L. French Foundry & Banjo Fac”.  Presumably, French had set up shop in a portion of the hotel owned by his mother.  Lydia died in 1886, and by 1890 French had moved away from Bolivar Street.  By 1896 the property had been changed entirely, and the location of French’s factory had been converted into a cold storage area for the Sheriff street market house.

The only advertisement for J. French Banjos that has been found so far was a quarter page ad taken out in the 1888 city directory.  French had apparently taken on a partner named Richard Backus, as the advertisement is for “The Celebrated French & Backus Banjos” and Backus’ directory listing indicates he was involved with the company in some capacity.  By 1889, however, all mention of Backus is gone, so the partnership must have been a short-lived one.  No definite information on Backus has been turned up so far.

After 1890, French moved his business to 104 Canal Street, located away from downtown and closer to the Flats.  During this time, his sons Edwin and William both worked at the banjo business with their father, Edwin starting in 1889 and William in 1892 (interestingly, in 1893 Edwin’s listing in the city directory bills his occupation as “machinist”).  French did not stay at the Canal Street address more than a few years.  Neither the 1881 or 1886 maps list anything banjo related at that location, though there is a suggestive “vacant” space notated at the address.  By 1895, French’s listing in the directory changed from “banjo manufacturer” to “musical instruments” or “music dealer”, and both sons had left the banjo business.  This writer feels that he may have become semi-retired at this point, and may have been operating the business out of his home at 7 Dodge Court (where he moved in 1891, and lived until his death).

By 1902, French is listed as retired in the directories.  He continued to live at 7 Dodge court until his death in 1918.  Cause of death was listed as cancer.  He was originally buried at Woodland Cemetery, presumably due to his civil war service, and his body was subsequently moved to Lakeview Cemetery in 1923.  Maria died in 1927 and was also buried at Lakeview Cemetery. 

No evidence has yet turned up implying that any of French’s children had children themselves.  No birth records have been located.  Adelaide died young, at 16 years of age.  Ida May married a man named Stanley C. Drake late in her life, and neither of their obituaries indicates that they were survived by any children.  Both of the sons gradually drop out of the city directory listings after 1905.  William has not been found in any census records after 1880, though his 1944 obituary and his death certificate have been located.  Edwin appears to have lived with family members for his whole life; with his parents until their deaths, and after that with his sister Ida and her husband Stanley Drake.  A 1934 obituary for an Edwin French has been located, but it does not give any details and it is not certain that it is the same man.  


It should be noted that this history is a work in progress, and is updated as time and resources permit.  Regular research trips to Cleveland are slowly filling in the many gaps.  The destruction of the 1890 census records by fire in 1921 leaves a hole in an important era of French’s work and has made research more difficult.