A Brief History





Back in 1978, I was attending college at Southwestern College in Winfield, Ks. The first fall I was there, I saw an ad for help at a local Bluegrass Festival. A college student, broke, chance to make extra cash? I was all over this, so I signed on. Not only did I get paid, but I received free tickets to the festival. So there I was, walking around on Saturday, when on one of the back stages was a mountain dulcimer workshop given by three attractive women. I still remember two of them, Cathy Barton and Mary Faith Rhodes. I sat back and watched. I also fell in love with the dulcimer. Here was a simple instrument that originated in the USA, the Appalachians in fact, and made with woods that I was very familiar with due to my families mid western logging business. I went to these ladies shows, watched the Dulcimer Championships. I spent my earnings on a very cheap dulcimer. I could not learn to play.

The strings were too high, it was poorly made. The next June, there was a June Jamboree segment of the fall festival. Once again, I worked it, this time I spent my earnings on a dulcimer kit. I built this with less than half the recommended tool list, I remember using a rock to pound in the frets and a stack of bricks for clamps. I ended up with an instrument that was more playable, and amazingly enough, better looking.

It was at this time I transferred to Iowa State. A few years into school there, I discovered that there was a wood shop available for student use. Wood from the family sawmill, and my first dulcimer was made. Again I looked at it, thought about it, saw my mistakes, a cherry board from Dad, and I built number two. It was an hourglass, all cherry, natural knotholes for the upper sound holes. My Mother still has this one, A-2. I made 5 dulcimers at Iowa State, except for #2, I have no idea where or who has them.

I ended up back at home next, worked for the family logging business, built a few more in the basement of my parents house. One of those was shipped back to Winfield, Ks. I also entered one in the county fair, it received a ribbon. Can't remember how many I built in Woodbine, but they were numbered W-6 on.

I ended up back in Winfield, Ks next. Here I decided to get serious about the dulcimer business. It was here that I also took first place in a major art show with one of my dulcimers. These dulcimers were numbered Wf-XX. Not sure the starting number, but when I moved I was in the 50's.

My next shop was in Wapello, Ia. Here I got busy. The last dulcimer built there was Wp-149. Formed a loose partnership with a singer/teacher named Pat Walke. She had me build a student model. These were very simple in shape and design, allowed me to use a lot of scrap lumber and also try out new and "exotic" woods such as mulberry and honey locust. It was here that I also branched out into other instruments. I built two 3/4 size guitars, 18 old-time banjos, 5 hammer dulcimers, some kalimbas, and assorted other things.

My next move was to Winfield, Iowa, where I built WFI-150 for my wife. That was over ten years ago, and I am ready to re-open my shop in Webster Groves, Mo.



Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wood

As I look at my chestnut boards and mourn the fact that I'll only get two sets, maybe three if I go to a four piece top, I ponder the question why? Why do I spend premium dollars on boards that are 100 years old and this is the major risk? What is the draw to American Chestnut? Historically, American Chestnut was the dominant tree in the Appalachian forest, stories were told about an entire cabin built from one tree, wagon loads of nuts scooped below one of the giants. Surely a tree so important to the early settlers with such beautiful wood was used by the earliest dulcimer makers. But alas, the Chestnut Blight hit, for all practical measures, the American Chestnut is extinct. But it was rot resistant, old barns are being recycled into lumber. I seek this lumber to carry on the tradition! Watch for it, it is lovely wood.

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