Friday, December 9, 2016

John Mrnustik

Before World War II, Cajun accordionists favored German accordions, especially those made by the "Monarch and "Sterling" companies. With the advent of the war, German instruments were no longer available in the United States. Both the "Monarch" and "Sterling" factories were destroyed in the conflict, and after the war, many of Germany’s remaining accordion makers were isolated behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. 

The brands that the Cajuns favored were made by a company called "International Accordion" in Leipzig, Saxony, Germany.  The company started in 1871 making all sorts of accordion types, including other brands such as "Mezon", "Globe", "International" and "Dienst".  Companies such as C. Bruno and Sons of San Antonio and Bugleisen and Jacobson of New York were importing and selling these German accordions.   The person in charge of the factory was Eduard Dienst.   They produced the models most favored by Cajuns such as, "Monarch", "Sterling" and "Eagle Brand".  According to accordion collector John Orr:
The company and founder was a man named Ernest Deinest and that company was the International Accordion Company.  They made many different names for many different firms, including their own brand International accordion, Globe accordion, Monarch accordion, and Sterling.  They might have also made the Eagle Brand accordion but I think that was made in another factory and as of today they would be known as Weltmeister accordions.  In Australia they made the Mazon accordion.4

They also produced many other musical instruments until 1934, when the company closed.   After WWII, it was always assumed the production plants were bombed.   Accordion maker Larry Miller however, attributes it to Stalin closing off East Germany products to the West.    The only new accordions available to Cajun musicians in the post-war period were generally inferior instruments, not particularly well-made and not loud enough to be heard over the electric guitar, steel guitar and drums of a full band.   Musicians in the United States, specifically in east Texas and southern Louisiana were out of luck. 

By the 1940s, a Czech-German immigrant named John Joseph Mrnustik settled among the German and Mexican immigrants in east Texas where you could find them playing accordion-led polka and conjunto music.  Born February 4, 1904 in east Texas, he would have been exposed to the large German communities of Texas and the music emanating from their dances and events.  Being an accordion player himself, John opened up a music store in the Heights suburb area of Houson, TX  The store was partly connected to his home, which contained a workshop in the back.   He began taking apart the accordions and finding ways to repair them, including brands such as "Hohner" and "Monarch". He would become the first known repairman to fix Cajun accordions.  

One of his repairs helped usher in one of the greatest Cajun recording artists during the late 1940s.  In 1948, Clobule and Ernest Thibodeaux asked Nathan Abshire to join the Pine Grove Boys, house-band of the Pine Grove Club, in Jennings, Louisiana.  One day, the club owner, Telesfar Eshte, asked Thibodeaux to find an accordion player for the group.  Abshire said he’d love to start playing music again, but unfortunately he didn’t have an accordion, and he couldn’t afford to buy one. The Pine Grove Boys went into their own pockets and bought a broken single row Sterling accordion for $75. No one locally could repair it, so they drove to Houston where the repairs cost them another $150.1



During his repairs, he'd make pieces of the accordion from scratch, sometimes stamping his name or a symbol on the replaced part.  Rumor has it that he actually made completed accordions in his lifetime.  According to his widow's conversations with accordion builder Larry Miller:
He would only make them when he had an order for five or more, and he sold them locally and to Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana. His widow told Mr. Miller that he made "over ten accordions."
However, most believe he only made repairs.   His grand-daughter, Glenna, confirms this as well.
He had a shop in his store.  No, I don't remember him making accordions.   I only remember him making repairs.  I remember many of the polka and Spanish people coming to his shop.  
Towards the 1950s, most speculate that Sidney Brown, the more well known builder, was inspired by what Mrnustik was doing and created his accordions; first by using other older accordion parts, and then completely hand-crafting over the years. 

Living in Houston, he joined the Slavonic Benevolent Order Of The State Of Texas and even created their first Czech Convert Orchestra.3  By the 1960s, John's son-in-law, Henry Gerhart began repairing accordions in the shop, taking over the family business.   John Mrnustik passed away September 15th, 1965.


  1. http://www.offbeat.com/articles/masters-of-louisiana-music-nathan-abshire/
  2. Discussions with the Mrnustik family
  3. Vestnik magazine. 1976 12 08
  4. Discussions with John Orr

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