Opinion

Tom Dillard: Hollenberg family played music and practiced good works in Arkansas

In conducting research on Arkansas history in old newspapers, I have often seen the names Hollenberg and Hollenberg Music Co. of Little Rock.

For years since the family moved to Little Rock in 1873, the name Hollenberg was associated with every good work in the city. In the 20th century, it was Dr. Henry G. Hollenberg, a highly regarded medical doctor, who carried on the family name and traditions. But it all began near Hannover, Germany, in 1821 when Henry G. Hollenberg II was born. (A word of warning: the family's insistence on repeating the name Henry G. can cause confusion.)

Hollenberg II came from a family of means. He was educated and musically trained, especially proficient with the violin, and a skilled maker of pianos. He immigrated to New York in 1850, where he hoped to open "a piano manufactury."

That venture did not work out, and Hollenberg II moved to Memphis, Tenn., where he established the Great Western Music House in 1853. With the capture of Memphis during the Civil War, Hollenberg II and his wife relocated to Huntsville, Ala.; they returned to Memphis in 1865, where Hollenberg resumed his music business.

The family had just settled into life in Memphis when their first child was born in 1866. Frederick Bernard Tannen Hollenberg. F.B.T., as he was usually known, would go on to play a major part in building the company's Little Rock branch while helping form the chamber of commerce, promoting the city, and serving as a commanding officer in the Arkansas militia. Sadly but all too frequently at that time, F.B.T.'s siblings died young.

In 1873 the family company expanded by opening a branch in Little Rock. When Hollenberg II's health began to decline in 1890, the family moved to Little Rock, where F.B.T. was managing the store.

F.B.T. took his work seriously, building a magnificent headquarters on Main Street, and advertising widely. A 1923 feature story in a music trade magazine testifies to the enthusiasm, innovation and sense of great expectations which F.B.T. brought to his long tenure in the trade:

"Hollenberg agents ... began spreading the doctrine of 'music in every home' in Arkansas, reaching not only the principal towns of ... Arkansas, but penetrating the wilderness and delivering pianos by ox and mule team."

The music store advertised extensively. In 1923, Hollenberg was selling pianos, organs, player pianos -- which were quite popular -- phonographs and harps. A new "high-class" upright piano sold for $287.50 -- including discounts.

Judging from advertisements, Hollenberg Music did a large business in used pianos. The same 1923 advertisement listed a used Leland piano in a mahogany case for $115. Repossessed pianos were often sold for the amount of remaining debt; at least that is what the company advertised.

The music business was dependent on aggressive marketing, and Hollenberg spent heavily on newspaper advertising. In addition to professionally designed newspaper ads, Hollenberg was not above running classified advertisements.

Another promotion technique was the standing offer to reimburse customers for "railroad fare from all Arkansas points allowed as a Credit on the purchase of an instrument." Another successful marketing strategy involved partnering with non-profit music groups -- in 1922, the Hollenberg store in Pine Bluff joined with the local musical coterie to promote a season of musical performances.

Much of the strength and stamina of the Hollenberg music business was due to the leadership of F.B.T. That leadership was expressed nationally in 1902 when he was unanimously elected president of the National Piano Dealers' Association.

Like most successful businessmen, F.B.T. worked long hours, but it was his keen intellect that distinguished him. One eastern newspaper commented upon his rise to the top of the profession: "... without meaning any disparagement to other gentlemen, Col. Hollenberg is the brightest man in the trade."

The Arkansas Democrat agreed, noting that he "is certainly an honor to our city and state ..."

F.B.T. was an active leader and commanding officer in the Arkansas militia, known at that time as the State Guard. He was a graduate of the Kentucky Military Institute, and following graduation served briefly in the Kentucky militia before returning to Memphis, where he was commissioned a captain in the Tennessee militia. That military service continued in Arkansas where he joined a volunteer unit known as the McCarthy Light Guards.

F.B.T. married well. A friend with family in Clarksville (Johnson County) introduced F.B.T. to Jean Cravens, the oldest daughter of Civil War Confederate hero Col. Jordan E. Cravens.

Cravens was later a judge and U.S. representative. Jean's maternal grandfather, Felix I. Batson, was a judge and Confederate congressman. They were married in September 1888.

Eventually the family grew to include six children, though one died in infancy and another at age 10. The last-born child of F.B.T. and Jean Hollenberg was Henry George Hollenberg, born in May 1902. Henry went on to live a long and illustrious life, becoming a medical doctor who drew national renown and developed a huge following of friends from fields as diverse as the Episcopal Church to local art.

A graduate of Princeton University and Johns Hopkins Medical School, Dr. Hollenberg won fame during World War II when he pioneered treatment regimens and practices for practical use of the newly discovered penicillin antibiotic.

This work resulted in his receipt of a national Legion of Merit award, which was filmed for CBS in 1955. He also gained considerable recognition for his expertise in amputations.

Most people knew Dr. Hollenberg as a physician, an award-winning surgeon, a volunteer professor at the University of Arkansas Medical School for more than 40 years, and an avid painter. When he died March 20, 1994, the 92-year-old still had a canvas in an easel standing beside his bed.

The Hollenberg family continues to impact medical care in Arkansas. The late Dr. Hollenberg's great-granddaughter, Dr. Sophie Hollenberg, is in a hand surgery fellowship now and plans to return to the UAMS Orthopedic Department.

The Hollenberg Music Co. of Little Rock was closed in 1928 when F.B.T. retired, sold the inventory and rented the building. The corporate name survived for a time in various incarnations. The family fortunes suffered greatly during the Depression.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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