ELKHART — At 91 years, Emerson DeFord is almost certainly the oldest flute maker Elkhart has to offer. Still not entirely retired, DeFord continues to work out of his garage.
“I might be an old-timer, but I don’t feel like an old-timer,” said DeFord, who has been making flutes for nearly 70 years.
At the end of this month, he and his wife Pauline, whom he calls Polly, will drive to Salt Lake City, Utah, as the National Flute Association will present him with its Lifetime Achievement Award during its annual convention.
“It feels great,” he said about receiving that recognition. “One teacher that I sold flutes to, she said ‘It’s about time that they give a tribute to you, because you’ve been doing this properly for so many years.’”
DeFord will be also be using the conference to show what he calls the Emerson split E key.
“I’ve worked on it many years. 25 to be exact,” he said.
The feature makes it easier to play a high E and eliminates some of the mechanism that other flutes use to do the same.
People have suggested that he should apply for a patent on the mechanism, but that’s not interesting to DeFord, who has no problem with other manufacturers using his invention.
“I want nothing for my idea,” he said. “It’s my contribution to the younger students.”
And if any manufacturers want to learn how to use the Emerson split E key, DeFord is happy to show them.
“I think it’s a heck of an idea,” he said.
At the production high point of his flute making career, DeFord would make 300 flutes a week.
Today he mostly makes headjoints at the work bench that he is bringing with him when he moves to a new house in Elkhart next month.
“People talk of what they’re going to do when they get to be 90. They’ll retire. But I don’t really ever want to retire. I still make a lot of headjoints for a lot of customers that I had over the years,” he said.
In 1950, when DeFord returned from being a sergeant in the 2nd Infantry Division in the Korean War, he didn’t immediately get into the flute industry. Instead, he got a job at Bendix Aviation.
But the job wasn’t really that interesting, he thought. A few months later, when Ed Armstrong asked DeFord to come work at W. T. Armstrong, it was an easy choice.
At W. T. Armstrong, DeFord struck a chord, eventually starting the company’s Heritage Division to make fine flutes.
About 20 years in, DeFord was named vice president of production, but Armstrong retired not long after. Then DeFord thought it was time to make it on his own.
That’s when he started the E. L. DeFord business. A friend later suggested that he call his flutes Emerson instead.
For a while, DeFord and Emerson flutes were in production at the same time, before it all became Emerson.
Those flutes have been sold around the world, but were also a hit locally. At one point, DeFord said, a teacher told him that every flute at Concord High School was an Emerson.
But globalization has also caught up with Emerson flutes. After Selmer bought the company in 1997, parts of production moved to China, according to DeFord.
Still, some of Emerson’s flutes continue to be made in Elkhart, although under a different name at B.T. Bertrem, which is operated by DeFord’s grandson, Brian.
“Music’s kind of been in the family,” DeFord said.
He himself studied the flute under George Opperman in South Bend. But DeFord is not one to brag about his ability.
“I play to test them, and that’s about it,” he said.
Building flutes was always interesting, DeFord said. In fact, it’s been such a large part of his life that he has put ‘Lifetime flute maker’ on his tombstone.
“I’m still not using it yet, naturally.”
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