Elk River Harmonicas
Of the multitude of harmonica companies in Middle Germany (the former East Germany), Koestler is one of only two still surviving.
Koestler's story is a tale of constant change, reinvention and making sweet lemonade from history's lemons.
Johann Koestler's company was founded in 1891as a distributor of musical instruments (there were a large number of harmonica makers nearby, especially just across the border in Klingenthal, Germany). Around 1906, the company began making accordions.
At the end of World War I, the Allies carved a number of countries from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Koestler was now located in the newly-formed Czechoslavakia.
The war had put 19th Century harmonica manufacturing giant Thie out of business and Koestler -for a song - purchased Thie's precious machine tools, including ten reed-milling machines and 30 screw presses.
While Koestler now had the tooling, they didn't have experience with harmonicas and had the foresight to bring in an existing maker. They proposed a merger with Hohner, who turned them down, but did estalblish a working relationship with Koch, who sent an engineer to the Koestler factory at Graslitz. The company flourished in the 1920s and was able to make it through the lean years of the Depression.
Koestler was located in the German-speaking part of the new Czechoslavakia, known as the Sudatenland, which Nazi Germany annexed in the 1930s. After World War II, the Soviet occupiers expelled all Germans from the region and Kostler was sent packing and moved to the U.S.-occupied zone in what would soon become West Germany.
In its new home, Koestler found itself in an advantageous marketing position. The United States was (and is) the world's largest consumer for harmonicas, but Hohner was in the French-occupied zone of divided Germany. Thus for several years, Koestler had unfettered access to the U.S. market, while Hohner could only deal with the French. Most of the harmonicas flowing into the U.S., starved of beloved harmonicas by years of war and a major brass shortage, were Koestlers. Try an Ebay search for "harmonica U.S. Zone" and you'll likely come up with numerous Koestler instruments, although they often aren't actually stamped with the Koestler name.
The firm did quite well in the few years it had a monopoly in the U.S. market and used this revenue for reconstruction. In 1951, two years after West Germany gained independence and Hohner was back in the game, Koestler had 300 employees.
In the late 1950s, demand for harmonicas (as well as the electric organs they'd also been making) plummeted and Koestler unsuccessfully tried to open up new markets in Africa. Ultimately, it found something else to do.
The Koestler Web site gives the date of the switch from harmonicas to auto parts at 1963, but I think it was more of a gradual shift. I found a copy of a late 1960s patent that Koestler, a West German company, had applied for in East Germany. It is for some device to help people learn chords on strings instruments or something like that. It does give the impression that while they might have been moving away from harmonicas, they were still looking at music.
Today, Koestler makes car headrests, parking brake handles, center consoles all sorts of those types of little things one finds in an automobile.
Elk River Harmonicas