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
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.