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Forgotten history of Kalamazoo women who built guitars during World War II

The Gibson Guitar Factory is where women worked hard, making beautiful guitars.

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) -- You've heard about women going to work to help the war effort in World War II. But did you know that a group of women in Kalamazoo worked on a special kind of war material?

The Gibson Guitar Factory is where women worked hard, making beautiful guitars.

It's forgotten history that's just now coming into the spotlight, becoming the focus of a book and new exhibit at a local museum.

Irene Stearns has the unique opportunity to see part of her life in a museum.

"I almost cried. It's amazing," said Irene Stearns, a lifelong Kalamazoo resident who worked at the Gibson factory during World War II.

She said the Kalamazoo Gals exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum takes her back to a time, when the world was on the brink.

Irene was 19 years old when she was hired at the Gibson Guitar Factory. The company hired women because the male work force was away at war.

"I made single strings, and part of the time I coiled. I liked that the best," Stearns said.

He co-workers on the factory floor were all women. They made acoustic guitars, mandolins, and banjos.

"We had fun, but we didn't waste any time. The bell rang, and boy, you got to work," Stearns said.

When the war was over, the boys came home and these gals were out of a job.

It took more than 60 years for their story to be told.

For John Thomas, it all started with a picture. He came upon a photograph of dozens of women posing outside the Gibson facility in Kalamazoo.

"It started to haunt me. I started thinking, why are those women there, what are they doing in front of a guitar factory that supposedly wasn't making musical instruments," Thomas said.

That put Thomas, an author from Connecticut, on a journey to write the book Kalamazoo Gals.

He said it was difficult history to track down.

Gals working on guitars was mostly kept secret outside West Michigan.

"The company knew that the guitar buying public, which was mostly all men, would not embrace instruments made by women. And in addition, it seemed unpatriotic to be engaging in something as frivolous as musical instrument making during the darkest hour of our history." Thomas said.

Thomas added, while some may have viewed this activity as frivolous during war time, the U.S. Military actually bought a lot of instruments to help keep morale up.

From 1942 to 1945, the factory produced 25,000 musical instruments.

These instruments are known as some of the finest ever produced by Gibson.

The women took their fine motor skills from homemaking and applied them to manufacturing.

Stearns is one of the last surviving guitar gals.

She hopes people can learn from the time when everyone worked together for a common good.

"It was a different time. I don't think we'll ever see that again," Stearns said.

The exhibit will be at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum until April 10.

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